Natural foods lead the way to GM labelling

March 2013

More photos from yesterday's Yes on Prop 37 rally at LA City Hall #prop37 #labelgmos
GMO labelling protest in California. Photo by cheeseslave on Flickr
America's march towards labelling of GM foods continues its steady pace. At least 20 US states have bills in progress to require some form of GM labelling. The latest one, introduced in February in Illinois, would require a label on any product containing more than 1 percent GM ingredients.

(Note. If you haven't been following the US GM food labelling saga, check out

A new phase in the awareness game is now evident as natural food retailers have now entered the arena.

On 19th March, the US-based Natural Products Association (NPA) announced it is calling for national standard for GMO labelling of all foods. The NPA is the biggest association of its kind, representing 1,900 members from the retail, distribution, wholesale and manufacture sides of the natural products sector.

Earlier in the month, Whole Foods Market (WFM) announced that by 2018 all products in its North American and Canadian stores will be required to carry a label indicating if they contain GM ingredients.

WFM is considered a national standard-bearer for organic and natural grocers. While its organic range cannot by law contain GM ingredients, many of its lines are not organic and many of these are almost certainly GM.

A spokeswoman for WFM said
 “We're really drawing the line on labeling. It's about the consumer's right to know.”
She has a point. At least 60 countries, including America's biggest trading partners, require GM food labelling. As the Washington-based 'Environmental Working Group' commented
 “More than half the world's consumers already have the right to know what's in their food ... It's ludicrous that in the 'Land of the Free' consumers don't have the same rights.”
Outside of organic food sector, the US food manufacturing industry has not supported GM labelling, citing the cost and difficulties involved in tracing their sources. This is hardly surprising considering the scale of GM infiltration into the American food chain. An estimated 60-80% of all processed foods in a typical American grocery store contain a GM ingredient in the form of soya, maize or sugar beet. There's also already a handful of fresh produce available, including some squashes, papaya and sweetcorn.



If five years seems a long lead time for the sake of adding four words to a label, this is because the US food supply system is in an even worse mess than the one which put horse-meat into European beef products (see THE CURIOUS TALE OF THE HORSE THAT BECAME A COW and FOOD INDUSTRY: ANYTHING LEFT TO TRUST? - March 2013). The light-touch approach to regulation, the wholesale corporate capture of its food culture, and lack of transparency, have conspired to render US food a great unknown entity.

Also, there are two inherent obstacles: the lack of non-GM seed supplies, and the paucity of surviving independent seed suppliers most of which have been elbowed out by Monsanto. Recent surveys have revealed, for example, that the number of non-GM corn varieties in the US decreased by 67% between 2005 and 2010. Over the same period, the number of GM corn seed varieties increased by less than 7%. The author of this report said “Farmers are facing fewer choices and significantly higher prices in seed. Seed options narrow when a handful of companies dominate the marketplace.”

Inevitably, the time taken for seed producers to re-establish the non-GM stocks that suppliers will need to comply with WFM demands, will be measured in years.

The company acknowledges the challenge it is facing. Its spokeswoman said:
“It will be difficult, but we're committed to doing it. This is going to encourage our suppliers and manufacturers to ask deeper questions about our ingredients”. 
She indicated that, where it proves impossible to source non-GM alternatives for certain products, WFM may not carry the product.

Let's hope WFM can do for America what Marks & Spencer did for the UK in the 1990s. When this quality food brand leader declared its intention not to stock GM foods, it didn't take long for all the major supermarkets to follow suit, and then everyone had to do it.

The scary bit about this story is the time-frame judged necessary by WFM to clean-up its supply chain. A less specialist US food retailer will need considerably longer. This suggests that, if (or when) America finds itself with a GM food scare, it could find itself short of food for decades.

  • Mike Keaton, US: GMO labeling gets huge new boost, Natural Products Association 19.03.13
  • Georgina Gustin, Whole Foods says it will require labels on genetically modified ingredients, St Louis Post Dispatch, 8.03.13
  • Ken Roseboro, Farmers' seed options drastically reduced in GMO-producing countries, Non-GMO Report, 28.02.13

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