New to GMOs? 7 Things to Know Before Thanksgiving

Could genetically engineered foods be making their way onto your holiday table? Here’s what you need to know to make good food-buying decisions.

by Rachel Tayse
PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock

Genetically modified organisms, commonly called GMOs, are a hot topic among scientists and foodies. With Thanksgiving—arguably the most important meal of the year—approaching, there will be an increased focus on the food you plan to serve. This year, take steps to better understand GMOs and what they mean for your turkey dinner.

GMO Basics

GMOs are created through genetic engineering, where plants and animals genes are altered. This is different than traditional breeding, which selects from naturally bred offspring. Genetic engineering is a relatively new technology—the first GMO crop, the Flavr Savr tomato, was approved in 1994—and is used to increase productivity by making a crop species pest-resistant, pesticide-tolerant or easier to harvest.

While the science community has not found a direct correlation between the consumption of GMOs and human health risks, many people question the environmental and social effects of combining and altering genes in food, noting unintended consequences, such as the so-called “super weeds” that are resistant to the pesticides used on some GMO crops.

The debate about whether GMOs are safe and whether they should be labeled is complicated. Many countries around the world have issued bans, label requirements or other regulations on GMO food, but in the U.S. labeling is not required in most places.

When it comes time to serve your family the quintessential harvest meal, traditional foods are at the forefront. GMOs came to the marketplace only 20 years ago and were most definitely not present at the first Thanksgiving. Many food and farming activists around the country are working to preserve that tradition for future Turkey Day celebrations.

Lee Bird, of Bird’s Haven Farm in Granville, Ohio, is one such farmer. He believes in the time-honored tradition of growing without genetic modification.

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“For our family we want to control how we farm, how we [save seeds], and be independent of contracts and patents,” he says. “[Using GMOS] is not how our grandfathers farmed or how we want to farm.”

A GMO-Free Thanksgiving Is Possible

If you are new to considering GMOs in your food, Thanksgiving is the perfect meal to take the extra time to evaluate your food choices. Here’s what you need to know to have a GMO-free Thanksgiving.

1. Certified Organic Means GMO-Free

Organic certification standards do not allow farmers to use GMO seed or feed when growing their plants and livestock. If an item is labeled with the USDA’s Certified Organic seal, you can count on it to be non-GMO.

2. Mind Labels

Because no GMO labeling standard exists in the U.S., some companies are labeling their food as GMO-free without any third-party verification. In a few cases, investigations have revealed brands that are mislabeling their food. The Non-GMO Project is an independent nonprofit that provides a labeling service and listing of verified brands on their website. Look for their seal on the foods you buy.

3. Know Common GMOs

Soy, cotton, corn, canola, sugar beets, alfalfa and summer squash are the crops most commonly grown with GMO seed. Many other crops, including wheat and most of the vegetables you find at your local farmers’ market, don’t yet have a GMO option, and therefore you need to be less concerned. The Center for Food Safety offers a downloadable guide and smartphone app with GMO foods found in the commercial market along with brand names that might contain those crops.

4. Ask About Feed

As of Nov. 2014, there are no genetically modified turkey breeds, but there is a possibility that your roast bird ate GMO feed. Ask your farmer or butcher whether your Thanksgiving turkey was raised on non-GMO feed, and consider the stock, dairy items and other meats in your Thanksgiving meal, too. Choose organic or Non-GMO Verified sources if you can’t ask directly about the feed given to the livestock.

5. Buy From Small-Scale Farmers

GMO seed and the pesticides they’re resistant to are expensive. Small farmers who use traditional methods are unlikely to invest in these materials.

“The consumer demand for non-GMO corn ensures we are able to farm this way and keeps us continually seeking out non-GMO seeds and growing our corn pesticide free,” Bird says. “It might be easier to take the other route, but we see the demand and are happy to fill it.”

6. Cook From Scratch

Processed foods often contain soy, corn and sugar beets or their derivatives, such as soy lecithin, corn syrup and corn starch—all likely grown with GMOs. If you cook your Thanksgiving dinner from scratch, you can avoid additives and chose organic or Non-GMO Verified ingredients.

7. Keep It Simple

If preparing a Thanksgiving meal free from GMOs sounds too complicated, focus on just one dish. Most traditional produce-based sides, like cranberries, green beans and sweet potatoes, can easily be made without GMO ingredients.

“I love roasted vegetables with olive oil and spices,” says Liz Della Croce, the Michigan-based food blogger behind The Lemon Bowl. “Lately, we are on a huge za’atar kick—an earthy Middle Eastern spice blend that pairs perfectly with green beans, carrots and more.”

With the most important people in your life around the table this holiday season, take a moment to recognize the sources of the food you serve. Nourish yourself by exploring food choices while you give thanks for the farming traditions and ingredients available.

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