Score one for consumers who firmly believe that ignorance doesn’t equate to bliss when it comes to knowing what they are eating. Supermarket chain Whole Foods Market recently announced that they will label all products on the shelves in their stores across the United States and Canada that contain GMO ingredients by 2018. According to the company, they are “the first national grocery chain to set a deadline for full GMO transparency.”
Better late than never
The increasing visibility of GMOs over the past several years has elevated them into the realm of the mainstream media, and thus, a greater awareness with consumers. According to a recent poll, 82 percent of Americans agree that foods containing GMOs should be sold with a label. It may come as a surprise to some Americans that the U.S. is currently the only industrialized nation lacking mandatory labeling for GMO foods.
In late 2012, California voters declined the opportunity to become the first state in the U.S. to pass GMO labeling legislation, and voted no to Proposition 37. If it had been approved, the state-wide initiative would have made labeling of both packaged foods and fresh produce a requirement if they contained genetically altered ingredients. In addition, it would have prohibited marketing with the use of the word “natural” on foods with a GM label.
In March 2013, the Vermont House Committee on Agriculture and Forest Products voted eight to three in favor of the GMO labeling bill, paving the way for the state to become the first to pass GMO labeling legislation in the U.S. Currently, GMO labeling legislation efforts are also underway in 20 other states.
Proceed at your own risk
GMOs can be seen as the Grey Poupon of fake food – sort of. The Non-GMO Project states that GMOs, “genetically modified organisms,” are plants or animals created through the gene splicing techniques of biotechnology (also called genetic engineering, or GE). If you ever wondered how genetic engineering changes a seed, just think of what Colonel Steve Austin, “The Six Million Dollar Man,” did to become the world’s first bionic man. The entire process he undertook made him better, stronger, and faster. So it is with genetically engineered plants when they are created in a laboratory.
Consumers who believe that the chatter about GMOs is much ado about nothing should consider a few points. First, there’s the elephant in the room: Is it safe to eat GM food? Scientists point out that we just don’t know if GMOs are safe to consume at this point, since they are unregulated and there is insufficient testing of them. In addition, GM technology increases the risk of the allergic potential of a new food, as well as the risk of new toxins.
Second, GMOs are very difficult to avoid. In 2003, the Grocery Manufacturers of America estimated that between 70 and 75 percent of all processed foods in U.S. supermarkets may contain GMO ingredients. Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that GMOs show up in more than 80 percent of all processed foods in American or Canadian grocery stores.
The effects of GMOs on the environment are substantial. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency points out: “Environmental concerns related to GMOs include increased pest resistance, development of weed tolerance, and decreased genetic diversity.”
Hurry up and wait
Some consumers are undoubtedly wondering why this move toward greater GM food transparency will take so long to implement. According to Whole Foods: “This is a complicated issue, and we wanted to give our supplier partners enough time to make this change.” The supermarket chain also added that, “While five years is the deadline, we know there will be progress much sooner and we plan to announce key milestones along the way.”
Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market, whose tagline is “America’s Healthiest Grocery Store” is the ninth-largest food seller in the U.S. with 2011 annual sales of more than $10 billion. The publicly traded company has more than 340 stores in North America and the United Kingdom.
Whole Food Market’s decision to begin labeling GMO products will likely increase their ever-expanding popularity among consumers. Whole Foods’ net margins are almost triple those of regular grocers.
The future is now
Looming questions remain in the months and years leading up to Whole Foods’ 2018 GMO labeling deadline. Will any of their competitors, such as Trader Joes’s, follow suit and implement a mandatory GM food labeling requirement? How many states in the U.S. will pass GMO labeling bills over the next five years? What will be the extent of the anticipated backlash against Whole Foods from Monsanto Co. and DuPont Co., the world’s leading seed companies?
While some of us are busy cheering on the resurgence of the Twinkie, it’s clear that an increasing number of Americans are getting more serious about the quality of the food they eat. Advocates of healthy and safe food can hopefully all agree that Whole Foods’ decision to label GMOs is a step in the right direction. The wisdom of philosopher Lao Tzu seem apropos: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” What do you think?