Bonnie Bucqueroux

Bonnie Bucqueroux
Mason, Michigan, United States
May 01
Editor & Publisher
Sustainable Farmer
I recently retired from Michigan State to spend more time on Sustainable Farmer.com, an online multimedia "magazine" for people who grow food with respect for all living things. Yet another leading-edge Boomer still trying to save the world.


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SEPTEMBER 12, 2008 5:49PM

Deciphering fruit and vegetable labels for Frankenfoods

Rate: 6 Flag

Tomato with skull and crossbones

A recent issue of one of my vegetarian cooking magazines suggested that the PLU (Price Look Up) codes printed on those annoyingly sticky labels on fruits and vegetables offer a way to tell whether the food is conventional, organic or GMO.

GMO, as you probably know, refers to Genetically Modified Organisms, known in Europe as Frankenfoods because of fears that mad scientists may be unwittingly or uncaringly unleashing true monsters upon us. (For recent news on this issue, check out Utne Reader's excerpt of the forthcoming book by Texas ag activist Jim Hightower, called Let's Stop Beating Around the Bush. Hightower's famous for writing Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times back in 1978. Though out of print now, that book kicked off a nationwide conversation about what was happening to our food systems.)

But I digress.

Concerning food labeling, the issue is whether you can tell how the fruits and veggies for sale at the local grocery store were raised by deciphering the codes, and the answer is a resounding maybe. Here is the key as certified by the International Federation for Food Standards (note that the wording is mine, not theirs):

  • Four-digit code - A conventionally grown crop. Conventional could mean that the foodstuff has been repeatedly doused with one poison or another -- or not. But at least its genes should not have been artificially altered (though one wonders how many food execs are doing hard time in stir for violating the rules).

  • Five-digit code starting with the number 9 - Organically grown in compliance with the USDA standards.

  • Five-digit code starting with the number 8 - GMO foods. (Why didn't they just use 666?)

But before you think you can rely on the fact that foods without the dreaded "8" are not Frankenfoods, you should know that the labeling system in the United States is voluntary. And that means growers who want you to know they are doing good things - basically, the organic folks - are probably quick to slap a "9" on that rutabaga you are scrutinizing.

But I suspect only a truly dumb Frankenfood producer would be likely to warn you off with an "8" on that great-looking tomato. (The logic seems impeccable: "What they don't know might hurt them someday, but telling them would hurt our sales today.")

We at Sustainable Farmer have developed our own label symbol for GMO foods that we would like to see adopted (see above). And consumers in this country had better start making their concerns known soon, because, as Professor Paul Weyrich notes in his new book Labeling Genetically Modified Food, "Meat and dairy products from GM animals are under development. These new foods make the welfare of animals an issue relevant to the debate about labeling. Labeling gives consumers an important voice concerning biotechnology's application to food production."

Even people who think the GM foods themselves may not be particularly harmful to the people who eat them are worried that promises to keep GMO crops contained continue to fail, potentially threatening the environment. Back in 1999, Beatle Paul McCartney felt forced to remove all soybeans from his wife Linda's vegetarian line of foods because he could not find any that were not tainted by traces of GMO crops. If we don't act now to force transparency, will we ever be able to put the genetic genie back in the bottle if we find the critics are right? The Transparency Policy Project lists labeling foods for GMO content as a priority in helping consumers know the truth about the products they buy.

In the short term, WikiHow offers a great page on how to avoid GMO foods. It starts by giving you a crash course in the kinds of food likely to be genetically modified (soybeans, corn, sugarbeets, rapeseed, rice), as well as providing advice such as sticking to whole foods when you can.


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This is valuable information. I will start scrutinizing UPC codes closer.
This is so infuriating. The Bush administrative and other friends of agribusiness don't want us to know which foods are GMO because they know good and damned well that a lot of people won't buy them. The most generous interpretation of the reason behind this would be that they think the public is stupid and doesn't know what is or isn't good for it. A cynic might suggest that they don't care if GMO is good or bad, they want to be able to use GMO to increase profits and if hiding GMO foods and products helps them make more money, then they will do it.

My issue with GMO is not even personal. I don't know if it will harm individuals who consume GMO foods. I do believe that it will harm the environment. Make that "already has harmed the environment."

But hey, who has the luxury of caring about the future of the planet when your yacht payment is due right now?
Scary stuff. I wish I had time for a garden. My mom had a huge one when I was a kid. If there is space, Navy bases set aside plots for folks in quarters. She'd grow the best squash and water melons. Things always taste best from the garden.

I am not sure that I can agree with the inference in you post that all genetically modified foods are harmful. One example may be golden rice, which contains vitamin A and may reduce vitamin deficit related diseases in developing countries (see http://www.bionetonline.org/English/Content/ff_cont3.htm ). Further, genetic modification of plants and animals occurs naturally in the environment. Is genetic modification bad only if a human being guides it?
Let's starve the planet, well not the planet but all the people on it.

This country feeds the world. We do that thru GMO, and chemicals on crops that increase yield and controls pests. IMHO we don't go far enough to make food available to the world. Look at all the people in the world who don't have enough to eat as it is.

So when you take two ears of corn and one is GMO tell me what is the difference in the two? To me this is the same garbage as those who object to cloned livestock. If the mommy is safe to eat, how is a genetic copy of her unsafe?

In your blog you skipped something that I'm going to touch on, and I was shocked you didn't. That is irradiated food. While America has the safest food in the world there are still 100's of thousands of cases of food borne illness every year. We just went through that with the the tomato crop.

Have you ever gone and looked in the dumpster at your local grocery store or food processor? You will be shocked at how much is thrown away each day. Why, because it is to the point where we won't buy it because it is over ripe or spoiled.

If all the trucks that were leaving the processing plants went through a radiation center for a quick shot that would kill all the bacteria the shelf life would be extended for weeks. Think about how much more food could be exported to 3rd world countries if it would stay fresh for weeks? People in North Korea are eating dirt cakes do you think they will complain if their rice is GMO?

BTW, there is on residual radiation from the process. Being next to it or eating it will not hurt you. If you think it does I have bad news for you. A lot of the wood products you are standing and sitting on are made with radiation treatments to cure the glues.
It's not the technology itself that's inherently bad. It's the use of technology for profit at the expense of all else.
Between a chemical pesticide-laced conventional tomato and one with a bacterial transgene that acts as a natural insect repellent, which would you rather eat??
I try to buy locally as much as possible and intend to raise my own garden this year. Pesticides do suck but I'm more disturbed by these stories:


Yikes. no.

And this story: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2002/jul/17/gm.science

And of course, the cross pollination ensures that, whether we choose to or not, we could be eating these foods even as we speak.

I'm exceptionally opposed to the human dna additions. I mean, really, come on.
"It's not the technology itself that's inherently bad. It's the use of technology for profit at the expense of all else."

Our system is openly set up on a profit basis. Even though other systems are based on different models if you take a look at the leaders they don't live like they are telling/making their people live.

Without profit who would pay the millions that it takes to bring products to market? Let's take a look at something simple, your car. If it were not for the profit motive, what would you be doing right now to get someplace? Who would be making everything it takes to make and run a car? Why would people risk their life and wealth, if they had any, to go out into the sea and drill for oil to operate your car if it were not for profit.

Profit, it is what allows people, corporations, and even government (taxes) to be able to go into the world and do the things they think should be done.
I am surprised so many commenters have such blind confidence in science and in corporations. I am old enough to remember when scientists in white coats assured us that the troops a mile away from the nuclear tests in the Nevada desert were perfectly safe. The difference between natural mutation and GMO mutation is that the latter speeds up the timetable with combinations nature might never embark upon. The use of a seemingly benign gene as a marker has also raised concerns. And this does not even touch the issue that companies like Monsanto are copyrighting GMO seeds -- and suing farmers in Asian countries for "stealing" their seed, even though it might just have been contaminated because GMO crops are not being contained as they should. And the list goes on . . .
"And of course, the cross pollination ensures that, whether we choose to or not, we could be eating these foods even as we speak."

As I recall there was a farmer that was actually sued by Monsanto for copyright infringement - because his corn was (unavoidably) cross pollinating with theirs on the neighboring farm.

A the same time the farmer was battling against the destruction of his strain of corn that he had nurtured for years.

In some locations the GM corn is killing monarch larvae. The GM corn isn't just an insect REPELLANT, it is genetically modified to be an INSECTICIDE.

And no one knows what is happening to the bees that have disappeared.

Given the above; that the wind can and will pollute any neighboring crops - people need to understand that this is a travesty of the highest dimensions. There will be NO GOING BACK. There is no - oops, we'll fix it.

We ( the U.S.A) don't feed the world, we dominate it. If we put as much money into teaching indigenous farmers sustainable practices as the multibillion dollar corporations do into developing GM products, it would be money better spent and with more positive long term results.

Let's face it . Companies like Monsanto aren't developing GM foods to shine a light on the world and get a warm fuzzy feeling. They are doing it for billions and trillions in potential profit.
thank you. very helpful. i'm trying to eat healthier and even here in N California it's not always easy to do.