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Starflower says ‘no’ to GMO

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Do consumers have a right to know if their food is genetically engineered? In the more than 60 nations which ban or require labeling of genetically-modified food, the answer is yes. In the U.S. the answer has been no, though labeling laws are making their way through some state legislatures.

Without labeling and with an estimated 80 percent of conventional processed food containing GMOs, it’s hard to avoid eating genetically-modified ingredients. But one local shop is making a GMO-free diet a little easier.

Starflower Natural Foods owner Marnie Neumann recently vowed to stop purchasing new items that contain GMOs for her store, saying that GMOs are both unhealthy to eat and bad for the environment. Soon Starflower may be completely GMO-free.

“The only way these companies [that use GMOs] will listen is through their profit margin, so if people stopped supporting them it could make a difference,” Neumann said in a recent interview. “I know I’m just a tiny store, but how could I keep going with integrity if I don’t do this?”

Genetically-modified crops were introduced in the mid-1990s and have grown to account for 88 percent of the domestic corn crop and 93 percent of the soybean crop in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. GMO foods are created in a laboratory by altering the plant or animal’s genome such as by adding DNA from another plant, animal, virus or bacteria, resulting in organisms that cannot occur in nature or be created by traditional crossbreeding. Critics say they are experimental and untested while proponents say GMOs are no more dangerous than conventional hybrids.

The change at Starflower is significant. While the top U.S. food retailers have yet to label or ban GMOs, smaller stores are taking a stance. Two of the largest natural food store chains, Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s, have banned genetically-modified ingredients from their house brands and Whole Foods has additionally vowed to label all GM foods by 2017.

Going completely GMO-free is an even bigger leap and one that puts Starflower Natural Foods in the company of a few hundred stores around the country, according to the Organic Consumers Association. Consumers can also avoid GMOs by purchasing USDA certified organic products or looking for the seal “Non-GMO Verified.”

Neumann said she got the idea from a natural food store she visited in Hawaii.

“I saw a sign that talked about how that store in particular was not going to buy any new products that had GMOs, which made total sense to me,” Neumann said. “I said I need to do that too. I came home to get the sign made.”

But figuring out which products contained GMOs proved difficult. Neumann spent hours on the phone calling her suppliers and added a new distributor to find more GMO-free products. She also took a closer look at the corporations that worked to defeat California’s Proposition 37, a ballot initiative that would have required the mandatory labeling of GMO foods in the state. According to the Organic Consumers Association, the parent companies of many popular organic brands, including Silk, Larabar, Back to Nature, Gardenburgers, Ben & Jerry’s, Honest T, Kashi, Cascadian Farm and others helped suppress the measure, which was narrowly rejected by voters in November 2012.

“These companies were being two-faced about it. They really are saying, ‘We don’t want people to know about it’ so they can squeeze GMOs into their health food,” Neumann said.

Neumann got help from local residents Maureen Dawn, a nurse, who compiled a list of companies which avoid GMOs, and Nadia Malarkey, a local garden designer and environmentally-friendly landscaping expert. Dawn was driven by concerns that eating GMO food and living near genetically-modified cropland may cause immune system problems, allergies and cancer, diseases which she sees proliferating in Ohio’s farm areas.

Malarkey, who helped educate California voters on Prop. 37 last fall, cites a host of negative ecological and human health impacts of GMOs. A major culprit is one popular GMO crop, Monsanto’s so-called Roundup-Ready corn, which is designed to be grown with large doses of the company’s glyphosate herbicide Roundup. An overuse of such herbicides is creating herbicide-resistant “superweeds” that ravage farmland and area ecosystems and may be behind the recent colony collapse disorder affecting bees, Malarkey said. GMOs are less nutritious than conventional crops as glyphosate keeps plants from absorbing nutrients from the soil, she added. And GMOs are less resistant to drought and once released into nature can cross pollinate, threatening the integrity and survival of native species. It’s the unknown effects that are most worrisome, Malarkey said.

“Here they are, for the sake of progress, willing to release an unknown element into an environment, into nature, with unknown variables,” Malarkey said. “It’s like Frankenstein. They’re releasing a monster.”

Monsanto, the biotech company that produces 90 percent of GMO seeds sold, maintains that its GM crops are as safe as conventional crops and that there is no evidence that GMOs increase allergenicity or otherwise negatively impact health, according to its website. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has approved 95 GM crops, says the GM foods are just as nutritious as their conventional counterparts and have not been shown to be allergenic or toxic. The U.S. FDA does not support mandatory labeling of GM foods.

So far only genetically-engineered plants have been introduced into the U.S. food system (mostly corn, soy, canola and cotton), but there are plans for GM meat, which Neumann finds concerning. One company is trying to bring to market a salmon modified with eel genes that can grow to twice a normal salmon’s size, prompting fears if the fish ever were to escape into the wild. The recent contamination of Oregon farms with unapproved GM wheat from a field test is one example of how GMOs can threaten conventional crops. GMOs are particularly worrisome for their impact on native plants and animals, Dawn said.

“If it keeps going in the direction it’s going, we’re going to dramatically alter our food choices and these ancient seeds,” Dawn said. “It’s a big corporate takeover of the small farmers’ seeds so we’re not actually keeping a great diversity in our seed system and that will have a huge effect on life as we know it from here on out.”

Neumann, who purchased Starflower Natural Foods (formerly Springs Natural Foods) in 2008, has worked in the natural foods business for 25 years. She has always preferred to source her products from local farmers and smaller companies and now, because of her concerns over GMOs, she is committing to that principle even more.

“Before I thought if it was a health food company or health food distributor it was OK,” Neumann said. “Now you have to question everything…We’re going to continue being as local as possible and ethical as possible.”

While Neumann knows her small store can only have so much an impact on the massive GMO industry, she can also raise awareness of what’s happening in the food system. According to Malarkey, that awareness may be key to someday passing GMO-labeling legislation in Ohio. Those who don’t want to forgo GMOs can at least support such “right-to-know” legislation, she said.

“If you don’t care or don’t have the time [to eat GMO-free food], then at least support a democratic state and a right to know and a choice,” Malarkey said. “Right now people are being fed GMOs because they don’t know and they can’t choose.”

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