Creating Choice for Consumers

Thought for Food

The debate about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is heating up around the world. As the label debate stalls in the US, the European Parliament recently voted for mandatory labeling of all products that contain 0.5 percent or more of genetically engineered (GE) ingredients. The vote is being hotly contested by the US, which exports billions of dollars’ worth of genetically modified crops. The US recently threatened to bring litigation against the EU via the World Trade Organization, saying that the labeling violates WTO export rules.

With all of this wrangling over the issue, consumers have been taking notice. As a result, steady opposition to foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients is continuing to grow worldwide. According to a recent survey by Natural Marketing Institute, 40 percent of consumers are concerned about the presence of GMOs in their food. The natural foods industry in the US, which has grown from $1.9 billion in 1980 to $16.2 billion in 2001, is also taking notice, and is responding to the demand to put non-GE foods on the grocery store shelves. In November 2001, natural foods retailing giant Trader Joe’s announced that it will only offer products under the Trader’s Joe’s label that are free of genetically engineered ingredients, stating the majority of their customers preferred non-GMO products. In June 2002, activist demonstrations against the use of genetically engineered foods took place in 100 US cities. Protestors targeted multi-chain retailers, including Safeway, Shaw’s, Publix, Food Lion and others, bringing the concerns of consumers to the attention of mainstream supermarket chains. Already, natural foods retailers like Whole Foods and Wild Oats have responded to consumers by pledging to remove GE ingredients from their store brand products.

With GE crops covering more than one-quarter of all US cropland, it’snearly impossible for consumers to avoid buying products with GE ingredients. But there is hope, and food manufacturers are finding ways to source non-GMO ingredients to create choice in the grocery aisle.

One such manufacturer is Vermont-based Drew’s All Natural, which has been producing all-natural salad dressing/marinades and organic salsas for the past eight years. Two years ago, CEO/Chef Drew Starkweather decided to make all his company’s products completely free of GMOs. “Public awareness about GMOs was just beginning and I knew that making our products non-GMO was the right thing to do. Sure, it costs us more and we still need to compete price-wise, but what is the cost if we alter all of our food crops and then find out it was a bad idea? Our mission has always been to produce high quality products at reasonable prices while creating a company concerned with the planet and its inhabitants,” says Starkweather.

In business, however, balancing personal values and mission with the bottom line can sometimes be a difficult task. “Tracking down, verifying and purchasing non-GMO ingredients is more time consuming and more expensive for us, but I think it’s worth it to us and to the consumer,” says Starkweather. Drew’s All Natural’s business has doubled each year over the past eight years, proving that the consumer demand for GMO-free products is there for pioneering companies.

Lightlife Foods is also at the forefront of producing GMO-free products. Since 1979, Lightlife has been creating soy-based products such as Tempeh, Tofu Pups, Smart Bacon and other vegetarian meat substitutes and it is now the leading brand of vegetarian and soy-based foods in the US.

Lightlife is strongly committed to providing its consumers with GMO-free products. The company uses only “identity-preserved” soy ingredients, which have been tracked from seed to store to ensure that they’re not genetically modified. They test and retest their finished products to ensure that they do not contain any genetically modified soy.

But according to Claire Burnett, Lightlife’s Acting Director of Research and Development, six years ago the company was not aware that genetic engineering was even an issue. “Back in ’96, when Monsanto first released its genetically engineered Round-Up Ready soybeans, we started getting calls from our consumers. Until then we didn’t even know our ingredients could have been genetically engineered. We immediately started contacting our suppliers,” says Burnett.

Lightlife soon learned that there was no way to know whether the soy ingredients they were purchasing were genetically engineered or not. After Monsanto submitted its research on Round-Up Ready soybeans to the USDA, the government approved them, claiming there was no difference between these GE soybeans and those that were conventionally grown. Because the USDA viewed these soybeans as a commodity, they were handled the same as conventional soybeans and were released into the food supply.

It is common practice for independent farmers to sell their soybeans to brokers, who collect soybeans from multiple sources, store in them silos, and sell on demand. Co-mingling of soybeans from many different farmers to fill a silo is typical. When the GE soybeans were first harvested, no segregation took place. “There was no way to know where the Round-Up ready soybeans were going,” says Burnett. “Because there were no co-mingling requirements, we were possibly using GE soybeans and we didn’t even know it.”

In the past three years, however, major growers and suppliers have learned how to segregate GE crops from conventional crops, although the boundaries are shaky. “Public demand has really driven this issue,” says Burnett. “It’s a very emotional issue for people. It’s the fear of the unknown, a lack of trust in the government, and a basic belief that maybe we just shouldn’t be messing around with nature in this way. People are wanting to take back control of the food supply.”

Public demand continues to be the driving force behind bringing the issue of genetic engineering to the forefront of political debate. With global opposition to GE crops increasing in Europe, China, Africa and other countries, the US is being forced to recognize that must heed consumer demand if it is to remain competitive. At the WTO market opening talks in August, Reuters reported a USDA representative admitting, “Commodity segregation to meet various customer needs is becoming essential to capture markets and values.”

But will consumer demand win out over the billion-dollar biotech industry’s lobby to promote genetic engineering? While the US is beginning to cave amid growing global demand, its regulation of GMOs remains non-commital. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy recently suggested that GE crops undergo a preliminary assessment before they become so large that contamination would be likely. The assessment itself, however, would not be required. The USDA announced it would create a crop and supply chain segregation system to verify if exports of US corn, soybeans and other crops had been genetically altered. Again, US companies would not be required to use the system.

For manufacturers like Drew’s All Natural and Lightlife Foods, finding and using non-genetically modified ingredients is possible today. However, manufacturers may not be able continue to afford to produce GMO-free foods if multinational corporations continue to drive down the costs of farming with GE seeds. Will farmers and suppliers be able to adequately maintain control over contamination if biotech companies continue to lobby against public outcry for further testing and research?

According to Starkweather, “Right now the costs of sourcing non-GMO ingredients is do-able, but in the future if contamination of non-GMO crops can’t somehow be managed, there will be fewer options and the costs will be driven up. I’m dedicated to staying non-GMO, and the consumer demand is there too. I think I have a right to know what I’m eating and what I’m feeding my children. As a food manufacturer, I want to give consumers that same choice.”

Kristen Cichocki is a freelance writer and Ada Comstock Scholar at Smith College, where she studies law, trade and public policy issues.

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