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Retailers hold the key to kicking GMOs out of our food

Manufacturers such as Nestle and Kraft don't use genetically engineered ingredients in products destined for European stores. Strict laws on GMOs and myriad protests when the technology was first introduced sent a pretty clear message to companies early on—"no crap in our food, please." The billions of pounds of GE corn, soy and canola produced yearly are instead reserved for shoppers everywhere else—including the U.S. While European consumers won't stand for this junk in their food, (so far) we will, and since GE ingredients are often cheaper (thanks, subsidies) there's no reason for food companies to bother with EU formulations in all products.

Because most countries haven't mobilized against GMOs, the bioengineered foods business continues to boom. Monsanto, the St. Louis, Missouri-based agricultural giant that owns most genetically modified seeds, grew its net income by 77 percent to $680 million in the third quarter according to an earnings report released by the company this week.

What would it take to slow Monsanto's roll and kick GMOs out of the U.S. food system? We certainly can't count on the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Food and Drug Administration to take a stand against genetic modification since biotech supporters are embedded in these government organizations. Even seemingly philanthropic Bill Gates has been duped by Monsanto's claim that GE crops can solve world hunger.  It's up to us, and in many ways, up to retailers to clear up confusion and incite change.

If five percent of U.S. shoppers stop purchasing products with suspect GE ingredients, it would be enough to create a tipping point that would draw the attention of major food manufactures, estimates Jeffrey Smith, executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology. Approximately 40 percent of all shoppers said they frequented a natural foods store within the last three months, according to a survey from Natural Marketing Institutes' 2010 Health & Wellness Trends Database.  When you also consider natural products shoppers are typically trend setters when it comes to addressing issues of health and wellness, natural products retailers are in a particularly valuable position.  

"Those who make purchasing decisions based on what they understand to be healthy for them is the demographic we need to reach," Smith says. "These people go to natural products stores and are ready to listen to the wisdom of the staff; they're also more likely to read retailers' newsletters and visit their websites."

Luckily, the work has already begun. The introduction of the Non-GMO Project's Non-GMO Verified Label in 2008 is already gaining traction with manufacturers and consumers. Sales in the combined natural and conventional retail channels rose 25.3 percent for Non-GMO Project Verified products in 2010 according to Schaumburg, Ill.-based market research firm SPINS. Here are a few ways some retailers are carrying that momentum forward in their stores. 

Make your store a non-GMO oasis. Jimbo's Naturally, a four-store natural foods chain based in San Diego, Calif. refuses to carry any new product that contains GM-suspect ingredients such as corn, soy, canola or beet sugar unless the item is certified by the Non-GMO Project. Store owner Jimbo Someck also encourages all manufacturers to consider enrolling with the non-profit organization. "Not only do these actions support the non-GMO movement, but if a store can go 100 percent GMO free, you can imagine the considerable marketing opportunity for retailers," Smith advocates. 

Educate everyone. In addition to a well-educated staff and a non-GMO education center that includes free shopping guides and health risk brochures for customers, Kansas City, Mo.-based Nature's Pantry wrote an advertorial on the risks associated with GMOs in the Kansas City Star—a newspaper  with a circulation of more than 170,000.  The store also frequently screens, "The World According to Monsanto," hosts non-GMO speakers and includes educational articles in their newsletter that highlight the health and environmental issues associated with GMOs.  

Partner with non-GMO activist groups. Denver-based Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage partnered with Smith's Institute for Responsible Technology to create "Colorado says No to GMOs" day. The event included a rally on the steps of the capitol that was covered by local media. The week leading up to the rally, shoppers at participating stores received the day's itinerary in their shopping bags and were invited to attend. In collaboration with IRT, the store also organized speaker training sessions (open to shoppers) to teach staffers how to address GMOs with customers.  

What can your store do to take a stand? 

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