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Voting With Their Stomachs

If the U.S. government won’t slow down the march of corporate GMO foods, who will—the marketplace?

by Amy Halloran on May 30, 2013

 

Given the financial might of Monsanto and other companies that genetically engineer seeds, and the fact that the head of the USDA was a strong advocate for the company when he was governor of Iowa, it’s no surprise that we don’t have federal labeling requirements for GMOs.

Ballot battles in more than 30 states are showing both the intensity of consumer interest in labeling, and the ferocity of the corporations’ defense plans. In California last year, the opponents of a labeling bill spent seven times as much money as those who wanted labeling. Nearly 5 million people in the state asked for labeling, according to the Just Label It campaign, which organizes for the issue on a national level.

The marketplace is intervening where government regulators fear to tread. Whole Foods announced in March that all its foods would require labeling for genetically modified ingredients. Target, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and other major retailers are refusing to sell genetically engineered salmon.

In the Northeast, food producers are answering the consumer call for non-GMO foods. Valley Malt, a malthouse in Hadley, Mass., has organized a NOGMO grain CSA this summer, inviting people to buy a share and “kick the commodities to the curb.” Members of the Northeast Organic Grain and Malt Offering get malts for home brewing, and flours, polenta, popcorn and other grains from regional growers and producers who do not use genetically modified seeds.

“We are getting lots of calls from concerned customers out there who are adamant about non-GMO grains,” said Amber Lambke, from Maine Grains, which is providing flour for the shares. “We feel lucky that our farmers want to grow non-GMO and hope that policies now and in the future protect a consumer’s right to informative labeling and environmental protection.”

In the absence of labeling, people often turn to organics because rules for organic food production prohibit the use of GMOs. However, this limit does not prevent traces of GMOs from entering crops through pollen. Still, organic labels are a good guideline, especially if you know that genetically modified seeds are available and used for corn, soybeans, cotton and canola for oil, and summer squash, papaya, sugar beets and alfalfa.

“Until mandatory labeling of GMOs becomes the law of the land—and in this we lag far behind nearly 50 other countries, including the entire European Union, China, Japan, and Australia—the best way people have of being certain to avoid GMOs in their diets is to eat organic, which by definition cannot include these ingredients,” said Lily Bartels from Honest Weight Food Coop.

That consumers have to hunt for the information baffles Chris Snye, owner of The Placid Baker in Troy.

“Everything else is labeled,” said Snye. “You have to label ingredients, organic or nonorganic, but when it comes to GM produce or food, as far as the consumer goes it should be demanded.”

Honest Weight has made a brochure to help inform shoppers, and won’t sell genetically modified seafood. The store also signed on to the “Just Label It” campaign, and collected thousands of signatures petitioning the FDA to require the mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods.