The GMO debate

Retailers play an important role in educating consumers. GMOs are at the top of the list of what people want to know about.

Some joke that the acronym GMO, short for genetically modified ingredients, actually stands for God Move Over. The topic is anything but a laughing matter to the growing number of people who believe products containing GMO ingredients should be labeled as such.

Genetically modified foods have been on the scene for more than a quarter of a century. Why the push for labeling now? While there are a number of reasons, the simple one-word answer offered by industry observers is—consumers. Today’s shoppers are holding suppliers to the highest standards possible and are insisting on transparency, truth and trust in their food system.

One of the challenges with labeling is that GMOs are infused into nearly everything sold in the U.S., including more than three-quarters of all packaged foods. What is more, 86% of corn, 90% of canola, 93% of soy and cotton grown in the U.S. are GMO-based. Currently, the U.S. and Canada do not require labeling of genetically engineered foods, but more than 40 other countries including Australia, Japan and all European Union nations do. In addition to labeling, many of these countries additionally impose significant restrictions or bans on GMOs.

Another challenge facing the industry is that the GMO discussion is not limited to just crops and packaged foods. For instance, AquaBounty Technologies, based in Maynard, Mass., is asking the FDA to approve a salmon that they have genetically engineered to grow roughly twice as fast as typical salmon.

Efforts are underway to require labeling for products containing GMOs and to educate the public. The California Right to Know Campaign is widely regarded as the best chance to achieve GMO labeling in the U.S. In June, about a million people signed a petition asking for mandatory GMO labeling, more than any petition in FDA history, earning the initiative a spot on the state’s election ballot in November. If it passes, all food sold in California will be subject to the labeling law and food manufacturers and packers would have 18 months to comply.

“People are insisting to know what is in the foods they feed their families,” says Lori Sinsley, spokesperson for the California Right to Know Campaign. “Those that signed the petition are representative of the many individuals and organizations in California and around the world that care about where their food comes from and how it is grown.” She adds that recent polls show 90% of U.S. voters support mandatory labeling for genetically engineered foods.

Another group, the Non-GMO Project, has been working hard to educate the public on GMOs as well. The Bellingham, Wash.-based organization is also a third-party verifier for testing ingredients and products to ensure they have been made according to best practices for GE avoidance. According to the group’s internal database, as of June about 4,500 products have received Non-GMO Project Verification, and a couple thousand more were in the process of being verified. Items earning verification status are allowed to feature a seal reading “Non-GMO Project Verified.”

Suppliers speak out
Some observers believe that initiatives like the Non-GMO Project are a good starting point in labeling non-GMO foods. But they say the time has come for the government to intervene and make labeling mandatory. “The FDA says we need labels to tell us if our orange juice is fresh or from concentrate so it’s only logical that we also have labels on products that indicate if a product contains genetically engineered ingredients,” says Grant Lundberg, CEO of Lundberg Family Farms, based in the Sacramento Valley in California. “Based on the amount of public support, this issue is not going away. The grocery industry is going to have to give the public with they want—the right to know what’s in the food they buy.”

In 1996 when the first GMO crops were approved, officials at Nature’s Path felt strongly enough about the issue to include the phrase “Not Genetically Engineered” on its cereal boxes. At the time they came under pressure from some trade associations, which asked that phrasing be removed from Nature’s Path packaging. “We chose not to listen because we felt as strongly back then as we do now that consumers have the right to know what is in their food,” says Arjan Stephens, executive vice president of sales and marketing for the Richmond, B.C., Canada-based company. “To us, this is a simple matter of informing consumers what is in the food they may buy.”

To those who insist the labeling initiative is being driven by a small group of vocal consumers and organic suppliers, Stephens suggests they review results of multiple polls that have found most in the U.S. are in favor of labeling. “When poll after poll finds the majority of people are in favor of labeling it becomes clear that this is not an issue a small group of ‘granola heads’ are pushing. The fact is most people in this country agree with us that they have the right to know what’s in their food,” he says.

Stephens points out the recent uproar over “pink slime” being added to ground beef as another indication consumers are not only paying attention to what is being added to their food they are willing to stand up and be vocal about it. “Simply put, consumers want the right to control the types of products they bring into their homes. Whether it is ‘pink slime’ or GMOs, consumers are making it clear they want to know what is in their food so they can make the best choice for their families,” he says.

In response to opponents who say this is simply a subversive move by organic companies to grow their sales (U.S. organic regulations prohibit the use of GMOs in products labeled organic), Stephens says it is not about wanting consumers to buy more organic products—it is about having all the information about what is in food so people can make an informed decision. “We are simply advocating for the right to know what’s in our food and it saddens me to hear those who oppose labeling taking the position that including a GMO label on products would cause too much confusion for consumers,” says Stephens. “That is a very elitist view because in essence it says consumers aren’t smart enough to understand the issue.”

With years steeped in the organics industry, George Siemon, CEO of La Farge, Wis.-based Organic Valley, says emulating how things occur in nature is the ideal way to create a food system that is both productive and beneficial to the environment. Siemon says with GMOs, scientists have done just the opposite and manipulated genes to fix nature verses working with nature. “As we have learned with organics when you change a part of something and unbalance things you will change more than you know and inadvertently create another effect,” he adds.

Calling GMOs “an unproven technology operating in an unregulated industry,” he says companies have a responsibility to their customers to help them wade through the information so they can make their own decisions. “It is part of a CEO’s job to access risk and look at potential outcomes for their companies every day. To us, taking a stand on GMOs and labeling is part of that responsibility,” says Siemon. “I have to ask myself how I would feel if data comes out linking GMOs to a serious health issue and I did nothing to educate people about the risk and the answer is, I’d feel horrible.”

In 2010, Straus Family Creamery, based in Petaluma, Calif., became the first dairy creamery to be certified Non-GMO by the Non-GMO Project. With sustainability at the forefront of everything they do its mission is to support small family farms in their region while reducing their carbon footprint, according to president Albert Straus. “The labeling initiative is not about putting anyone’s views down—it’s about doing what we believe in and doing what consumers expect from us,” says Straus. “People have the right to know what’s in their food and to make their own decisions.”

Straus also expresses concern over the FDA’s conclusion on GMOs based on three-month trials, noting that is not enough time to access health risks of consuming GMOs. He is however, confident that consumer outcry will help turn the tables. “Consumers will ultimately be the ones influencing the industry to tackle the GMO issue,” says Straus. “Given that nearly one million people signed the California Right to Know petition, that hardly makes this something that only appeals to a small number of fringe consumers.”

Esha Ray, CEO and co-founder of TruRoots, based in Livemore, Calif., understands consumers have many options on the shelf, but as long as there is transparency, she says they can choose what works best for their needs. “We do not have any GMO products in our TruRoots branded products, which aligns with our story of knowing your foods, transparency to source and clean labels,” says Ray. “Europe has been by far more careful in their labeling laws and respecting a consumer’s right to choose their foods, by offering the transparency and setting stricter standards for food manufacturers to adhere to. It is time for us to follow their lead by educating consumers and setting a clear labeling standard.”

Recognizing the reluctance some retailers may have in supporting GMOs, Ray urges retailers to focus on the positives of helping the industry move toward clean and accurate labeling of foods. “Labeling would make it easier for customers to choose items that work best for their needs,” she says.

Information equals power
Emily Main, online editor at, based in Emmaus, Pa., is one of several experts who believe the U.S. is approaching a tipping point in terms of consumers pushing for the right to know what is in their foods. “Just looking at recent stories in the media about ‘pink slime’ and fungicides in orange juice we see that public outcry has been substantial,” says Main. “People definitely want more transparency in the food system, and to understand what goes into the foods they are eating.”

The outcome of the November election could substantially change the situation. Main says if the provision passes it is going to mean a sea change for the food industry. As the middleman between the food companies and consumers, Main says grocery stores will need to take an active roll in the consumer education process. “Store employees will need to understand what GMOs are and be able to explain it to consumers, who will likely have questions about why one bag of chips, is GMO-free and another isn’t,” she says.

Ultimately, people are looking for choice and are tired of feeling they are being lied to or misled, says Main. One of her suggestions for retailers looking to test consumer interest in GMOs, is to participate in Non-GMO Month this October. “Committing to promoting non-GMO foods for a short time is less daunting and allows retailers to gauge what demand is like in their stores. At the same time, it shows that they are catering to the changing needs of their shoppers,” says Main.


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