According to one of the nation’s leading natural food retailers, consumers have a right to know what’s in their food and labeling of genetically altered food is good public policy.
Labeling of food products that contain GMOs is popular in Europe. Voters in Washington will decide on a ballot initiative this fall to require such labeling in that state. A similar ballot initiative failed in California last year.
Food producers and the many companies that process and distribute food to grocery stores across the nation are watching closely as the debate gains momentum.
The policy, adopted last spring by Whole Foods Market (WFM), seems straightforward. Consumers definitely have a right to know what ingredients they are buying and eating. But upon closer examination, it becomes suspect whether WFM’s means attain their goal. In fact, in reality, and especially pertaining to animal products, the verification process by which the retailer will decide which products get a non-GMO label and which will carry a “this product contains genetically modified organisms” label, is no more than a charade.
Last spring, Whole Foods Market (WFM) announced plans to label every product in their stores by 2018. WFM has contracted with and provided major financial backing to a non-profit organization in Bellingham, Wash., called The Non-GMO Project. The Non-GMO Project is staffed primarily by political operatives and others who adamantly oppose genetic modification of crops and support labeling. WFM has also supported the voter initiatives in California and Washington and made public its belief that the federal government should step in and regulate a new labeling system.
Where the argument loses credibility is in the verification process. But before we delve into the difficulty of verification, consumers should understand that the only crops in production and that currently utilize genetic modification are corn, soybeans, sugar beets, alfalfa, papaya, canola, cotton and summer squash. For the vegetable-eating public, there is little change at stake whether non-GMO labeling gains public acceptance or not. This overlooked fact makes a nice, but hollow talking point for WFM and the Non-GMO Project to tout the thousands of products they have already verified. It’s not difficult to verify carrots, potatoes, onions and many others as “non-GMO” when there is no seed to begin with.
However, when you consider that most of the main ingredients in livestock feed are corn, soybeans and alfalfa, and that significant percentages of these crops currently in production are genetically modified, it becomes a much stickier issue for producers of meat, cheese, milk and other dairy products.
Although labeling advocates point to a host of undocumented and unproven allegations about the dangers of eating food that contains GMOs, and perceived threats to the environment, it’s important to understand a few simple, proven facts.
First, genetically altered crops have been in production in the U.S. for nearly 20 years, have been deemed safe through extensive testing by the federal government, and have shown zero adverse effects on the health of the general public.
In addition, it has been acknowledged by both WFM and the Non-GMO Project that no test exists that can tell the difference between sugar, corn, soy or any of the others that came from GMO seed being any different than commodities that came from conventional seed. In addition, if a cow, a pig or a sheep eats crops that come from GMO seed, there is no test in existence that can tell any difference in the meat or milk from that of any other animal.
So how does WFM, the Non-GMO Project or any of the other advocates of this policy intend to verify their label? The short answer is they can’t. But what they are telling consumers is that products earn a non-GMO label by going through a “process-based” verification process. Ultimately what that means is that livestock feed must first be certified organic and second, it must be traceable and tested. Without a major paradigm shift in U.S. livestock production, neither of those processes is possible at a meaningful level.
If WFM wants to develop and fund a verification process to provide its shoppers with a meaningless label, we don’t see a problem. But creating a new government bureaucracy that essentially does the same thing is absurd.
Frank Priestley is president of the Idaho Farm Bureau.