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June 27, 2013

Club Helps Shine a Light on GMOs

Connecticut-GMO-rallyConnecticut Sierra Club and GMO Free CT activists rally to pass one of the country’s first GMO labeling bills.

Before you bite into that delicious ear of corn this Fourth of July, you may want to pause to consider what you are eating. Nearly 80 percent of corn grown in the United States is genetically modified (GM).

GM food has become controversial over the past several years, as public health advocates have raised concerns over potential side effects of ingesting these less-than organic foods, such as unusual allergies and weight gain. Common GM crops like corn are incredibly fatty, and we often use them as feed for our meat. This means that beef and pork consumption is exacerbating obesity, the number two cause of preventable death in the United States.

Environmental advocates are also raising concerns over GM food’s effects on America’s farmlands, especially in terms of weed and insect resistance and loss of biodiversity. Our shift towards genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has had the unfortunate effect of introducing “superweeds” to American farms. Moreover, the over-use of herbicide in the engineering process is creating resistant weeds that take over entire plots of land, and lead to even more herbicide and pesticide use. Releasing these weeds and herbicidal chemicals into our environment has created outcomes that we have not yet accounted for.
The Sierra Club’s national policy on GMOs summarizes these concerns, and many of our 64 chapters across the country have launched local campaigns to carefully monitor and evaluate GM food’s effect on our environment and health.

For example, the Connecticut Chapter fought for a state initiative requiring mandatory GMO labeling and the eventual banning of these foods shrouded in mystery, in their state. This approach to GMOs was modeled after the European Union (EU), which has “one of the strictest systems in the world regarding GMOs, requiring extensive testing, labeling, traceability and monitoring of agricultural products.” Currently, the United States does not require that GM food be labeled, with the result that consumers often buy unlabeled GM vegetables, fruit, meat, dairy, and processed food that is frequently cheaper and more marketable.

The Sierra Club worked with the GMO Free Connecticut coalition to pass the labeling initiative, organizing the Chapters members and encouraging state legislators to support the bill. According to Chapter Program Director John Calandrelli, the campaign was a success -- a provisional bill was quietly signed by Governor Malloy on June 26 which mandates GMO labeling as long as four other states, one of which must border Connecticut, agree to do the same. Pennsylvania and other New England states are set to vote on similar bills.

In addition to Sierra Club chapters, a nationwide team of volunteers, the Club's Genetic Engineering Action Team (GEAT) is actively working on GMO initiatives. This team developed the official Sierra Club Policy on GMOs, which was approved by the Board of Directors. As well as supporting mandatory labeling initiatives and raising awareness of the impacts of GMOs on human health, the GEAT is turning public attention to the environmental concerns associated with GM organisms. A summary written by Laurel Hopwood, the Chair of the Sierra Club Genetic Engineering Action Team, outlines some of the dangers genetically engineered food poses to our natural environment, such as the aforementioned “superweeds,” genetic diversity of crops, soil fertility damage, killing of non-target insects crucial to ecosystems, and threatening the growing popularity of organic and sustainable agriculture.

The Sierra Club Genetic Engineering Action Team is also advocating for greater government oversight to manage the uncertainty that comes with GMOs. According to Dr. Jim Diamond, a member of the action team and retired pediatrician, “genetic changes in an organism can have unanticipated effects, so that it's conceivable that some genetically engineered crops could be safe and others might pose a danger. For this reason we think there should be independent science -- not done by the seed company -- to evaluate, and that such science should be fully transparent with nothing shielded as confidential business information."

While the dangers of genetically modified food are still in question, we all hold power to maintain a healthy body and a healthy planet. Join your local Chapter of the Sierra Club or The Non-GMO Project and get involved in a local campaign for wholesome and natural food that is grown in the ground, not the lab.


Clearly, as evidenced by the Sierra Club activists with the Connecticut Chapter and the Genetic Engineering Action Team, there are many frightening unknowns associated with the impacts of GMOs we are already eating.   So what can you do to protect your health and environment, while the impacts of GM food is not fully understood?

Here are some tips:

1. Buy organic: This will help you avoid foods that are heavily modified. If a food is labeled as organic, it means that it does not involve modern synthetic inputs such as synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Make sure to look for “100% Organic” labels or products that carry the “Non-GMO Project Seal.”

2. Avoid common GMO ingredients: If you see these names in the ingredient list on your food: Corn, Soybeans, Canola, Cottonseed, Sugar Beets, and  rbGH or rbST (in milk), it is probably GM. These are often hidden with different names that can be found here. As my Grandmother used to say, if you can’t pronounce the ingredient, you probably shouldn’t eat it!

3. Buy grass fed meat: This will ensure that the meat you are buying was not fed with corn or soy by-products, which are known to be genetically modified.

4. Avoid processed foods like potato chips, TV dinners, and “Just add water” instant meals: These almost always contain GMO ingredients.

5. Shop local or grow your own food: Most local farmers don’t use GMO ingredients and will be able to tell you what exactly went into their food. If you grow your own, then you can take control of the process from start to finish. It’s also very rewarding and will help you create your own sustainable food system!

-- Dan Onken, Sierra Club Media Intern

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