The U.S. Department of Agriculture's recent decision to deregulate genetically modified alfalfa is affecting more than organic dairies and grass-fed ranchers worried about feeding cattle GMO contaminated crops. Natural foods retailers fear the decision will make it harder to stock organic products throughout the store.
While natural foods store owners may know a lot about GMOs, manufacturers of packaged goods could unwittingly include GMO contaminated ingredients in natural products as they become more ubiquitous throughout the supply chain, said Jay Jacobowitz, founder and president of Retail Insights, a Battleboro, Vt.-based consulting service for natural products retailers. You have to ask questions, if you want to be sure what you're selling is legitimate, and do your research, he said. "It is difficult for a retailer to take the time to research all of this, though some do," he added.
Because the USDA ruling did not provide restrictions on planting GMO alfalfa next to organic crops, retailers say even if they can trace a crop to the field, it's no guarantee it's not been cross contaminated.
"Certainly this will make it very difficult, if not impossible, for organic producers to maintain the future integrity of their crops and therefore for retailers to feel confident we are selling products we can truly trust," said Michael Kanter, chief visionary officer for Cambridge Naturals a natural foods store based in Cambridge, Mass.
Eli Lesser-Goldsmith, part owner and general manager of Healthy Living Market based in Burlington, Vt. echoed the sentiment. "This decision will affect everything in the store because cross-pollination is eminent," he said. "Europe has resisted the use of GMOs, why can't United States should follow suit?"
Natural foods retailers said their first line of defense against GMOs is actively limiting the availability of GMO contaminated products in their stores and looking for items certified by the Non-GMO Project, a non-profit organization committed to preserving and building sources of non-GMO products. Many retailers also said they try to provide in-store education on the dangers of GMOs.
"We talk about genetically modified foods in our store, write about them in our store’s newsletter and last month showed the movie 'The Future of Food.' We also served a totally terrific non-GM dinner. Did that change public policy? No, and it feels inadequate, but it's a start," said Debra Stark, owner of Debra's Natural Gourmet a Concord, Mass. Natural foods store.
Nationally, organic advocates plan to challenge the USDA's decision. The Center for Food Safety, is preparing legal action against the deregulation which hopes to more strictly regulate and eventually ban the use of GMOs that can contaminate organic crops—something natural foods retailers said they would welcome.
"Our health and welfare and that of our future generations depends on conscientious people who care deeply for what it means to be 'natural,' " Kanter said."How 'natural' is genetic modification of seeds with toxic chemicals? To that regard, we support the work of the Organic Consumers Association and other advocacy groups that challenge businesses that seek to control the future of our agricultural production and ultimately our health and well being."