The last thing I watched before my house, like much of Maine, went dark early Monday morning was “Food Evolution,” a 2016 film on the heated debate surrounding genetic modification of food. Traveling from Hawaiian papaya groves to banana farms in Uganda to the cornfields of Iowa, director Scott Hamilton Kennedy walks viewers through the emotions and the science fueling the argument.

Modern genetic engineering techniques differ from conventional hybrid breeding ones in that the latter can happen in nature while the former can take place only in a laboratory. A hybrid can be as simple as crossing two varieties of strawberries to get one that has traits of both, say extra sweet and cold hardy. A GMO has genes spliced into its code that would not be there naturally. For example, editing the genetic makeup of corn to be resistant to a particular pesticide.

At the end of the film, I found myself still sitting on the fence where I’ve been teetering for a while now. I see plenty of scientific data available that says genetic engineering is safe and produces higher yields in harsher climates in the face of global warming. But what if the hypotheses about the damage GMOs could do to the environment and our bodies hold true when future science reveals itself? Can I easily avoid GMOs and continue along my path of indecision, effectively playing both sides of the fence?

Armed with a headlamp and the knowledge that 1) certified organic products are non-GMO by definition, 2) the Non-GMO Project label voluntarily affixed on over 42,000 retail food products means each contains less than 1 percent genetically modified ingredients and 3) that the main GMO crops in the United States are corn and soybeans, I foraged through my dark larder: Could I gather all of the ingredients for a batch of my favorite fall cookies without any GMO assistance? I was hopeful that by the end of this exercise, I’d have both my mise en place and power so that I could actually bake the cookies.

The oats for my Chewy Cherry-Oatmeal Cookies come from Grange Corner Farm in Lincolnville and are certified organic by Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, as are my eggs from Apple Creek Farm in Bowdoinham. Neither my cinnamon nor my pure vanilla comes from Maine, but both are certified organic nationally. All systems go on these.

My all-purpose flour comes from Vermont-based King Arthur. It’s unbleached, but not organic. But it’s got the Non-GMO Project label because King Arthur uses wheat sourced entirely from the United States. No genetically modified wheat has been approved for use in North America. Good to go.


My sugars were split. Domino sugar carries the Non-GMO Project label because it’s made from pure cane. Only sugar derived from beets is suspect, GMO-wise. My Hannaford-brand brown sugar was made from cane molasses, the label says, but the sugar was not listed as pure cane and, therefore, likely has genetically modified beets in the mix.

My dried cherries were unsweetened and since there are no GMO cherry crops, or pecan ones for that matter, I can assume neither come from genetically modified seed.

The unsalted butter, also Hannaford’s brand, that I keep on hand for baking doesn’t make the non-GMO grade. Yes, the ingredients list is short: just pasteurized cream and natural flavorings. But because the label does not explicitly say the cows that made the cream were never given genetically engineered bovine growth hormones or fed corn from a GMO crop, I have to assume they were. I could always use the local, organic butter (read, expensive) that I keep on hand. I typically reserve that for toast, where I can actually taste the difference, so committing it to cookies would signal a slide to the non-GMO side of the fence.

My honey is local. I bought it in an unlabeled mason jar. The national beekeeping industry contends honey, by its very nature, is non-GMO because there are no genetically modified honey bees. The Non-GMO Project counters that honey has a high GMO risk because the crops the honeybees are pollinating may be GMOs. How do you tell where a bee has been? I’m using only a tablespoon, so I’m OK with tabling this one for later investigation.

My baking soda does not carry a Non-GMO label, but the ingredient list has only a single entry: sodium bicarbonate, a naturally occurring compound that, if pure, is considered GMO-free. My trusted brand – Arm & Hammer – makes sodium bicarbonate by mining trona ore, and this method uses carbon dioxide and that carbon dioxide is often made from GMO fertilizer. So GMOs could linger. Once I reach the bottom of the box, I might consider replacing it with another brand – Whole Foods 365 or Bob’s Red Mill, for example – that uses pure sodium bicarbonate but seeing as I use the stuff in small increments of a 1/2 teaspoon at a time in cookie recipes, I’m not worried about causing my family harm.

My salt is kosher but is not certified as GMO-free. That said, salt has no genes, so why would a company pay for a certification process to deem it free of genetic modification? In my mind, doing so just to cash in on a perceived marketing demand for non-GMOs further muddies the issue. And as this little exercise proves, the waters are already pretty murky on a number of fronts as it is.


A nationwide GMO labeling bill was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama in July 2016 to help clear these waters. It stipulates the USDA must have a scheme for labeling in place by the summer of 2018. The USDA is still mulling over how to feasibly implement the statute, but is expected to release recommendations before the end of the year.

Here’s hoping the final program will make it easier to find GMO ingredients should you find yourself looking for them.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer and tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a new cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at [email protected]

Oatmeal cherry pecan cookies.


This is a recipe I found in the holiday baking issue of Fine Cooking back in 2003. I’ve been tweaking it over the years to include cherries instead of cranberries, pecans instead of walnuts and local and organic ingredients when I can.

Makes 4 dozen cookies


21/2 cups (8¼ ounces) old-fashioned oats

11/2 cups (6¾ ounces) all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 cup (8 ounces) unsalted butter, slightly softened


1 cup (7.5 ounces) packed light brown sugar

1/2 cup (3.5 ounces) granulated sugar

2 large eggs

1 tablespoon honey

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1-1/3 cups (6 ounces) dried cherries


1 cup (5 ounces) chopped, toasted pecans

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line 2 large cookie sheets with silicon mats. Mix together the oats, flour, baking soda, salt and cinnamon. Cream the butter and both sugars until light and fluffy.

Beat in the eggs, 1 at a time. Scrap down the sides of the bowl and add the honey and vanilla, beating until blended. Add the dry ingredients and mix slowly until well combined. Stir in the cherries and pecans.

Drop the dough in heaping tablespoons about 2 inches apart onto the cookie sheets. Bake until the centers of the cookies are soft and no longer look wet, 9 to 11 minutes.

Let cool on the sheets for 5 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container up to 5 days.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.