America's GM attitude shift

January 2014

March against Monsanto, Washington DC 2013. CC photo from Flickr

Changes in awareness of, and attitude to, GM foods in the US were very evident during 2013.
An attempt to slip a new biotech-friendly consumer-unfriendly measure into a continuing resolution in Congress led to an unprecedented backlash.
The infamous measure was written in co-operation with Monsanto (therefore dubbed the Monsanto Protection Act), and was designed to tie the federal regulators' hands if new health concerns about GMOs came to light.  
In the event, the measure was killed in the Senate, but the damage to the biotech industry had been done.  Two million people around the world had taken to the streets to 'March Against Monsanto', and ongoing awareness had been set firmly in motion.
GM food labelling initiatives in many States have ended, so far, in total or partial failure.  There are more in the pipeline, each adding it's own layer of consumer disquiet about GM foods.  However, something more subtle is afoot in the US food industry.

At least 100 lawsuits have been filed against food companies because their products were labelled “all natural” despite containing GM ingredients.  According to the US Food and Drug Administration, it does not object to such a label if the product doesn't have “added colour, artificial flavour, or synthetic substances”.  Consumers do not agree.
The net outcome is that food companies, ever sensitive to their customers' demands and the cost of litigation, are ditching the “all natural” labels for ones that the folks out there find more credible.  As one seasoned food blogger points out:
“These food manufacturers are changing their packaging largely because they contain GMOs.  The lawsuits are making it not worth it for the companies to label foods all natural.  But, many of these companies are the same ones that are saying that it would be expensive to change their packaging if they were required to label GMOs and they'd have to pass that expense on to consumers.  But, they are quietly changing their packaging anyway because it's beneficial to them.”
As the USDA gets ready to approve the latest fresh GM food, 'Arctic' non-browning apples, for marketing, trend-setters McDonalds and Gerber Products announced they would not use the fruit.  These GM apples may well come to lie, in unblemished splendour, where they fall.
Also in the regulatory pipeline is a new GMO salmon engineered with the genes of an ocean pout to grow faster.  This has already been rejected by numerous major supermarket chains in the US, representing nearly 5,000 stores nationwide.
Curious about the fate of another fresh GM product already out there, Friends of the Earth did some market research.  Now in its third year of production, Monsanto's 'Seminis' sweetcorn is stacked with artificial genes for insect-resistance and tolerance to herbicides.  When 71 samples of fresh, frozen and canned sweetcorn from eight areas across the US were tested, only two were GM, one of which could be traced to Canada while the other was of unknown origin. 
Compare this with a similar investigation by the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network which found 35% of sweetcorn from a range of retailers tested positive for GM in their country.
How much GM is present in other maize products can probably be judged from recent testing in South Africa which concluded that “All our brands of maize meal have extremely high levels of GM maize, which effectively means that the majority of South Africans are being force-fed GM maize without their knowledge or consent”.  This includes baby foods.
It seems Americans are wary enough of GM sweetcorn to be keeping it out of the market place.  Something similar might happen when their reservations expand to encompass other GM maize products and animal feed.  And there are signs in the world of US farming that this awareness might already have begun.
Against a relentless background of TV and print advertisements touting the latest GM seed technology, pockets of commodity growers across the US are changing course.
Staring at a future with GM traits which, only five years down the line, don't work like they used to, plus lower corn prices and higher inputs, farmers brave enough to buck the GM trend have found better yields and profit margins from planting conventional crops, especially in locations where identity-preserved non-GM corn attracts a premium.  
With the GM industry in control of the market, getting hold of old-fashioned seed can be a problem. Biotech companies continue to make conventional seed available to their dealers, but make sure that the price is high enough not to lure customers away from their GM offerings.  However, smaller companies specialising in non-GM seed have leapt into the breach, and some are reported to be growing at a rate of 30-100% per year.


America in 2013 seems to have become a place where people are, at last, objecting to the idea of industry having legal rights over their health, and are willing to take to the streets to make their point.  It's also become a place where old-fashioned market forces, rather than industry propaganda, are finally beginning to shape what's appearing on the store shelves and what's growing in farmers' fields.
Most importantly, GM is getting bad press in America.  


The US Organic Consumers' Association (OCA) tells us that the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents more than 300 food manufacturers and trade groups, wants the Food and Drug Administration to guarantee food companies the right to continue misleading American consumers with 'all natural' labels on GM foods. 

If you have friends or relatives in the US they might be interested in a petition organized by the OCA to to ‘Tell the FDA: GMOs Aren't Natural’: (


·       Elizabeth Royte, The Post-GMO Economy, from Modern Farmer, Food and Environment Reporting Network,, 6.12.13

·       Connor Adams Sheets, GMO apples rejected by McDonald's, Gerber as Washing to labeling defeat neared, Internai5tonal Business Times, 7.11.13

·       Update on Testing, African Centre for Biosafety, December 2013

·       Robin Shreeves, 'All Natural' labels are disappearing off processed foods, Mother Nature Network, 12.11.13

·       GMO sweetcorn rare in US supermarkets, Friends of the Earth News Release, 16.11.13

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