Consumers Say No to Genetic Engineering
April 6, 1999 – published in St. Paul Pioneer Press
In the annals of consumerism, there has never been anything quite like the revolt against genetically engineered food. It is a fascinating story, an epic struggle between consumers and industry and government over the definition of the word “natural”.
Two powerful historical forces have collided–the astonishing growth in the cultivation of genetically engineered crops and the equally remarkable growth in the sales of organic foods.
American agriculture has embraced genetic engineering with unprecedented speed. Four years ago genetically modified(GM) seeds were not available. Last year, 40 million acres of potatoes, corn, soybeans and cotton were planted with such seeds. Twenty five percent of corn and 40 percent of soybeans were genetically altered. Monsanto predicts that next year 100 percent of the soybean crop could be GM.
And since soy is used in 60 percent or more of all processed foods and corn constitutes 70 percent of all chicken feed, a majority of the products on American supermarket shelves may soon contain genetically modified components.
While genetically modified crops have all but taken over American agriculture, organic foods have been capturing an ever-larger share of the retail market. Organic foods are the fastest growing segment of the American food industry. With sales of more than $4 billion last year, the industry has been growing by 25-30 percent annually, not only in the U.S., but in Europe and Japan.
Back in 1990, Congress set the stage for confrontation when it enacted a law that required the U.S. Department of Agriculture(USDA) to issue national organic standards. At the time organic farmers were few and far between and genetically modified crops did not exist.
In December 1997 the USDA finally issued organic standards. It recommended that genetically engineered crops be considered natural foods.
Consumers of organic products went berserk. Almost 300,000 comments were received by the USDA on the proposed standards. The public was overwhelmingly opposed to defining GM as natural. One evaluation of the first comments received by USDA found that only 18 favored genetic engineering being considered organic while 83,081 were opposed.
In May of last year USDA threw in the towel. Secretary Glickman withdrew the proposed rules and announced that any future rules would not allow for genetically engineered foods. The USDA is supposed to issue new rules this year, but an aroused and wary organics industry is feverishly working with the 11 state and 30 private organic certification organizations to develop their own uniform national standards.
In Europe, the consumer revolt against genetically engineered crops and foods is far more advanced, in part because their farmers have been slower to use GM and in part because after the mad cow disease debacle, European consumers distrust government pronouncements about the health and safety of their food.
In recent weeks the consumer revolt against GM has changed the European retail landscape. In March a British law went into effect which imposes stiff fines on shops and supermarkets that fail to label any food which contains genetically modified soy and corn. Remarkably, the British Retail Consortium, representing 90 percent of British retailers, including the American giant Safeway, issued a statement saying the government legislation did not go far enough to help consumers!
Major chains like Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury in England, Carrefour in France, Superquinn in Ireland and Migros in Switzerland announced a few weeks ago that they will remove all GM ingredients from their own brand products. Shortly thereafter Burger King and Domino Pizza and Kentucky Fried Chicken announced they would no longer use genetically modified ingredients. More than 200 top Irish chefs are demanding assurances that the food they receive from suppliers has not been genetically modified.
The European consumer revolt against genetically altered foods could exacerbate the current economic crisis affecting American farmers. As Undersecretary of State Stuart E. Eizenstat notes, “Close to 100 percent of our agricultural exports will have a GM component in the next couple of years…” American farmers have been willing to pay a higher price for GM seeds because they have increased yields or lowered production costs. But now they are finding that they cannot sell them in Europe and, if organic labels come into effect in the U.S., they might even be shut out of increasing portions of American markets.
Are genetically modified organisms bad for the environment or for our health? Conclusive evidence is not yet in. Scientists continue to vigorously debate these issues. But it does appear that at least for now, the marketplace has spoken. As Londoner John Griffith explained to USA Today, “I’d rather stick to nature”.