Playing a state-by-state game of whack-a-mole with grassroots groups trying to pass laws across the country (as is occurring in Washington state, Vermont, New Mexico, and Connecticut) may simply have become too exhausting and costly for these companies. If so, such an about-face would vindicate GMO opponents’ strategy of a direct appeal to consumers. GMO-labeling advocates may have succeeded in beginning to drive a wedge between biotechnology seed companies, like Monsanto and Syngenta, and the food companies that have to sell what’s produced with their wares.
That’s because GMOs, for all the claims made on their behalf, actually provide very little benefit to consumers — one of the strongest arguments against them. GMO innovations to date have simply allowed farmers to plant vast acreages of commodity crops like corn, soy, and cotton with less labor (but not, despite industry claims, with fewer chemicals). It’s on this basis, perhaps, that food companies felt like the fight wasn’t really theirs.
I first learned of this possible labeling sea change through an article by Ronnie Cummins, head of the Organic Consumers Association, who caught wind of news that a group of food companies went into the FDA earlier this month to “lobby for a mandatory federal GMO labeling law.”
Cummins went on to speculate the following:
Is it possible that the threat posed by the growing grassroots GMO labeling movement has prompted a number of Fortune 500 corporations to abandon Monsanto and the biotech industry, and rethink the PR and bottom-line costs of clinging to their anti-right-to-know positions? After all, it’s not as if these companies are incapable of making GMO-free products. Though many Americans don’t know it, Walmart, General Mills, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nestle, Unilever, Kellogg’s, Starbucks — even McDonald’s — are GMO-free in Europe, thanks to strict GMO labeling laws.I have been able to confirm through sources close to attendees that such a meeting did occur on Jan. 11. It did not take place at the FDA, however, though FDA representatives did reportedly attend. The meeting was “sponsored” by the AGree Foundation, which is a coalition of foundations active in agriculture and co-chaired by former Clinton Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman and Gary Hirshberg, CEO of Stonyfield Farm Organics.
I was also able to confirm that, as Cummins claimed, a Walmart vice president did announce that the company would no longer take a lead in opposing GMO labeling efforts. Other food company executives agreed, saying that the fight had become too expensive, especially given the prospect of more state-level initiatives. And if Walmart moves to support, or rather to no longer oppose, GMO labels, others will certainly follow. (Walmart did not respond to my requests for comment.)
Of course, supporters of GMOs will likely cluck disapprovingly at the idea that food companies might turn on Monsanto. They are, after all, forever pointing to the potential genetically modified crops have to solve the various problems we face. But to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you plant with the GMOs you have, not the GMOs you might want or wish to have. And the ones we have don’t do any of the things proponents argue that we need, such as significantly boost yields, disease resistance, or nutrition.
In fact, existing GMO seeds do little more than enable chemical-based, fossil-fueled monocrops — the kind of farming that is least sustainable and most subject to climate shocks and resource limits. Nor do the products currently in the pipeline hold much promise. The much-heralded drought-tolerant seeds Monsanto released last year aren’t particularly drought tolerant. The big new GMO seed from DuPont currently awaiting USDA approval would simply allow farmers to douse it with a super-toxic Agent Orange ingredient.
The best you can say about GMOs’ consumer benefit is that by “simplifying” commodity agriculture, they keep commodity prices lower. But food companies will tell you that commodity costs are a small part of the retail price (most of which is actually marketing costs). So why on Earth should Walmart, Cargill, and General Mills keep spending hundreds of millions fighting Monsanto’s battles?
Still, it’s unknown whether anything will come of this “secret” meeting or if an industry-supported GMO label would be a weak, sheep-in-wolf’s-clothing version. For what it’s worth, Cummins did invoke the cautionary example of Japan, which enacted industry-sponsored GMO labeling that he considers chock full of loopholes.
But it may be that food companies realize that GMO labeling is an inevitability. After all, 61 countries already require it, and the World Health Organization’s food safety standards group has official, internationally approved guidelines for any country wishing to label GMOs. We’re the laggards on this issue, not the pioneers.
If I’m hopeful, it’s also because past history suggests the FDA will regulate upon request — if the right folks ask.
For example, in March 2012, the FDA rejected a petition from the Natural Resources Defense Council to ban the use of the endocrine-disrupting chemical bipshenol-A in plastic. The agency stated at the time that it didn’t have the scientific data to support a ban (despite calls for a ban from many experts, including leading endocrinologists). This decision wasn’t entirely a surprise, however. Two years earlier, the FDA claimed it didn’t have the authority to ban bisphenol-A, even if it wanted to. Which it didn’t.
But then a funny thing happened. It turned out that the industry group the American Chemistry Council, with support from food companies — all presumably sick of the bad publicity and boycotts related to BPA — had filed its own petition to ban BPA in baby bottles and other children’s products. And while the FDA rejected the NRDC petition, in July of 2012 it accepted the industry petition for a partial ban. It was a classic case of “You say, ‘jump,’ I say, ‘how high?’”
Of course, even if the FDA doesn’t immediately start a process to label GMOs, it’s good news that food companies are ready to opt out of the political battle. With battles over GMO labeling gearing up in states across the country, we’ll soon find out if food companies will make good on this threat to biotech interests.
Advocates, meanwhile, can clearly smell Monsanto’s fear. Dave Murphy, of Food Democracy Now and one of the main architects of the GMO labeling movement, promised in an email that “come hell or high water, we will have labeling by the end of 2014.”
Labeling may come even sooner than that, however. With the prospect of final FDA approval for the first genetically modified fish designed for human consumption, AquaBounty’s AquAdvantage salmon, some states are moving quickly. Missouri has introduced a bill that would require labels for any genetically engineered meat or fish. The FDA itself may feel compelled to require a label as the “price” for approving the salmon. And once one kind of GMO food is labeled, how long can it be before others are?