The old adage ‘You are what you eat’ could—unfortunately these days—be the title of a new horror movie, based on the increasingly non-fictional premise that our eating habits are actually consuming us.
The storyline would follow our nation as the majority of us start to resemble walking lab experiments, artificial genes having been injected without our knowledge, re-programming our DNA with new properties. Instead of “human,” we are now considered genetically-modified organisms, or GMOs, for short.
Sound a tad far-fetched? Maybe, but it’s exactly what has been increasingly happening to our food supply for decades, as we’ve often been kept in the dark about what exactly we’re eating.
In fact, today GMOs are present in 80% of the conventional processed food that we eat in the U.S.
Unfortunately, even when looking to avoid certain high-risk GMO ingredients, you can’t be sure that what you’re eating is GMO-free as there are no federal requirements to label it otherwise.
“There are so many layers to it,” said Kyle West, board president of Spokane’s Main Market Co-op. “When you think about the chains of input, to say beef—the cow’s feed could have contained genetically modified corn or the fields they grazed in could have been contaminated or cross-pollinated from nearby GM crops…it’s almost impossible to know what you’re eating when you purchase commodified goods.”
Since October 2011, Main Market has been a member of the Non-GMO Project, the only third-party verification and labeling organization in North America. There are four members in North Idaho (Pilgrim’s Market in Coeur d’Alene, Flour Mill Natural Foods in Hayden, Mountain Harvest Foods in Priest River and Winter Ridge Natural Foods in Sandpoint) but Main Market is the only member in the Spokane area, with 300-400 verified Non-GMO products including produce, meat and dairy.
Started in 2003 as an initiative of small, independent food retailers, in response to consumer concern, the Non-GMO Project started enrolling retailers in 2008, after establishing a uniform, consensus-based definition of non-GMO with help from technical consultants, FoodChain Global Advisors, and fueled by the passion of industry leaders.
However, as our awareness grows, so does the list of GM ingredients in our food. Chances are, if you consume anything that’s not locally sourced, certified organic or non-GMO verified, or if you eat processed food with ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, soy lecithin, aspartame, corn and soy flour, sugar (unless it’s cane), corn syrup, maltodextrin, vegetable oil, xanthan gum, and dozens more, whether you like it or not, GM crops have been introduced into your food chain.
The fourth largest crop grown in the U.S. is alfalfa, which is most commonly used to feed dairy cows and beef cattle. Two other major GM crops are corn and soy, which are generally used as feed for cattle, hogs and poultry, and are also found in the many processed foods found in mainstream grocery stores.
The safest approach to knowing what you’re eating, says West, is to buy USDA certified organic, Non-GMO Project verified, and locally sourced food.
While Main Market has always focused on carrying local and organic food choices, the addition of Non-GMO verified products provides their customers with even more informed choices.
“In theory, we’ve always been a supporter, been in-line with the principles of the project,” said West.
It was these principles that led to the opening of Main Market Co-op in October 2009. The member-owned full-service grocery store in downtown Spokane, is dedicated to supporting local and organic producers, providing Non-GMO options, and educating the community on the benefits of these choices.
Main Market’s rooftop greenhouse now grows the bagged lettuce mixes and basil sold in the produce section, and provides 100 percent of their vegetable starts—originally sourced from Non-GMO seeds.
Education includes “working” field trips that provide community members the opportunity to visit the farms from where Main Market’s food comes.
“You get your hands dirty, you see what the pigs and the steer are eating—that the feed is sourced from the farm—you’re planting this and that…,” says West. “Where we differentiate ourselves is that we carry, pound for pound, more locally-sourced products. When a product is produced locally, you know how it’s grown, managed, brought to market; as you focus on local farmers, you take the power away from commodity farmers,” says West.
With 1,900 members and growing, April 2012 set a record at the Market with the highest customer count and highest average daily sales thus far.
“The products we carry—the list of ingredients are one-fifth that of mainstream foods. No other store [in the Spokane area] exercises the quality control that Main Market does, and I say that with complete confidence.”
GMOs were originally claimed as the answer to producing better, more disease-resistant crops, that would help farmers by reducing the need for pesticides and increasing their crop yields. They were touted as safe for the environment, a means to a more affluent, stable economy, and a viable response to the world’s food crisis.
Proponents tried to qualm our fears by saying GM crops are just an extension of natural breeding. However, this process of genetic modification is not one that would ever happen in nature.
“What evidence do we have that they are safe? This is an experimental technology, and if people don’t want to experiment on themselves or their children, they need to have a choice. That’s what we’re providing,” said Megan Westgate, executive director of the Non-GMO Project, in an article for Vogue Magazine.
The only published study issued by the government, directly testing the safety of a GM food on humans, found potential problems. To date, this study has not been followed up and yet GM foods have become mainstream.
Since then, a large and growing body of scientific research and on-the-ground experience by independent labs have indicated that GMOs can:
• be toxic, allergenic and less nutritious than natural counterparts
• disrupt the ecosystem
• increase chemical use on crops
• deliver often worse yields than conventional crops
• cause or exacerbate social and economic problems
• cannot be recalled from the environment, since they are laboratory-made
It’s these risks and inaction on the part of the federal government that led to the formation of organizations like the Non-GMO Project and for stores like Main Market to provide their consumers with more informed choices.
“People need to know the huge influence their food choices have on the industry,” said West. “It’s becoming more apparent that this awareness is growing, that the community is becoming more and more aware of our presence and where their food comes from,” said West.