by Jeff Clemetson, Editor
Last week saw a lot of action in the fight for natural foods. Leading the headlines was Whole Foods Markets who announced that they wouldn’t carry any products that aren’t properly labeled as containing GMOs in any of their stores by the year 2018. Whole Foods, as some of you might remember, was called out last year by the Organic Consumers Association for its inaction in supporting a statewide GMO labeling law in California. Only days before the election, Whole Foods announced support for Proposition 37, but failed to support the campaign with any meaningful donations. Proposition 37 lost, partly because it was so heavily outspent by Monsanto and other chemical companies who are largely invested in producing chemically produced GMO foods. Here is part of the statement form the Whole Foods Website:
“Our goal at Whole Foods Market is to provide informed consumer choice with regard to genetically engineered ingredients (also known as GMOs or Genetically Modified Organisms). Clearly labeled products enable shoppers who want to avoid foods made with GMOs to do so. Accordingly, we have set a deadline that, by 2018, all products in our U.S. and Canadian stores must be labeled to indicate whether they contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Whole Foods Market is the first national grocery chain to set a deadline for full GMO transparency.”
The reaction to Whole Foods announcement that they will require the products in their stores to be labeled if they contain GMOs has been about as lukewarm as the announcement itself. First of all, why five years? Products that contain GMOs already have to be labeled if they are sold overseas. (Most other countries already have label requirements or have outright bans on GMO foods.) This means that 90 percent of all products already have a packaging system ready to properly label GMO foods. My best guess is that most of the “natural” products at Whole Foods and especially Whole Foods brand products contain GMOs and are slowly moving to organic. It takes several years to clean the chemicals out of soil so it can be certified as organic. The other reason is that people who already can spend the extra money buying healthier food are now turned off by Whole Foods because they were so wishy-washy on Prop 37. And now there are many more choices for health food stores than just Whole Foods, both in retail stores and online.
While I believe that Whole Foods’ GMO label requirement is nothing more than a desperate attempt to get back in good graces with its health-conscious clientele, I think this move is going to be very good for people’s health and the health of the environment. The move isn’t “too little, too late,” it’s more like “just right – but too late.” Whole Foods carries a lot of products that are made by large conglomerate agricultural businesses. By forcing these companies to second guess whether to use GMOs in their products, Whole Foods is in the position to enact some real change. I believe that the organic movement is best served by small family farms that offer local foods, but forcing Big Ag to abandon chemicals can do a lot to save the planet in the long run.
And speaking of small family farmers and grassroots activism, Hawaii has become the center of the anti-GMO universe this moth with several large protests and even action taken up by the state legislature. On Tuesday, Hawaii became one step closer to being the first state to pass a GMO labeling law as the House sent a final bill to the Senate for a vote. The Hawaii bill, HB 174, was initially written to label all GMO products but has since been watered down to be just a GMO importing bill. Still, the bill has given hope to the people of Hawaii that further change is possible.
“It sends a message definitely to the FDA from our beloved Hawaii nei by the Hawaii state House that represents her people that we want labeling of GE foods, the right to know what GE is in our foods and the right to protect our genetic lineages,” said activist Unmani Cynthia Groves in a statement to Sustainable Pulse.
Throughout the month of March, protests against GMO crops are planned on almost every island and marches that have already happened have numbered in the thousands. Hawaiian health food store chain Down To Earth has even beaten Whole Foods to the punch and has required GMO labels on any products it carries that contain them.
Along with Hawaii, another state has made signifigant legislative progress on GMO labeling. Vermont’s labeling bill, H.112, has just cleared an important hurdle by passing through the state’s House Agricultural Committee last week. The bill is now in front of the Judiciary Committee and will then go to the floor for a vote where it is positioned to pass with strong support – 50 members of the House and 11 senators have signed on to the bill as cosponsors for the bill.
The bill has a somewhat confusing timeline for when the labeling would go into effect – 18 months after at least two other states pass similar labeling laws or 24 months after the bill passes in Vermont, whichever comes first. The biggest hurdle for the law right now is not its passage but what happens after it passes. Biotech and chemical companies are sure to sue the state over the required labeling. Vermont has even set the precedent of getting sued over labeling and loosing in the past. In 1994, large dairy companies sued Vermont for requiring them to label whether their milk contained growth hormones like rBST. A 2nd circuit court judge ruled that the labeling requirement was unconstitutional because it forced dairies to choose speech over silence.
Considering the corporate-leaning Roberts Supreme Court, it would be hard to imagine Vermont or Hawaii winning legal battles over labeling – despite overwhelming public support for the labeling of GMO foods. Unfortunately it seems the people’s voice will not be heard on this matter. But it is likely that Big Ag companies will have to listen to other corporate giants, such as Whole Foods. No matter how many labeling laws states pass between now and then, we may have to wait until 2018 to see labels on our food after all.