- Whole Foods has announced it will make labeling of genetically engineered (GE) ingredients mandatory in its American and Canadian stores by 2018. Many expect other retailers to follow suit
- About 20 major food companies, including Wal-Mart, recently gathered for a meeting in Washington to discuss potential lobbying for a national GMO labeling program
- The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) recently announced the creation of a new nationwide campaign called the Organic Retail and Consumer Alliance (ORCA). The mission of the new alliance includes exposing and eliminating the misleading practice of “natural” labeling and marketing
- Organic food and products, by law and by third-party certification, are produced without the use of synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers, animal drugs, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), irradiation, nanoparticles, or sewage sludge, whereas so-called “natural” products are completely unregulated
- A critical assessment of the consequences of commercial cultivation of GE plants in the US for 20 years advises the EU to NOT follow the path of the US, as it has had profound negative impacts on farmers, seed markets, and consumers. Among the eight final recommendations, the report concludes that “There must be no large-scale, commercial cultivation of GE herbicide-tolerant or insecticide-producing crops,” and that all potential situations must be retrievable
Whole Foods recently announced the health food giant will make labeling of genetically engineered (GE) ingredients mandatory in its American and Canadian stores by 2018.
(Whole Foods stores in Great Britain already require GE foods to be labeled.) Many expect other retailers to follow suit.
Despite the five-year deadline, which may seem long for some, this announcement is incredibly encouraging and represents a major sign that all the efforts most of you put into the Proposition 37 campaign have paid off. We may have lost that battle but this, and other signs, strongly suggest we are winning the war.
Prop 37 raised an enormous amount of awareness about genetically engineered (GE) foods (a.k.a. genetically engineered organisms or GMO’s). Many Americans didn’t even know they existed prior to the California campaign to require GE foods to be labeled.
The Prop 37 campaign also ushered conversations about food to the front pages of mainstream media. Over the past year, we’ve not only seen an increase in the number of stories on genetically engineered foods, more people are now also talking about other truth-in-labeling issues, and food safety in general.
People are waking up to the fact that we really don’t understand what we’re eating anymore, and they’re taking control of their food again. Now, other states, including Washington State and Missouri, are taking up the baton to label GE foods. In all, 22 states now have some sort of pending labeling legislation.
Seeing the writing on the wall, the National Cooperative Grocers Association (NGCA)1 recently wrote a letter to their members that now also urges food manufacturers to stop funding or opposing GMO labeling. This is an absolutely stupendous victory for our side that finally vindicates the hard work so many of you put into this effort last year.
Whole Foods Responds to Consumer Demand for GMO Labeling
Whole Foods Co-Chief Executive Walter Robb recently told the Los Angeles Times:2
“This is an issue whose time has come. With cases like horse meat discovered in the U.K., plastic in milk in China, the recalls of almond and peanut butter in the U.S., customers have a fundamental right to know what’s in their food…. ‘The government has not been willing to take on this issue, so it’s going to have to happen differently.'”
According to a February 2012 poll of potential voters in the 2012 US elections, 90 percent of responders were in favor of labeling GE foods. There’s really NO reason not to, aside from protecting the biotech industry’s profits. Americans are already responding favorably to those few products that are labeled. A. C. Gallo, president of Whole Foods, told the New York Times:3
“We’ve seen how our customers have responded to the products we do have labeled. ‘Some of our manufacturers say they’ve seen a 15 percent increase in sales of products they have labeled [non-GMO].’”
According to the featured article:4
“Whole Foods’ move will be copied by competitors, said Scott Faber, vice president for government affairs for the advocacy organization Environmental Working Group. ‘Clearly, they’re going to be the first of many retailers who will require labeling as a condition of sale in their stores.'”
It’s worth remembering that CA Prop 37 failed to be passed by just a few percentage points back in November, even though the food and biotech industry spent five times more money (a total of $46 million) on its propaganda campaign than the supporters of the measure. That’s really a good indication of how difficult this fight is for the industry. People want to know what they’re eating, and convincing Americans to lay aside their concerns about GE foods requires a lot of money and effort.
It’s a challenge they can overcome, no doubt. But people are increasingly seeing through the lame excuses, such as not wanting you to be “confused” by the labels, or that labeling would raise food prices, or that labeling is unnecessary because it’s “just as safe” as its conventional counterparts. It’s all nonsense, and fortunately, it’s not flying as well as it used to.
NCGA Urges All Vendor Partners to Support GMO Labeling Initiatives
As just mentioned, the National Cooperative Grocers Association5 (NGCA), a business services cooperative that represents 134 retail food co-ops across the US, sent out a letter on February 28 restating its support of GMO labeling, urging consumers to contact manufacturers directly with their concerns, and encouraging their vendor partners to “consider the kind of statement and negative impact that an organization makes by supporting or donating to campaigns designed to prevent the labeling of GMOs, whether on a state or national level.”
This is yet another sign that retailers and food manufacturers who opposed prop 37 have indeed been paying the price. Take the Cheerios fiasco, for example. General Mills spent over $1.1 million to deceive their customers by defeating Prop 37, and the backlash was significant. When General Mills’ Cheerios brand released a Facebook app last December asking “fans” to “show what Cheerios means to you,” thousands used the app to express their disgust over the company’s betrayal.
I believe we can expect far fewer brands to engage in biotech’s fight in future state initiatives. They really were not expecting the consumer backlash that followed in the wake of Prop 37, and are likely to be far less willing to take another bullet. The NGCA’s letter to their vendor partners reads in part:
“There was substantial consumer backlash from manufacturer financial support of campaigns to prevent GMO labeling in California. Now, campaigns calling for state level labeling of GMOs are active in a growing number of many other states. Many NCGA co-ops are supporting these campaigns and are also considering one or more of the following actions related to GMOs in food on a local level: discontinuing or boycotting items from companies that support antilabeling campaigns or whose products contain common GMO ingredients; excluding items that contain common GMO ingredients from store-level promotions and new item programs; and/or shifting more of their product assortment focus to certified organic brands.
…We believe GMO labeling will be a reality in the coming years and hope your organization will join us by showing leadership in this area through support of consumers’ right to information to make informed purchase decisions.”
Organic Consumers Association Calls on Whole Foods to Move Up Labeling Timeline
Dave Murphy, founder and executive director of Food Democracy Now! who served as co-chair of Prop 37, has criticized Whole Foods timeline, saying “Americans need labeling of GMO foods today, not five years down the road,”6 adding that “had they supported Prop 37 sooner, Americans may have labeling right now.”
Similarly, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) issued a response to Whole Foods’ plan on March 117 stating that, while it is encouraged by the plan, the five-year timeline is too long. The OCA urges Whole Foods to move up its labeling deadline to July 2015, and to “take the lead in the organic industry to end deceptive labeling practices by requiring all the stores’ products that include the word ‘natural’ in their labeling or packaging to be GMO-free.” According to the OCA press release:
“Washington’s I-522 is expected to pass in November 2013, becoming the first statewide mandatory GMO labeling law. The law establishes July 2015 as the deadline for compliance. Whole Foods Markets already complies with the U.K.’s mandatory GMO labeling law in its seven stores in that country. Whole Foods came under fire last year when the company dragged its feet in supporting Proposition 37, California’s Right to Know GMO Labeling citizens’ initiative. In October, CEO John Mackey confirmed in a blog post that Whole Foods stores knowingly sell Monsanto’s genetically modified corn, without labeling it.”
Monsanto Responds to ‘Affluent Consumer’ Concerns
On March 14, Monsanto President Brett Begeman discussed Whole Food’s move in an interview on NPR radio.8 According to NPR:
“Monsanto President Brett Begeman, speaking at an ag event this week in Decatur, Illinois, called the move ‘Big’ and said it shows that the agriculture industry needs to come together to address the concerns of what he called the ‘affluent consumer.’
Begemann: ‘How do we address their concerns and provide them the choice that they’re asking for without driving up the cost on the large part of the population that cannot afford another increase in the cost of food.’ The potential of higher costs is one of the concerns companies have raised about the Whole Foods plan. Begmann says the ag industry needs to figure how to cooperate and co-exist with those who have different food policy views.”
ORCA Takes Proactive Role to Address ‘Natural’ Products Intentional Mislabeling
In related news, the organic and fair trade standards watchdog the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), recently announced the creation of a new nationwide campaign called the Organic Retail and Consumer Alliance (ORCA). The announcement was made at the national Expo-West Natural Products convention. This new alliance includes public interest groups, food producers and retailers, including co-ops, natural food stores, farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) buying clubs and wholesalers.
ORCA’s mission is to “aggressively promote organic food and products, and expose and eliminate the misleading practice of ‘natural’ labeling and marketing that has slowed the growth of America’s $30-billion dollar organic sector.” In a press release, OCA’s National Director, Ronnie Cummins states:9
“Routine mislabeling and marketing has confused millions of U.S. consumers, and enabled the so-called ‘natural’ foods and products sector to grow into a $60-billion dollar a year powerhouse, garnering twice as many sales in 2012 as certified organic products. By exposing these misleading tactics, and promoting truth-in-labeling, we believe we can rapidly grow sales of certified organic and authentically natural food and products.”
This is indeed a huge problem, as numerous polls and surveys have shown that otherwise health-conscious Americans do not understand the qualitative difference between organic and so-called “natural” products. Contrary to reality, the majority of consumers believe the “natural” label equates to “almost organic,” and many believe the “all-natural” label means a product is better than organic! That’s the power of word-association, and these industries are well aware of how the word natural “feels” to consumers who are in the dark about the regulatory differences between the labels… As stated by Cummins:
“This is outrageous, given that organic food and products, by law and by third-party certification, are produced without the use of synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers, animal drugs, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), irradiation, nanoparticles, or sewage sludge, whereas so-called ‘natural’ products are unregulated.”
To achieve its aims, ORCA members will use “a combination of public education, marketplace pressure, boycotts, class action lawsuits and state legislation to end misleading labeling practices in the ‘natural’ products sector.”
Consequences of 20 Years of Commercial Cultivation of GE Plants in the US
Just in time, as the GE issue is about to heat up once more, a critical assessment of the consequences of commercial cultivation of GE plants in the US was published. The report, published in Berlin, was commissioned in response to increasing pressure from biotech companies requesting broader authorizations to cultivate GE crops in the European Union (EU), where acceptance of such crops is much lower than the US. By looking at the effects that two decades worth of GE crop cultivation has had in the US, the report makes recommendations on how to best handle the technology in the EU. Presented by TestBiotech10 (which published the English version of the report),11 some of the principal findings include the following damaging assessments:
- Consequences for farmers: Because the weeds have adapted to the cultivation of the genetically engineered plants, farmers are experiencing a substantial increase in both working hours and the amounts of herbicide they require. Cultivation of insecticide-producing plants have led to “an arms race in the field” against the pest insects, which have adapted quickly. Genetically engineered plants have been created to produce up to six different toxins. Costs for seeds have increased dramatically, without there being a substantial increase in yields or significant savings in the amounts of spray required.
- Impact on the seed market: The seed industry in the US is largely dominated by agrochemical industries such as Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta. In the future, it has to be expected that developments in the US will be strongly influenced by the interests of agro-chemical companies pushing for the cultivation of genetically engineered plants.
- Consequences for producers who avoid genetically engineered crops: Contamination with non-authorized genetically engineered plants has already caused billions of dollars worth of damage in the US.
- Consequences for consumers: Consumers are exposed to a whole range of risks regarding unintended substances from plant metabolism, from residues from complementary herbicides and from the properties of additional proteins produced in the plants. As yet, there is no way of monitoring the actual effects that consumption of these products might have.
The final recommendations come as no surprise to those well-versed in the many issues involved. It’ll be interesting to see if the EU will follow them or cave to industry pressure like the US. The report concludes:
“In light of the effects caused so far as a result of GE crop cultivation in the United States, the following recommendations can be made:
- There must be no large-scale, commercial cultivation of GE herbicide-tolerant or insecticide-producing crops. Such crop cultivation is unsustainable and will lead to a ‘race’ to step up their cultivation.
- Ensure that all potential situations are retrievable. Cultivation of crops such as rapeseed, which is extremely susceptible to spread through the environment, should be banned as a matter of principle. An absolute prerequisite for any release of such crops is that it must be possible to control their spread and their persistence in the environment.
- Prevent cases of contamination. A particular focus on clean seed is needed because otherwise farmers will lose control over the cultivation of GE crops in their fields and it will no longer be possible to adequately differentiate between products in the subsequent stages of the food production chain.
- Risk assessments and risk research should not be geared to economic interests. Under EU law, environmental and consumer protection clearly take precedence over other interests. This must be applied more rigidly in practice. Directives based on EFSA risk assessments must be tightened up significantly and the preconditions for independent risk research must be specifically fostered.
- The health effects of consuming products made from GE crops must be monitored. Under EU law, the monitoring of the impact on public health and the environment of products authorized for marketing in the EU is compulsory, but has only been partially implemented.
- To allow for the differentiation of products on the feed markets, labeling should be extended to include animal products. The EU should also focus specifically on the search for alternatives to existing feed production and import markets.
- To prevent further concentration on seed markets, seed patenting must be stopped.
- A plan for research into alternatives must be mapped out. In many areas conventional breeding is a cheaper, more productive and safer alternative for the production of new seed varieties. This approach should be specifically fostered in the future.”
Keep Fighting for Labeling of Genetically Engineered Foods
While California Prop. 37 failed to pass last November, by a very narrow margin, the fight for GMO labeling is far from over. The field-of-play has now moved to the state of Washington, where the people’s initiative 522, “The People’s Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act,” will require food sold in retail outlets to be labeled if it contains genetically engineered ingredients. As stated on LabelitWA.org:
“Calorie and nutritional information were not always required on food labels. But since 1990 it has been required and most consumers use this information every day. Country-of-origin labeling wasn’t required until 2002. The trans fat content of foods didn’t have to be labeled until 2006. Now, all of these labeling requirements are accepted as important for consumers. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also says we must know with labeling if our orange juice is from fresh oranges or frozen concentrate.
Doesn’t it make sense that genetically engineered foods containing experimental viral, bacterial, insect, plant or animal genes should be labeled, too? Genetically engineered foods do not have to be tested for safety before entering the market. No long-term human feeding studies have been done. The research we have is raising serious questions about the impact to human health and the environment.
I-522 provides the transparency people deserve. I-522 will not raise costs to consumers or food producers. It simply would add more information to food labels, which manufacturers change routinely anyway, all the time. I-522 does not impose any significant cost on our state. It does not require the state to conduct label surveillance, or to initiate or pursue enforcement. The state may choose to do so, as a policy choice, but I-522 was written to avoid raising costs to the state or consumers.”
Remember, as with CA Prop. 37, they need support of people like YOU to succeed. Prop. 37 failed with a very narrow margin simply because we didn’t have the funds to counter the massive ad campaigns created by the No on 37 camp, led by Monsanto and other major food companies. Let’s not allow Monsanto and its allies to confuse and mislead the people of Washington and Vermont as they did in California. So please, I urge you to get involved and help in any way you can, regardless of what state you live in.
- No matter where you live in the United States, please donate money to these labeling efforts through the Organic Consumers Fund.
- If you live in Washington State, please sign the I-522 petition. You can also volunteer to help gather signatures across the state.
- For timely updates on issues relating to these and other labeling initiatives, please join the Organic Consumers Association on Facebook, or follow them on Twitter.
- Talk to organic producers and stores and ask them to actively support the Washington initiative.
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