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By scott scanlon // Refresh editor

Jane Andrews grew up on a farm outside Terre Haute, Ind., and saw first-hand how the family business mushroomed when genetically modified soy was planted along the Wabash River bottoms.

The soy was changed scientifically to better withstand disease, and an herbicide called Roundup, produced by Monsanto, helped further protect the crop. Andrews, who has been a nutritionist at Wegmans for more than a quarter century, watched the transformation on visits back to the farm in the mid-1990s.

“Even though my father had to pay more for these seeds, and had to use a specific pesticide, overall he saved money,” she said. “He got a greater yield, he felt better about the environment – it’s said that the herbicides it replaced were about 100 times more toxic and stayed in the environment longer – so he liked using it.

“I wasn’t surprised when I saw it take off.”

In the two decades since, genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, have found their way into a growing percentage of foods on supermarket shelves across the country. About three of every four products now contain them, not that shoppers can notice. GMOs are not listed on food labels, a decision Congress and state lawmakers continue to make at the urging of food and chemical companies.

Some nutritionists, including SUNY Buffalo State associate professor Carol DeNysschen, wonder what all the fuss is about.

“The nice thing about GMOs that perhaps people don’t realize is they do reduce crop viruses and plant diseases,” DeNysschen said. “They help reduce the cost of growing some of these crops. And some of these crops – fruits and vegetables – we want people to consume, so in a way they help bring food costs down.

“I haven’t see anything to suggest they’re not safe,” she added. “But, of course, labeling would be an excellent alternative if we can continue to educate the public.”

Others are much more skeptical about GMOs. They claim the genetically altered materials taint the U.S. food supply, endanger the soil and could have long-term consequences for human health. The Non-GMO Project (nongmoproject.org) is a nonprofit group which encourages individuals to learn more about genetically altered foods, particularly in October, “Non-GMO Month.” The group points out that GMOs have been banned in more than 60 countries, including all of the European Union, and points to surveys that say most Americans would like to see such prohibition take place here.

The FDA and World Food Bank have deemed GMOs safe, which give Andrews and DeNysschen comfort, although DeNysschen added, “The long-term effects have not been studied yet. We don’t know if 10 years from now there will be issues.”

As the debate rages, here are some things to know:

GMO concerns

Andrews reads all of the questions that come to Wegmans about GMOs. A dozen years ago, while European governments were banning them, one or two customers a year might voice concerns. Now, it’s about 100 customers a month, still a trickle compared to the tens of thousands who shop at Wegmans stores during that time.

“Number one, they’re looking at a particular product and want to know if it has GMOs,” Andrews said.

“We have no proof of a bad GMO,” she said. “If there was proof of a safety issue, it wouldn’t be approved. There have been lots of tests where things weren’t approved because there was either an environmental concern or safety concern, but everything that’s on the market today has passed through the FDA as being safe and passed through EPA as good or better than the pesticides it might replace. It’s passed some hurdles, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t questions.”

That’s why some people feel uncomfortable about putting foods on the family dinner table that contain genetically altered material or herbicides built right into plants. The amount might be infinitesimal, Andrews said, “but it’s the unknown thing that worries people. I can appreciate the idea that messing around with Mother Nature is a concern, and I don’t disagree with any consumer who says, ‘I want to avoid it.’ It’s their choice.”

Avoiding GMOs

Calls to Wegmans about GMOs reached a peak several months ago when the “Dr. Oz Show” did a two-part series on the topic. The show called the Rochester-based grocery chain to ask about its GMO policy, which is this: If you’re concerned, choose certified organic.

“If it’s certified organic, all ingredients must be non-GMO,” Andrews said. “That’s the way certified organic regulations are stated.” She said the chain has “dramatically increased” certified organic products and is developing more, as well as enhanced growing techniques at a company-owned organic farm in Canandaigua.

“Some of the customers I talk to are not just concerned about GMOs,” Andrews said. “They’re also concerned about irradiation, they’re also concerned about pesticides, they’re also concerned about synthetic colors and additives. Certified organic kind of takes care of all of those in one fell swoop.”

Tops Markets also recommends those interested in avoiding GMOs go organic, and the chain is participating in Non-GMO Month by providing information in stores and on the company website, topsmarkets.com.

“The industry and consumer is moving more toward organic, but it’s just the cost, the cost of sourcing ingredients, so you really have to offer a mix,” said Paula Yoder-McMahon, manager for speciality, ethnic, health and natural products at Tops.

And therein lies the GMO rub: Those choosing to avoid them will feel a greater hit in the wallet at the supermarket.

Companies including Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are passionate about this issue and are among food retailers who smell a trend. “But on the other end,” said Andrews, “you’re going to see other companies – and Walmart is the classic – that are not going to go this way.”

Don’t want to worry about GMOs? That’s what the government is for, DeNysschen said. While there’s risk in that, she said, it’s a calculated one.

“I see GMOs as being a benefit to farmers and perhaps a benefit to consumers, including lowering the cost of fruits and vegetables that we want people to purchase,” she said. “We don’t have all the answers right now, but I think they have a place.”

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Believe it or not, wheat is not a GMO. See more at the Refresh blog.

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