Pittsburghers weigh in on GMOs

We asked Pittsburghers for their current feelings about GMO foods

"For right now, as long as I am choosing organic (required to have no GMOs to the best of producers' knowledge), I abdicate responsibility to the East End Food Co-op, trusting them to be doing their job.

"At Farmers@Firehouse most fare is organic, although none of the meat can be labeled organic due to non-certified processing facilities. Meat and poultry vendors must disclose what they feed. ...

"As for avoiding GMOs in restaurant fare -- it hasn't crossed my mind. It must be very difficult for even the most dedicated people running restaurants to think about GMOs when there are so many other challenges. How can they contend with GMOs? But, now that I am asked, I will think about it more."

-- Susan Barclay, Slow Food Pittsburgh co-leader, Laptop Butchershop organizer, Farmers@Firehouse board member

"Plant biologists, pest ecologists and farmers worth their salt have been well aware that relying too much on genetically modifying crops to resist weed-killing herbicides would cause the weeds themselves to become more resistant to the herbicides.

"Well. Here we are with a big herbicide-resistant weed problem. I mean big.

"Roundup's 'new technology' is to insert additional genes into the plants to enable them to resist additional herbicides. We project that these new crops will double to triple the use of the herbicides -- increasing the levels that the 'new technology' was supposed to reduce or eliminate.

"At a recent Congressional hearing some members said the only way to reduce the "megaweed" problem was to rely on more herbicide-resistant crops -- thus accelerating the transgene-facilitated herbicide treadmill. 'No,' I said, 'farmers really are using cultural methods, cover crops, for example, to manage their pests. These methods build healthy soil which markedly decreases pests' effects on crops.'"

-- Dave Mortensen, Ph.D., Penn State professor and vice chair of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture board of directors, specializes in pest management

"GMOs are a critical teaching topic, but we discuss them in the classroom mainly as a problem related to consolidation and control within the agricultural and food sectors. Some classes have looked at research on genetic modification, without clear conclusions. What we find clearly problematic is how industrial-scale food and agriculture solutions are owned and promoted by big companies, with consumers, growers and food producers having neither input into decisions or information about what is in the food.

"It's very telling the extent to which large companies aggressively target opposition and resist transparency.

"So to me the issue is entirely about transparency. We work on projects that are about information. In practical terms this means an enormous amount of research by our students preparing themselves to advise effectively -- seeking out sustainable seed companies, groups and brands that are working to resist this obfuscation. We're now working with Eat'n Park and Parkhurst to develop white paper guides for their employees and eventually for their customers about the company's food purchasing standards."

-- Alice Julier, director of Chatham University's graduate program in food studies

"Our customers seem very concerned about GMOs. I think that is part of why they choose us, knowing certified organic is the only way to be sure (thanks to required third-party verification) that no GMOs are used. Our meat share is not all organic (a farm may raise produce on a certified organic part of the property and meat on a non-certified part) but all animals eat non-GMO grains, either organic or conventional.

"The proliferation of GMOs has made it difficult to ensure that even certified-organic crops are 100-percent GMO-free, because pollen drift from GMO fields is an invisible contaminant that threatens the integrity of organic and non-GMO crops and seed stocks. I foresee growing conflict around this issue.

"The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture has entered the battle. See President Brian Snyder's letter opposing Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack's 'coexistence' plan that would call for organic farmers purchasing insurance policies to protect themselves against GMO drift: http://writetofarm.com/2014/03/05/letter-to-usda-on-coexistence.

"If this issue is not ironed out, organic growers could face legal battles, seed shortages and decertification of organic farms, which would lead to higher costs and shorter supplies of organic and GMO-free food."

-- Zeb Bartels, general manager, Clarion River Organics

"As a Co-op, we have a diverse ownership of more than 10,000 members who need to work collaboratively, so we tend to avoid political initiatives. However, we are committed to labeling of GMO products because honesty is one of our core values. The potential for the presence of GMOs to be obscured by manufacturers is a valid concern. Certification standards aren't the same across the board either, which can make it confusing.

"I'm often asked what the Co-op's position is on GMOs, and if we carry them -- I have to answer that its simply not possible to guarantee that they aren't on our shelves, or to know that our manufacturers are being transparent, without clear and quantifiable labeling. Within these constraints, we support labeling law, and do everything else we can to educate our customers, partnering with community and university groups. Shoppers can pick up non-GMO shopping guides right in the grocery aisles. All of our buyers follow product guidelines, and we work directly with our growers and manufacturers. Even before the guidelines, we were committed to not bringing in new items and getting rid of old ones that we suspected of having genetically engineered ingredients."

-- Eryn Hughes, outreach coordinator at East End Food Co-op


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