As genetically modified foods become an increasing topic of debate both nationally and internationally, a number of South Fork food producers, sellers, and restaurateurs are working on the local level to keep modified plants and products out of their fields, off their shelves, and away from their tables.
“One of the most important issues of our time is the emergence of non-labeled, genetically modified food,” said Barbara Layton, owner of Babette’s restaurant in East Hampton.
Ms. Layton and others concerned about the proliferation of genetically modified foods, many grown from patented seed, worry that they are rushed to market without any scientific data to support their safety or dispel concerns about the side effects of human consumption. Those who champion the modified crops argue that scientific innovations in seed development allow for greater yield and disease resistance, and even that the world food supply depends on such technology.
It is a subject that Ms. Layton takes very seriously “both as a human being sharing a planet and as a businesswoman,” she said. She believes that by supporting local farmers, growers, and distributors who “do the right thing,” people can make a collective difference in the food to be eaten generations from now.
Paying close attention to soy products, since she said these are among the most heavily genetically-modified foods, Ms. Layton sources organic, local, and seasonal ingredients. She also serves only organic poultry, locally caught fish, and organic, grass-fed beef at her East Hampton restaurant.
“Countries all over the world are now banning G.M.O. foods, while here in the United States only three counties in California have banned such items,” she said.
In the European Union, genetically modified foods can only be authorized after “a rigorous safety assessment,” according to the European Food Safety Authority’s Web site. In Italy, according to The New York Times, farmers must get special permission to plant genetically modified crops. The only “biotech crop” grown in Europe, The Times reported, is a type of corn produced by Monsanto, an agriculture and chemical company that is the world’s largest producer of seeds and an increasing target for farmers and consumers here and abroad who are concerned about the impact of genetically modified seeds on human health.
Scott Chaskey of Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett is so concerned about the issue that he is writing a book about it, and is personally part of a class-action lawsuit brought by a group of farmers against Monsanto. He said he would not buy Monsanto seeds for the community-supported agriculture program that he runs in partnership with the Peconic Land Trust. Instead, he said, he orders seeds from suppliers who take a “safe seed pledge.”
At local farms, corn is the most likely vegetable to be genetically modified, said Rich Kresberg of Provisions Market in Sag Harbor. But corn aside, he advised that those looking to avoid G.M.O.s should shop at farm stands and natural food stores. G.M.O.s are a “cause for great concern,” he said, “nobody knows what the long term effects are, and a lot of what has been done is irreversible, due to drift and cross pollination.”
“The simplest and most effective way for a consumer to find out if what they are buying is a G.M.O. or not, is to go to a farmers market or local farm stand and ask,” said Dave Falkowski of Open Minded Organics, known for the organic mushrooms he grows and sells at local farmers markets. “A grocery store likely won’t be able to answer that question, but a farmer will.”
Trying to sell food without them is a challenge, Mr. Kresberg said, because companies are not required to label those products that are grown from modified, or transgenic, seeds. Organic foods, while not entirely free of G.M.O.s, strive to be so. According to The New York Times, the United States Department of Agriculture “has a recommended guideline of no more than .9 percent of transgenic content for organic crops.” Mr. Falkowski and Mr. Kresberg both believe that labeling of G.M.O. foods should be mandatory.
“There are hidden G.M.O.s in most mass-produced foods, including the feed for cattle and poultry,” said Lisa Blinderman of Second Nature Market in East Hampton. “When we alter the genetic structure of foods, we are playing with nature,” she said, and “the long term results are unknown.” Although foods that contain G.M.O.s need not be labeled, those that do not almost always advertise the fact.
“We believe people have the right to know what is in their food,” said Karin Bellemare of Sunset Beach Farm in North Haven, who has been following organic standards, and will be certified organic this season. “Under the standards you cannot use G.M.O.s,” she said. “We do not buy seed from companies that sell G.M.O. seed, and we do not grow near farmers that have G.M.O. products,” she said. She and her partner, Jon Wagner, lease land from the Peconic Land Trust.
Matt Laspia of Springs takes organic, G.M.O.-free crops directly to “people’s lawns,” then works to spread the fruits of his labor to a broader group of consumers. Mr. Laspia’s organization, Produce in the Projects, finds people willing to host gardens on their property, then grows the produce at no cost to the donor, who in return gets half of what’s grown. He distributes the other half through soup kitchens, food pantries, and nonprofits.
His goal, he said, is to offer safe food for the community, and in the process help bring organic produce within reach of less affluent people and the poor. Working together on a small scale, he believes people can “shake corporate control over our food supply.”
“Big food scares me,” said Bryan Futerman, a local chef and owner of Foody’s restaurant in Water Mill. “Corporate control of 99 percent of the food supply, and none of it being tested. . . . In Europe it’s not allowed, in India, people are killing themselves over seeds,” he said.
Mr. Futerman, one of the leaders of Slow Food East End, does what he can to source food “as close as I can to the restaurant,” driving his pickup truck to local farms to get vegetables. “It’s next to impossible to eat non-G.M.O. in the United States,” he said, with corn and soy being fed to livestock, and soybean oil in so many products on the shelf. “I want to serve non-G.M.O., but I don’t know what’s coming in the door.”
Mr. Futerman started the Springs Seedlings Project, a garden program at the Springs School, because he believes it is important to start from the ground up, by giving children an appreciation of where their food comes from.
Joni Prosnan of Joni’s in Montauk also works to find organic products and natural distributors when she sources food for her cafe. Even it if it costs more, she said, “even if I lose a little at the end of the day, I’m glad that people are getting hip to it.”