Genetically Engineered Food

A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers


By Ronnie Cummins

By Ben Lilliston

Foreword by Frances Moore Lappe

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Stormy debates about genetically engineered (GE) food have raged throughout the world in recent years, and the issue is now more potent than ever. Seventy to eighty percent of processed foods now sold in supermarkets contain genetically engineered ingredients, and the trend is growing at a startling rate. This second, completely revised edition of Genetically Engineered Food is an all-in-one guide written specifically to help consumers educate themselves about the risks posed by GE foods. Ronnie Cummins and Ben Lilliston, both leading consumer advocates, provide comprehensive, up-to-the-minute, action-inspiring information, including how to identify GE foods, products to avoid, brands that are GE-free, and how to shop and act with a purpose. They discuss all of the ethical, environmental, and health arguments against GE food, how these foods are being regulated in the United States and abroad, and why consumers are right to oppose them. Genetically Engineered Foods is the first and still one of the few consumer-oriented guides addressing this important subject.



“It is great that Ronnie Cummins and Ben Lilliston have had the courage and the dedication to research the controversial subject of genetically engineered foods so thoroughly. Every aspect is covered—health hazards, effects on the environment, where to shop, what to avoid—allowing us to choose where our interests lie and, from this, check resources and make educated decisions. This guide must surely become the bible for the concerned consumer.”

NORA POUILLON, chef/owner of Restaurant Nora, Washington,
D.C., the country’s first certified organic restaurant, and Asia Nora

“Consumers have known intuitively that they don’t want-to eat genetically engineered foods. Now they know why. Ronnie Cummins and Ben Lilliston persuasively outline the case against this mass experiment on our food, and give the public useful tools for ways to avoid genetic contamination when they buy food. Anyone who eats should read Genetically Engineered Food. It is indispensable as a basic primer, a resource guide, and a call to action.”

CHARLES MARGULIS, Greenpeace genetic engineering specialist

“Cummins and Lilliston are clear, accurate, and compelling. If you want to understand the dangers of genetically engineered food, this is the book you need. And if you want to make safe food choices for your family, this is the book you should buy.”

CHERYL LONG, senior editor of Organic Gardening magazine

“I breathed a sigh of relief as I picked up this book. Finally, there’s a reliable source of information for consumers on the confusing subject of genetically engineered foods. In clear language, Cummins and Lilliston guide us to greater knowledge. . .and greater hopefulness. If you only read one book on GE foods, this should be the one.”

PEGGY O’MARA, editor and publisher, Mothering Magazine

“Cummins and Lilliston are top investigative writers and activists who spill the beans about what’s wrong with genetically engineered food and how to avoid them. Everyone who eats needs this book.”

JOHN STAUBER, coauthor of Toxic Sludge is Good For You and Mad Cow USA

“A fundamental right of consumers is knowing what kind of foods they are purchasing. Genetically engineered foods are taking this right away from consumers. This book helps make the marketplace more democratic, giving consumers the information they need to make choices in buying food for their families. I look forward to seeing this book on every coffee table in America.”

RENSKE VAN STAVEREN, national coordinator, Genetic Engineering Action Network, USA

“Cummins and Lilliston’s self-defense guide is a boon. Their comprehensive reporting on GE food explains the risks and the politics of all this sci-fi farming, along with shopping strategies to help you avoid buying, say, a gene-spliced Twinkie.”


“Thick with information about finding healthful food and fighting for a sustainable, humane, and equitable food and agriculture system, this book ably outlines the ideas and the values that ought to frame any discussion of food policy.”

Capitol Times


A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers


M A R L O W E   &   C O M P A N Y
N E W   Y O R K


FOR THE consumers and farmers worldwide who are helping to move us toward a food and agricultural system, which is organic, sustainable, humane, and equitable.


by Frances Moore Lappé

CONGRATULATIONS. If you ve picked up this book, you’re a fortunate person indeed. You’re in for an awakening; a rude one to be sure, but a jolt that will change the way you see your world. And, I believe, it can also change the way you see your own power.

Here Ronnie Cummins and Ben Lilliston, two dogged researchers and courageous truth-tellers, inform us that we Americans have been enlisted in the biggest nutritional experiment ever conducted on humans—on any species for that matter. Ethicists hold that experiments on humans require our informed consent. However, those carrying out this particular experiment, the introduction of genetically engineered food (and especially seeds, where it all starts), not only failed to ask for our consent; they even failed to tell us the experiment was underway.

Just since 1996, genetically engineered seeds have spread 40 fold to cover 167 million acres around the world—two-thirds of those acres are right here in the U.S. So we Americans are truly the world’s guinea pigs. The reason is not merely that the primary developer of genetically modified seeds, Monsanto—which controls over 90 percent of the market—is based in this country. There is a deeper factor that can alert us to a crisis within our democracy itself.

In many other countries, governments and citizens have actively, vociferously, and publicly debated whether spreading an untested technology—one capable of altering ecological systems and human health—is a good idea. Most have said, “No, given the high stakes, we must be cautious.” And where genetically modified products have been allowed on the market, governments have typically insisted they be clearly labeled. (Even China, hardly a paragon of concern for its citizens’ welfare, requires labeling of genetically engineered food!)

But not here in the U.S. Before there was any public awareness, much less debate, our government—at the urging of corporate developers of genetic engineering—declared that genetically modified foods are no different from those conventionally produced. Rigorous testing and oversight, it was said, are simply unnecessary. Government scientists who raised questions were rebuked and pushed out. Even today, despite petitions from hundreds of thousands of Americans, there is no labeling of products containing genetically engineered ingredients. Sadly, while as many as two-thirds of the items in a typical supermarket contain them, most Americans believe they’ve never eaten a genetically modified food.

Thus while Cummins and Lilliston appropriately call this highly useful book a “self-defense guide for consumers,” to me it is also a wake-up call for citizens. For I have come to see the rapid spread of genetically engineered seeds as a symptom of our silencing, the silencing of a people that results from the usurpation by unelected powers—corporations—of our democratic rights to protect ourselves and shape our own future. Many of our nation’s founders understood well that democracy has an economic foundation—that, as Justice Louis Brandeis (1846–1941) said much later, “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

Fortunately, an awakening to this assault on democracy is spurring a movement of citizens on every continent. Recently, for example, residents of Mendocino County, California, made history by banning the planting of genetically engineered seeds (despite the fact that corporate opponents outspent the people’s campaign by almost 7 to 1). By reading this book and then making real, informed choices, you will take part in this historic possibility.

Frances Moore Lappé
Cambridge, Massachusetts
April 6, 2004

FRANCES MOORE LAPPÉ is a renowned food activist and the author of numerous books, including the 3-million-copy bestseller Diet for a Small Planet, and coauthor of Hope’s Edge. She is the cofounder of The Small Planet Fund and Food First. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts


FOUR YEARS after the first edition of this book, the controversy over genetically engineered (GE) foods and crops continues to escalate. New scientific evidence on environmental and human health hazards fuels the debate, as does the food industry’s stubborn refusal, at least in the United States and Canada, to label GE foods. Meanwhile requirements for labeling and trace-ability have all but driven GE foods off the market in Europe. Major European food companies have begun requiring that GE soybeans, corn, and cotton seeds be removed from animal feeds as well as consumer products. In response the United States has filed a formal trade complaint against the EU at the World Trade Organization, although almost no one expects Europeans to accept “Frankenfoods,” as the EU press has dubbed them, no matter what the WTO rules. Wall Street remains skeptical about the future of gene-spliced crops. Monsanto, whose patented seeds account for 91 percent of all GE field crops; has suffered recently from a sharp decline in profits. Farmers and rural communities are still voicing misgivings about the supposed benefits of transgenic crops, with lawsuits by Monsanto against farmers, and counter-lawsuits by farmers against Monsanto and other biotech firms increasing.

Ten years after the introduction of agricultural biotechnology, only four GE crops are being grown on a commercial scale: soybeans, corn, cotton, and canola—with most of these crops being funneled into animal feed. Among these genetically modified crops only two agricultural traits have been added—herbicide resistance (75 percent of all GE crops), pesticide resistance (17 percent), or both (8 percent). And these four GE crops are still only being grown, for all practical purposes, in four nations: the United States, Canada, Argentina, and China. In perhaps the most frightening recent development, an unapproved genetically engineered biopharm crop designed to produce a vaccine contaminated 500,000 bushels of soybeans. Despite clear dangers, the biotech industry is promoting biopharm crops as the next wave of this radical technology. And of course the most important factor in the biotech debate is that ordinary consumers and parents are still raising questions, educating themselves, and taking action.

As we pointed out four years ago, what once appeared to be the inevitable dawn of the Biotech Century for American agriculture may well turn out to be the beginning of a serious and thoughtful reexamination of how food is produced. As part of this reexamina-tion, we are already seeing phenomenal expansion in the demand for organic foods in the United States, Canada, Europe, Japan, and other nations. In 2003 farmers in 110 nations produced and sold $25 billion in certified organic crops and foods, while global sales of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) leveled off at approximately $4.25 billion.

The debate over genetically engineered foods and crops, including GE animal drugs such as Monsantos Bovine Hormone (rBGH) and food crops laced with pharmaceutical drugs and industrial chemicals, may last for decades. However, as Europe has shown, the ultimate arbiter of power in this debate is the consumer. Marketplace pressure can change the landscape quickly. If U.S. consumers continue to take action in their everyday lives—following the food-buying and food-preparation suggestions in the second half of this book—genetically engineered foods will be short-lived. Food companies, restaurants, supermarkets, institutional investors—even politicians—-recognize what affects their bottom line. If American consumers reject genetically engineered foods, putting their food dollars where their concerns and values lie, this technology will fail.

We are happy that the first edition of this book has sold so well as to warrant a second, updated edition. This is but one indication that public concern and awareness is growing about this radical new technology. Please read this book and pass it around to your friends, but also be prepared to take action for the future of our food. The old adage, you are what you eat, has never been more applicable. Bon Appetit!


The Genetically Engineered Foods Controversy

WALK THROUGH the aisles of any supermarket in America. Sit down to eat in just about any restaurant, school cafeteria, workplace lunchroom, hospital, or airplane. Open your cupboards and refrigerator. Look at what’s cooking in your oven, microwave, or frying pan, or what’s on your fork, your spoon, in your cup or drinking glass. . . . You can’t see, smell, taste, or feel the difference. And you can’t read about it on food labels or restaurant menus (at least in the United States). But you and your family are now part of a vast culinary and biological experiment—dining on an expanding menu of genetically engineered foods. Foods unlike any foods consumed in human history.

Genetically engineered foods (see the box below for other comparable, frequently used terms) have been big news in Europe, Asia, and Australia for the last several years. European and Japanese consumers have led the way, resoundingly rejecting American gene-food exports and forcing major supermarket chains and food manufacturers overseas to remove genetically engineered foods and ingredients from the marketplace. Now individual consumers, consumer advocates, research scientists, environmental organizations, farmers, and other concerned citizens in the United States and Canada are joining the debate—helping to raise substantive questions about the risks—potential and known—of this new and highly touted technology. The most urgent question being asked by more and more people worldwide is: Are genetically engineered foods harmful to human health and the environment?


Around the world, and even in this book, you will find a number of different terms or abbreviations for genetically engineered (GE) foods and organisms. Many of these terms mean the same thing, but reflect different cultural biases relative to language. Below is a short list of common terms and definitions.

  • Genetically engineered (GE)—This is the standard U.S. term for a process in which foreign genes are spliced into a non-related species, creating an entirely new organism.
  • Genetically modified (GM)—The same as GE, this term is more widely used in Europe because it translates more easily among different languages.
  • Genetically modified organism (GMO)—The actual organism that is created through genetic engineering.
  • Biotech foods, gene-foods, bioengineered foods, gene-altered foods, transgenic foods—Foods that have been created through genetic engineering.
  • Frankenfoods—Another term for the above, refering to the story of Frankenstein and science gone bad.
  • Biopharm—GE crops designed to produce pharmaceutical drugs and industrial chemicals.

Not since the nuclear power debates in the late 1970s has there been such controversy over a new technology of this magnitude. Like their counterparts in the nuclear industry forty years ago, the proponents of agricultural genetic engineering offer consumers a cornucopia of benefits, promising to end world hunger, improve public health, and reduce pesticide use. They confidently proclaim that gene-foods are safe. They cite industry-sponsored studies and invoke the names of national and international regulatory agencies that have given several dozen varieties of genetically engineered crops and foods clearance for commercialization. But like their predecessors in the nuclear industry a generation ago, the more they talk, and the more independent scientific evidence accumulates, the less credible proponents of agricultural genetic engineering seem. What’s becoming clear is that:

  • Agricultural genetic engineering is a radical and unpredictable new technology.
  • GE foods are not being adequately safety-tested for possible damage to our health.
  • GE crops are not being adequately safety-tested for possible damage to the environment
  • GE crops overall do not require fewer pesticides than conventional crops, and in most cases require more.
  • GE foods are no more nutritious than conventional foods.
  • GE crops are not addressing global hunger through higher yields.
  • Genetically engineered ingredients are pervasive in processed foods in the U.S. and Canada, and yet they are not labeled.
  • Agricultural genetic engineering has negative social and economic impacts on family farmers and rural communities in the U.S. and around the world.
  • Mounting scientific evidence indicates that genetically engineered foods and crops may present serious hazards for our health and our environment.
  • Once released onto the market and into the environment, genetically engineered material cannot be contained.


ALTHOUGH THE volume of the genetically engineered foods debate is not yet as intense in North America as it is in Europe, Japan, Australia, and a number of other nations, the tenor of the discussion is steadily—and now very quickly—rising in the United States. In fact, it is clear that Americans are increasingly nervous about this new and controversial technology, and strongly feel the need for additional information. Public concern in the U.S. over gene-foods is not new, however. As far back as 1994, when the first two genetically engineered foods were introduced in the United States, there were clear signs of consumer skepticism. The introduction of the Bovine Growth Hormone, injected into dairy cows to force them to produce more milk, led to the tripling of the market for organic milk. The Flaw Saw tomato, which had been gene-altered for longer shelf life, fell flat on its face when consumers refused to buy it. (We will discuss these and other gene-foods in greater depth later in the book.)

National polls repeatedly reflect the depth of concern among Americans about genetically engineered food. An ABC News poll in June 2001 found 93 percent of U.S. consumers want labels on GE foods, while a Rutgers University poll in November 2001 found 90 percent supporting labeling. Another ABC News poll released in July 2003 found that 92 percent of Americans wanted labels, while 62 percent of women said they would prefer to avoid purchasing GE food for their families. Again and again, polls of consumers over the past decade find that 80-95 percent of Americans want genetically engineered foods to be labeled—primarily so that we can avoid buying or consuming them.1


WHILE MANY consumers have remained anxious or concerned about genetically engineered foods, a significant percentage of farmers in the U.S. have embraced the new technology. By 2003, over 101 million acres of GE crops were planted in the U.S., representing almost 10 percent of the total acreage of our nation’s farmland and pasture. The American gene-altered harvest of 2003 included approximately:

  • 81 percent of U.S. soybeans
  • 40 percent of U.S. corn
  • 73 percent of U.S. cotton
  • Over 50 percent of the U.S. and Canadian canola crop

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

In addition to these genetically engineered crops, an estimated two million of the U.S.’s nine million dairy cows are being injected regularly with recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (sometimes referred to as rBGH or rBST). Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone is banned in Europe, Canada, Japan, and every other industrialized nation except the United States, Brazil, and Mexico.

Since 1991, biotechnology companies have conducted over 300 field trials of so-called biopharm crops in the U.S. It is probable that contamination of the U.S. food supply with genetically engineered pharmaceuticals has already occurred—we have no way of knowing due to the extreme degree of secrecy surrounding the locations of biopharm field trials and the nature of the drugs and chemicals they are engineered to produce.

By the beginning of 2004, a full menu of GE foods, crops, and microorganisms have made their way into kitchens and shopping carts nationwide. Analysts estimate that a full 60–75 percent of processed foods commonly found on supermarket shelves or at your favorite restaurant would “test positive” for the presence of gene-altered soy, corn, cottonseed, canola, and ingredients derived from these genetically engineered crops.


ALTHOUGH GENETICALLY engineered foods are neither required to be safety-tested nor to be labeled, they are now part of your everyday diet.2 According to laboratory tests carried out on behalf of the New York Times and Consumer Reports, as well as disclosures by food and biotechnology companies, your daily intake of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) may now come from the following foods, among others:

  • baby foods
  • baking mixes
  • breakfast cereals
  • cooking oils
  • corn
  • corn chips
  • corn sweeteners
  • dairy products
  • infant formula
  • margarine
  • papayas
  • popcorn
  • radicchio
  • salad dressings
  • soy burgers
  • squash

Scores of other genetically engineered foods and ingredients are poised for commercialization—that is, for sale to consumers, farmers (in seed form), and food manufacturers. Wherever foods are sold or served, it is becoming increasingly difficult for you to avoid purchasing or ingesting genetically engineered foods—without your knowledge.

How did this ever-expanding menu of GE foods get into our shopping carts, kitchens, restaurants, and nursing homes, and onto our kids’ school lunch trays? How did we get into a situation where much, if not most, of the food we eat every day contains GMOs, without our approval or consent and without—at least until very recently—even our knowledge? And why have we as citizens been largely excluded from the discussions and policy decisions on genetically engineered foods?


AS GE crops become more prevalent, they are subjected to greater scrutiny. Unfortunately, upon closer examination the technology raises doubts rather than confidence. A number of events over the past five years have catalyzed public debate among the media and public:

  • In 1998, the prestigious British Medical Association (the equivalent of the American Medical Association, or AMA, in the U.S.) called for a moratorium on all genetically engineered foods because they may not be safe;
  • In the 1990s, after reviewing the scientific data, Canada, the European Union, Japan, and a number of other industrialized nations banned Bovine Growth Hormone;


On Sale
Apr 27, 2009
Page Count
400 pages

Ronnie Cummins

About the Author

Ronnie Cummins is the national director of the Organic Consumers Association ( and the editor of BioDemocracy News, a monthly online newsletter devoted to genetic engineering, factory farming, and organics. Ben Lilliston is a writer on health and the environment and is the communications coordinator for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis.

Learn more about this author