In the age of genetically engineered foods, vegetarianism is no longer a simple choice consumers can make to save the world -- or even themselves. Although many of the benefits of a meat-free diet still stand, many genetically altered crops contain the DNA of animals, ranging from moths to fish to pigs, while the majority of processed foods -- from bread to nachos to canned soup -- contain ingredients derived from GE crops, primarily corn and soy. Unless products are branded "organic," say critics of genetic biotechnology, it's impossible to know whether they contain GE ingredients.
Such is the truth at the heart of the battle surrounding whether some sort of labeling should be required for GE foods, and it reflects why the availability of GE-free brands at Whole Foods and elsewhere should be a profitable move. With environmental and human health concerns piling up, many shoppers are finding that organic produce is the only way to go. In the words of organic farmer Claire Porter, who acknowledges that she's not a bona fide vegetarian to begin with: "I'd rather eat a little bit of meat than eat a strawberry that has been spliced with fish genes."
Adds Renu Namjoshi of Texas Consumers for Safe Food: "If you eat out, you can forget about [staying away from GE]." So what's a consumer to do if he or she wants to avoid GE?
Namjoshi and Porter both recommend sticking with raw, organic foods. Even in the case of some packaged organic products, questions persist as to their purity. The easier it is to trace the course of food from the field to your table, these advocates argue, the less likely it is that somewhere along the line GE ingredients were introduced. To that end, adds Porter, it's also worth trying to stick with locally grown organic produce, where farmers are more likely to be accountable than growers in some far-off state.
In many cases, of course, this is an expensive and impractical approach to the challenge of trying to eat GE-free. But until labeling is instituted for packaged foods and organic produce is available at all grocers, it's really the only strategy that's available, short of growing your own foods.
To bring about change, Namjoshi suggests that concerned food activists take it upon themselves to rattle the cage of Austin's supermarkets and express their concerns over GE foods. "It's your responsibility to go to the grocery store every day and say, "I don't want to eat GE."
In the meantime, conventional agriculture -- even when it avoids genetic engineering -- continues to contribute pesticides and toxins to soil, air, and water. Porter says that organic farming is the only approach that enables growers to develop a relationship to the land they work. This means that eating organic fruits and vegetables (and even animals raised without hormone treatments and the like) can help stem the tide of mechanization and genetic manipulation that currently shapes agriculture in this country.
"Organic farming is a constant experiment," Porter notes. "You build a real relationship with your dirt." She adds that for that reason, the introduction into the soil of bacteria and other by-products of biotechnology could spell real environmental problems in the long run -- whereas even the evils of conventional agriculture can be reversed over time. "After three years, you can get the soil to come back," she says.