As much as I know about the negative health and environmental impacts of genetically modified foods, I'll be the first to say that I likely eat these foods daily. Shopping the perimeter of the store, making my own condiments and limiting how often I eat out isn't enough to avoid GM ingredients which are estimated to appear in roughly 75 percent of all processed foods.
Alleging natural products retailers aren't doing enough to fight the pervasiveness of genetically modified foods in their stores, earlier this year Organic Consumer Association members dressed in white hazmat suits and protested in front of Chicago Whole Foods stores. During part of the demonstration, the non-profit activist group dramatically trashed several well-known health food brands including Tofutti, Kashi and Boca.
"No one would guess that there are genetically engineered foods right here in Whole Foods," said Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director of the OCA to the Chicago Tribune.
While I fully understand his fervor, I wonder if retailers can truly be blamed for the prevalence of GMOs in our food system. Certainly, unquestioning consumers and politically-armed biotech companies should also be held accountable. I also wonder, as the nation begins to wake up to the threats of GMOs, the most effective way to proceed in taking action against these toxic ingredients.
I frequently speak with retailers involved in the issue. As much as many would like to just stop stocking GM-contaminated products, it's not that easy. Kicking out popular brands in many cases would be prohibitive to the bottom line. Encouraging more companies to go GM-free is also challenging as manufacturers find it increasingly costly to secure unadulterated corn, soy and canola.
Retailers are the link between the manufacturer and consumer, which is likely a key reason activist groups have put them in the spotlight, but for stores to successfully take a stand requires a thoughtful approach. How should retailers work with manufacturers? When should products be banned? What are the pros and cons of labeling and how should customers be educated?
I will be leading a discussion with three prominent retailers who are working to answer these very questions on Thursday, Sept. 22, during an education session at Natural Products Expo East in Baltimore. Titled "Just Say No to GMO's: Strategies for GMO-Free Retailing," panelists will suggest initiatives that have worked in their stores and invite open dialogue and questions from the audience.
If you're a retailer grappling with these issues in your store, a concerned consumer or manufacturer, please come and take part in what I suspect will be a lively discussion. It's my belief that successfully addressing this issue isn't as easy as picketing the local natural products store. All parties along the supply chain—from grower to manufacturer and consumer—will ultimately need to come together if we're really to succeed in taking an effective stand against biotech foods.