Nationally mandated GMO labeling, Free market, consumer activism winning America’s food fight

By Shelby Sebens, 

 While lawmakers battle corporate food giants and anti-genetically modified food activists over government mandated labeling, the free market is one step ahead of them all.

So far, California and Washington have failed to pass government mandated GMO labeling, and Oregon will be the next to take it to the ballot. Federal lawmakers, including Oregon’s Peter DeFazio, a Democrat, have proposed a nationally mandated GMO labeling program. Earlier this week, news broke that the country’s food giants are pushing for a voluntary labeling system instead.

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While the government takes its time to work out a solution that will likely fail to appease all sides, the private sector is already moving ahead. Case in point: General Mills announced earlier this week it will sell non-GMO Cheerios,

Whole Foods plans to ensure that all the food it sells will be labeled for GMOs by 2018 and a nonprofit organization called the Non-GMO Project is already undertaking labeling on its own. Sales of non-GMO products have reached $3.5 billion since the non-GMO labeling launched in the private sector in 2010, according to the Non-GMO Project.

“The concern is that Congress will inevitably get it wrong,” Baylen Linnekin, executive director of the non-profit Keep Food Legal told Northwest Watchdog. While some criticized General Mills for using non-GMO as a marketing ploy, Linnken said it’s proof the market is playing this out on its own.

“That’s what the free market is,” he said. “Consumer demand trumps. That’s why VHS won and Beta lost.”

Genetically modified crops are basically foods that have been engineered to resist herbicides and fight off insects. The jury is still out on GMOs in the public realm, but they’re legal and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Linnekin, whose nonprofit doesn’t take a side on GMOs, said a voluntary national labeling system is appealing because it would stop state-by-state patchwork regulations that could open farmers and others up to lawsuits. But, on the other hand, it puts Congress in charge of the standards as well as defining the term “natural.”

“I don’t think that Congress has any better sense of what that might be than I do,” he said.

Meanwhile, the demand for non-GMO products grows and consumers have more information than ever at their fingertips.

Take PCC Natural Markets out of Washington state, for example. Roxanne Green, health and beauty care coordinator for the Redmond PCC, told Northwest Watchdog the cooperative food store informs customers in its newsletter about non-GMO products and displays the non-GMO certified tags visibly.

The Natural Products Association, of which she is the president, supports a national labeling standard instead of state laws because varying legislation can be difficult for vendors.

“How many labels is that company going to have to come up with?” she asked.

But GMOs are already largely being labeled without the government stepping in. When it comes to government labeling in the past, the free market has had to step in anyway.

In 2002, when the federal government initiated the National Organic Program, farmers almost immediately wanted an alternative. Enter Certified Naturally Grown, a nonprofit organization that formed to give small farmers another option to avoid the lengthy paperwork and expense that can come with government programs.

The organization now has 700 farmers, executive director Alice Varon told Northwest Watchdog.

“I think there’s an important role for us to play that the National Organic Program can’t play,” she said, adding that the nonprofit couldn’t handle the entire organic food sector.

“There’s a need for both,” she said.

In the end, there’s only so much labels can do.

“I feel like everyone needs to take responsibility for what they put in their mouths,” Varon said. “We shouldn’t be tricked, obviously. We shouldn’t’ be told something’s natural when it’s made in a laboratory. (But) you can’t totally rely on labels. The world’s too complex for that.”

As the demand for more transparency and information on food has grown, the market has responded.

“People can avoid GMOs if they want to,” Linnekin said.

Contact Shelby Sebens at Shelby@NorthwestWatchdog.org

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