Why should we care about Genetically Modified Organisms or GMOs? For the next 3 weeks, I will be discussing all about GMOs. Michael Funk, Women For Natural Living’s expert, describes in detail how GMOs can affect our lives. Michael is an expert in the natural foods industry, and I know you’ll find these interviews extremely valuable. Before we delve into part 1 of my interview, let’s define GMOs.
What are GMOs?
You’ve probably heard about GMOs, which are also referred to as genetically modified organisms, GE (genetically engineered), herbicide-tolerant (HT) or Bt crops. In simple terms, a GMO is an organism that has been changed injecting it with genetic material from another species. GE seeds were introduced commercially in 1996 and now dominate the production of corn, soybeans, and cotton in the United States. GE crops contain one or both of two major categories of traits:
• Herbicide-tolerant (HT) crops, more commonly known as “Roundup Ready crops,” are genetically engineered to survive direct application of one or more herbicides during the growing season, chemicals that would otherwise kill or severely stunt the crop.
• Bt crops are engineered to produce toxins…that kill certain agricultural insect pests.
Consider this: much of the corn, soybeans, cotton, sugar beets, and canola in the United States are genetically modified. This means the ingredients made from them, including such common ingredients as corn syrup, soy lecithin, sugar, vegetable oil and cottonseed oil, are genetically modified as well. In fact, according to California’s Department of Food and Agriculture, 70% of processed foods in American supermarkets now contain genetically engineered (GE) ingredients. At this time, none of these products are required to be labeled as genetically engineered.
Now that GMOs are defined, let’s start the interview with our expert Michael Funk.
Marcela Owen: I want to get a little background on you, I know that you are the Chair of the Board for United Natural Foods today, and prior to that you were the CEO and President. I also know that you serve on the Non-GMO Project and that you started it and was the President at one point. You have quite an impressive resume and accolades including your most recent Organic Leadership Award. Congratulations for that one! What’s your role today and what’s your focus today?
Michael Funk: Well as you say, I’ve been involved in the natural products industry since the mid-70s. I still work closely with UNFI primarily and in various industry relations, and I work with the management on formulating policies and outreach to our constituents. I’m on the board as you say with the Organic Center, which is trying to establish science to prove the organic benefits. I work with the Organic Trade Association and with a couple of other branded companies, but my passion in the last five years has been in the GMO issue. I did become one of the founding board members of the Non-GMO Project and then President for the last five years. It’s one of the most important issues certainly of the current era and one as you said before that many people don’t understand or are not aware of.
MO: I’d like to focus on the purpose and the importance of the Non-GMO Project. So, you decided to start this project about five years ago, why was it so important for you to get involved? I’m sure you have a family and that’s important and the environment’s important – what was the key thing that motivated you to get this started?
MF: Well as the country’s largest natural foods distributor, retailers were calling us up and asking us if we could help them identify which products did not contain GMOs, and from those initial inquiries we started researching how we could best find out that information. The long and short of it, what we found out was the crops that are genetically modified primarily corn and soy, and now we have canola and sugar beets and some other more minor crops, but those crops that are in production they dominate agriculture and therefore they’re in a lot of products. There’s soy and corn in about 70% of processed food in the grocery store and what we found out was companies don’t test for GMOs and very few farmers test. The idea of truly trying to find out which products did not contain GMOs was much more complicated than we had originally thought. There were a number of companies that were putting labels on their products that said they were GMO free or did not include genetically engineered foods or some type of label, but none of that was verified by a third party, and none of that was really even defined, and there wasn’t really a standard that said what GMO free means. The project took all the parts of the industry from farmers to manufacturers to retailers and consumer groups and created a standard and testing methodology and what the label would ultimately stand for. The last several years has been enrolling and verifying products primarily within the natural products industry, and today I think there are 6400 products that are enrolled or verified. The goal is to make sure consumers can have the choices they want and that they can choose to buy products that are verifiable non-GMO. I really firmly believe that because I do want to make sure my family avoids purchasing GMO products and it’s also a message to companies not only in the natural products industry, but everywhere that we want people to focus on their supply chains. We want them to have testing along the way so they can identify where potential contamination is happening and they can keep those things out of the products that they’re selling to consumers.
For more information on the Non-GMO Project’s testing and verification of risk ingredients and processed foods, please see the Non-GMO Project Standard. Visit: www.nongmoproject.org
If you agree that you have a right to know if the food you are eating has been genetically engineered, send a message to the FDA today. With just one click, you can show your support for the FDA petition requiring the labeling of GE foods and win back your right to know. Also visit: www.justlabelit.org
Right now, we have the choice to avoid GMOs (genetically modified organisms). We can choose organic products, which, by law, are required to be grown and processed without the use of GMOs.
We also have the right to know what we are eating, and the right to make informed choices about what we eat.
To be continued… Stay tuned for part 2 and 3 of this interview in the next couple of weeks.