Mar 28, 2013

Food: Kind of a Big Damn Deal

A big thanks to the companies who
label their GMO-free products!
I am deeply saddened today to learn that the President has signed into law a spending bill that includes a rider protecting companies from any responsibility for the potential negative health effects of the genetically modified products (GMOs) they are creating. Here's an article about the this from the International Business Times.

I don't trust GMOs, mostly because there is no evidence to suggest that they are perfectly safe. Many countries have flat-out banned their production, but in the USA we don't even require labeling (despite wide public distrust). This, to me, is a hugely important contradiction to be aware of: The United States, which prides itself on capitalism, consumer choice, and letting the market (a.k.a. the humans purchasing the products) dictate a product's success or failure, does not require consumers to be given the information on the presence GMOs in a product which would allow them to make an informed choice. That sounds pretty shady to me. (Visit Just Label It for details on a campaign to call for GMO labeling.)

Not surprisingly, corn and soybean products are in nearly everything. EVERYTHING.
High fructose corn syrup is only the beginning, my friends. Take a look at the ingredient list on just about any conventionally-processed item you pick up at the grocery store. Even yogurt and bread (two items that can be easily made at home sans corn or soy) are not safe from cornstarch, soy lecithin, or other corn and soy derivatives. And if you think that your favorite food's corn or soybean ingredients aren't genetically modified, check out this shocker:  On their website, the Center for Food Safety says that "up to 85% of U.S. corn is genetically engineered, as is 91% of soybeans." Holey buckets.

Here's the vortex we find ourselves in: corn and soybeans are heavily subsidized, making them—and any additive or thickener that can be made from them—a cheap ingredient for food manufacturers. Cheaper than the actual cost of growing actual food. Which makes this food cheaper than whole food. Which makes it more affordable and appealing to the consumer. Which makes us buy it. Which makes a product successful that, had we been given this important piece of information, many of us would likely not want to ingest.

Capitalism FAIL.

So why is this a topic for the green gazelle? Here in the g.g. household, we spend a substantial portion of our budget at the grocery store. Nearly as much as we spend on rent each month...and that is just for two people. I am often trying to find ways to reduce our grocery bill, which I could definitely do by eliminating many of the convenience foods we purchase. But the reality is that we would probably never be able to get our food budget as low as many personal finance bloggers say you can. That's because most of what we eat is organically grown (and therefore GMO free) and often minimally processed. These things are important to us, more so than almost anything else we could spend money on. I think of it as an investment in my health and my environment that I hope will pay off later in cancer-free cells and clean water.

Real, organic food isn't cheap. Blueberries cost more than M&Ms. A homemade meal of organic pasta, cheese, and butter costs significantly more than its store-bought blue box nemesis. A single organic apple is often more expensive than a fast food hamburger. If you have ever tried to grow vegetables, you know why this is. Organic and sustainable farming is hard work, and takes a lot of skill, expertise, and labor to be done well. Plus, organic certification is expensive for the farmer. But food is just like anything else: if you make it out of fake materials on an assembly line, you'll get something cheap that can function for a while, but is not usually a good long-term solution. If you want something that will last, you'll spend more and get a quality, handmade piece. Overprocessed, unpronounceable ingredient filled foods are like a pressboard dresser from a big-box store. Whole, organic foods are more like one hand-built out of real maple. But this time, your choice doesn't just affect your decor — it affects your health.

So how do I keep GMOs out of my cupboards? Knowing my farmer is really, in my opinion, the best way to keep myself fed. I can ask them directly about GMO use, or pesticide use, or animal treatment. Better yet, I can probably get the answers to these questions first hand simply by visiting their farm and looking around. I have found that a CSA is a really great way to do this. In bountiful years, it also happens to be one of the more inexpensive ways to get fresh, organic produce. Now is the time of year to get in touch with a local CSA farm, which you can find at Local Harvest (you can also find info about your local farmers market there).

Minus that conversation with my farmer, organic certification is the only way to ensure that the foods I'm eating are GMO free. All products labeled with the USDA organic certification must be "produced without...genetic engineering," among other things (at least for now—this has been under attack too). With further research, you can find other companies who may not be certified organic but don't use GMO seed or feed, and are sustainable in other ways too. For example, there are many well-known organic frozen fruit and vegetable companies out there, but if you read the stamp on the back of the package you'll probably be shocked to find that most of them have been grown overseas. I've started using a non-organic company for my frozen fruits that grows in the US, but is committed to growing sustainably and without GMOs.

You can find more tips and a list of GMO-free foods at the Non-GMO Shopping Guide.

There are a lot of choices in what types of food we spend our money on and consume, and each of us has to decide what is acceptable and not acceptable to us personally. In our household, we have decided that it is reasonable to pay more for real and organic food, and it is important to us to remember the true, unsubsidized cost of growing real food. If you choose to go GMO-free and purchase organically-grown foods, here are a few things that we have found can help reduce the pain at the register.

1. Buy in bulk
I don't mean getting a 200 pound bag of peanuts at a super savings store where the idea is to get you to buy more than you would normally use just for a deal. If you head to the bulk department of your grocery store or co-op, you can buy as much or as little as you like for a flat per-pound rate. This is great for things like spices that you don't use often (just buy a little) or things like granola that you go through quickly (buy a lot). In the bulk department, you are benefitting from the store's purchase of items in large quantities—often 25 or 50 pound bags. They get a good deal and pass it on to you, and you don't have to pay for fancy packaging.

2. Use dried beans
Admittedly, we don't do the dried beans thing often enough, but it is significantly cheaper than purchasing organic canned beans. And in general, whole, unprocessed organic foods will be cheaper than processed organic foods.

3. Buy only what you need for the next day or two, and don't make leftovers
This is a contentious one. But for our household of two, we have reduced our food waste considerably with these two acts. Our produce rarely goes bad in the fridge because we bought too much, and I'm no longer finding year-old soup in the back of the freezer or month-old leftovers behind the milk in the fridge that need to be tossed out. It's saved us money at the store, and if you don't compost, it can also save you money by reducing the garbage container size that you need.

4. Join a CSA
This post tells you why it has worked for us.

5. If you find yourself comparing prices, stop. 
It isn't fair to compare prices of organic foods to their non-organic counterparts, or to more highly processed foods. They are not the same thing. It is apples to oranges, press-board to maple.

What tricks have you found to help reduce your grocery bill? What have you decided is acceptable/not acceptable for your family's diet? How do you feel about today's news?

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