PITTSFIELD - Crossing one plant with another to create a new variety, or hybrid, goes back to the beginnings of domestic agriculture and has long been an accepted farming practice.
The modern- day manipulation of plant genes to create a new, genetically modified organisms or GMOs, however, is far more controversial.
Engineered to develop characteristics that are not naturally theirs, like resistance to diseases or drought or other environmental conditions, genetically modified crops have been associated, in some studies, with accelerated aging, changes in major organs, immune-system problems and infertility in the animals that eat them.
At best, researchers claim too little is known about the long-term effects of genetic modification to gauge its impact on the food supply.
The Center for Food Safety, an environmental, public health and consumer- advocacy organization, filed a petition with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last October seeking mandatory labeling for any foods made from genetically engineered crops. "They should label the foods and let consumers know. This carte blanche they've been giving the industry is not acceptable," said Andrew Kimbrell, the center's executive director.
At the same time, CFS launched a website petition inviting consumers to join in pressuring the FDA. More than 500 other organizations came forward under the banner "Just Label It."
"Just Label It" advocates say their campaign is aimed at genetically engineered plants, not at naturally occuring hybrids.
Here in the Berkshires, the Berkshire Co-op in Great Barrington and Wild Oats in Williamstown are both "Just Label It" partners, advising customers about GMOs through their newsletters and instore signage.
The petition to the FDA is easily found on Wild Oats' website at http://wildoats.coop/alerts.htm.
Berkshire Co- op labels products known to be non-GMO.
"We have a little shelf tag right next to shelf price tag to indicate these products are enrolled and verified by the Non-GMO Project. Those tags are already on the shelves," said Berkshire Co-op grocery manager Daniel Esko. "We do have an overall policy that states 'We will not knowingly carry products that contain genetically modified organisms.'" Matt Rubiner, owner of Rubiner's Cheesemongers and Rubi's Café, also in Great Barrington, said much the same.
" Neither Rubiner's nor Rubi's knowingly sells nor uses in its cooking any product that contains GMOs or that is produced by a company whose parent corporation produces or uses any GMOs," he said.
Other area food retailers contacted, including Guido's Fresh Marketplace in Great Barrington and Pittsfield, the Pittsfield Health Food Centre, and The Meat Market in Great Barrington, also say they will not stock any new products that do or might contain GMOs.
Supermarket chains contacted said the subject of GMOs is either not an issue for them or they trust their suppliers.
Claire D'Amour, Big Y's vice president of corporate communications, said restaurants also have to deal with GMOs whether they know it or not, because "restaurants are buying the same things that we are buying."
Aleisha Gibbons, owner of Berkshire Organics with her husband, Brian, has been working since January to remove most products containing GMOs from their store, avoiding new products with GMOs and labeling those customers want stocked.
"When I started Berkshire Organics it was right before the local movement exploded. The timing of starting this couldn't have been better. But we're not just focused on local and organic, we're looking at other issues coming up in the food industry like GMOs," she said. With the help of Blanche Lennington, the company's administrative coordinator, Berkshire Organics began researching which of their products contain GMOs and which do not - and informing customers through monthly newsletters and, soon-to-come signage and labeling.
Gibbons started Berkshire Organics exactly four years ago, when she began delivering local and regional organic produce baskets to 35 customers, organizing her wares and her business from her home.
" I started this service because I saw a need, " she said.
Within six months, she was delivering to more than 100 customers and moved to a tiny store on Dalton's Main Street.
Brian Gibbons, a horticultur-ist, joined his wife in 2009. After three years, they said the company generated over $ 1 million for their suppliers.
Last January, after a move to larger quarters at the former Burgner Farm, Gibbons felt she was ready to tackle the issue of GMO labeling of the products they sell.
They instituted a five-tomato ranking system with five tomatoes representing the best local, sustainable and certified organic option, while products with GMOs and other questionable ingredients have fewer tomatoes.
" We contact any company whose product we think might contain GMOs. It's a huge job," Gibbons said.
They have discontinued brands they find or fear contain GMOs, and replaced them with similar non-GMO products wherever possible.
"Every time I have to explain to a customer why we are not carrying something they appreciate that, Lennington said. "We work very hard to find a clean alternative for them if this product contains GMOs or potentially contains GMOs."
And they maintain a list of brands verified by the Non-GMO Verification Project.
" We're posting things on our Facebook page," Gibbons said. " If they are certified organic. I think we can be reasonably sure their products are non- GMO. We cannot be 100 percent sure because they are not required to test for GMOs, but we have to draw the line somewhere."
She said high- risk ingredients can be found in conventionally grown and processed, packaged foods, over 80-percent of which are genetically modified. These ingredients include alfalfa, canola oil, cotton, papaya, soy, sugar beets, zucchini and yellow squash.
"Things like distilled white vinegar, which is made from corn, is just one example," Lennington said.
"We want to know what's in our food," she said. "We want our customers to know what's in our food. It's more than 'we want to know.' We have a right to know what's in our food.
" Once GMOs are in the environment, how do we get rid of them?" she asked. "And I don't think anybody has an answer."