Going GMO-free is easier said than done

Which comes first: the cage-free chicken or the organic egg?

Zeal-Food for Enthusiasts, Chef Sean Smith

Boulder is known for its staunch commitment to organic products, sourcing local and an emphasis on avoiding genetically modified organisms, often referred to as GMOs. Whether it’s picketers on Pearl Street, advocates at the farmers’ market or social media rants from locals, it is clear there’s a rising tide of opposition to GMOs, especially in the local restaurant scene.

Volta, a Mediterranean restaurant that opened in October, has committed to completely eliminating GMOs, and Zeal – Food For Enthusiasts has stuck out their neck with their motto printed on every one of their menus: “No GMO’s ever, period.”

“As stewards of the earth, chefs should practice sustainable actions in the kitchen,” Sean Smith, chef de cuisine at Zeal, says.

Another well-respected advocate for choosing non-GMOs is chef and restaurateur, Bradford Heap of SALT: the bistro and Colterra.

“I get really freakin’ annoyed by [GMOs],” he says. “I start frothing at the mouth. It’s so wrong and it’s so unfair.”

But even for those restaurants totally for the cause, going GMO free is easier said than done.

Heap says though it’s the thing he fights the hardest to keep out of his restaurant, there are gray areas.

Take for example pork, chicken, or beef — they’re fed corn and some corn is genetically modified. Heap calls this meat-to-feed scenario, “second generation GMO,” a deep rabbit hole indeed. Second generation GMOs include yeast used in making beer, wine and spirits that could be started with genetically modified sugar beets and corn. Spirits from Europe, where GMO’s are banned, can prove successful, but domestically its hard to tell for sure, especially with bourbon, which is produced with more than 50 percent corn.

That may seem extraneous to the average eater, but to Heap, a purist, it matters.

His wish is that, “at the very minimum [GMOs] need to be labeled, and, at the maximum, banned until they can be proven completely safe.”

Although Heap says he feels he is close to being GMO-free in his restaurants, it’s a difficult goal for any restaurant.

According to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, 70 percent of processed foods contain at least one GMO ingredient.

It´s a struggle that Jon Deering and his wife Eleni, owners of Volta, have faced since they opened Volta with a vision of being GMO free. 

“We are constantly checking with our suppliers about the GMO status of their products,” he says. “It’s an intense process and journey to become completely GMO-free, one we are wholeheartedly committed to each and everyday. … We believe in the natural world, and GMOs have no place in our food supply, period.”

Even with such diligence, the Deerings admit that it is likely that there are traces of GMOs in some of their products.

“It is incredibly difficult to be entirely GMO-free, especially for a fine dining restaurant like Volta that inventories hundreds if not thousands of items,” Deering says.

Because the lines are blurred and there are less regulations, it becomes a slippery slope for restaurants and chefs seeking to ditch GMOs, even with their best Connect efforts. with For usinstance, farmers are able to plant genetically-engineered (GE) alfalfa and the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not keep track of who plants what and where.

“Alfalfa is a perennial, easily lasting five years once planted,” says Deering. “It not only lasts for five years, but it is also bee-pollinated, meaning every year, every non-GE alfalfa plant within five miles of every GE alfalfa plant will likely be contaminated by GE genes. Even if you are consuming 100 percent grass-fed beef or dairy, there is a possibility of GMO cross contamination.”

Then there’s the issue of sugar. 

“People don’t realize if it says sugar, that means it’s GMO-beet sugar,” says Heap. “We’re so confused as a society. I’m even a chef and I get confused. Cane sugar makes it a little cleaner.

Sure, it’s better than that high-fructose corn syrup. At this point, anything with corn in it now is suspect.”

To address the sugar conundrum, Heap took out all the soda lines in his restaurants and replaced them with Boylan’s natural sodas that are cane sugar-based.

Smith, of Zeal, has an optimistic attitude and says he thinks it isn’t too difficult once you truly make the commitment. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a challenge.

“It comes with a higher price tag, which for a brand new restaurant like Zeal can be a tough gamble,” he says. “We’re hoping that, given the current eating habits of America, especially here in Boulder, the extra money spent up front will pay off in the long run. I think in the first couple of weeks when we were still working with our purveyors, as well as figuring out what needed to be brought in-house to keep up with demand and production for our menu, there may have been an item or two that slipped through the cracks. Now that we’re entering our fourth month and have solidified our relationships with both local farmers and ranchers, as well as the folks that help bring in goods from afar, it’s really easy to do.”

Smith says instead of restaurants focusing on what they can’t control, it’s better to look at what they can.

Zeal decided to plan their menu and kitchen design around omitting certain ingredients that commonly contain GMOs, such as canola oil, soy and corn. They even went as far as getting rid of the fryers that came with the space, which contain canola oil, and do most of their high heat cooking with rice bran oil.

Volta, for their part, has begun verifying their ingredients as non-GMO through the Non-GMO Project’s third party verification system. The label is growing rapidly in North America because people are seeking out the non- GMO seal. 

“Everyone deserves the right to know what is in the food and beverages they choose to consume,” says Deering.
“Accurate and verifiable labeling is paramount to ensuring the integrity of this process just like it has become with organics.”

Their goal is 100 percent transparency and disclosure.

Heap says he believes that labeling and awareness are also imperative, saying that safe starting points for consumers are eating and purchasing grass-fed beef and wildcaught fish, as well as a more plantbased diet using organic and GMO-free vegetables. He says it’s about being scrupulous, asking the hard questions and buying from someone you know to help drive awareness. His big concern is that if consumers continue to buy food laden with GMOs, it will perpetuate driving the dollars and corporate governance behind it.

But in order for consumers to be able to make the choice, they need to know there is a choice to be made.

In January of this year, House Bill 1058, which would require labeling genetically modified foods, was rejected by Colorado lawmakers — the second time such legislation has been rejected in the state. Currently, only Connecticut and Maine have laws requiring labels for genetically modified food, but those won’t be enforced until other states adopt their own rules. Efforts are underway in Colorado put up a ballot measure similiar to those in California and Washington regarding GMO labeling.

Smith says the solution is local. 

“We need consumers supporting non-GMO restaurants so they succeed and help further a sustainable agricultural model,” he says.

And perhaps the best proof for Smith’s argument is exactly how hard restaurants are discovering it is to fully purge GMOs from their menus.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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