Natural Foods Merchandiser

Saying no to GMOs: Activist launches new initiatives

by Mitchell Clute

The Institute for Responsible Technology, founded in 2003 to stop genetically modified foods and crops through grassroots and national strategies, is launching The Campaign for Healthier Eating in America, which will include non-GMO education centers that retailers can place in their stores. The education centers will include DVDs, audio CDs, books and brochures, a quiz on GMOs to help educate store staff, and a copy of the new European anti-GMO film The World According to Monsanto, which retailers are encouraged to screen for customers.

"I started the institute with the mission to end genetic engineering of the food supply and stop the outdoor release of GMOs," said Jeffrey Smith, executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology and author of Genetic Roulette (Chelsea Green, 2007) and Seeds of Deception (Yes! Books, 2003).

Smith has traveled the globe for the past five years meeting with anti-GMO activists, and his campaign's strategy is a compilation of the best approaches and tactical plans he encountered in his travels.

The good news, Smith said, is that the natural products industry alone has the strength of numbers to effect far-reaching and permanent changes to the U.S. food market, natural or otherwise. "We don't need to wait for government to give us a choice," he said. "We can do it ourselves. If we were to convince 15 million people in the U.S., or 5 percent of the population, to conscientiously avoid GM foods, that would be more than enough to force them out of the market, because for large companies like Kraft and General Mills, that represents millions of dollars in lost sales."

Smith believes a grassroots campaign is more effective than an attempt to change political policy, because the biotech industry has such a powerful lobby. Instead, he is urging retailers to empower customers by ordering the non-GMO kits free of charge at The kit comes with a freestanding display, and the Web site also provides supporting materials such as signage and newsletter content for stores to use.

"When consumers reject GMOs, it makes them a marketing liability to food companies."

The campaign has received the support of natural and organic distributor UNFI, which is stocking the kits and has offered to deliver, free of charge, monthly updates listing all companies committed to using only non-GMO sources for their products. "UNFI has been an active supporter of efforts to eliminate GMOs from the natural products industry as well as the food supply in general," said Michael Funk, president and CEO of UNFI, based in Dayville, Conn.

His company is also closely involved in the Non-GMO Project, a coalition of natural products industry businesses that has worked to create a standardized third-party-verification program for non-GMO foods.

Smith points to the European Union's swift rejection of GMO foods in 1999, as well as efforts in the U.S. to work with dairies to get rid of milk containing the growth hormone rGBH—efforts that were eventually supported by Starbuck's, Wal-Mart and 40 of the 100 largest U.S. dairies—as examples of how a "tipping point" can be reached through consumer reaction.

"When consumers reject GMOs, it makes them a marketing liability to food companies and ensures their swift removal," Smith said. "If we can provide clear non-GMO choices and clean out all GMO ingredients from natural manufacturers, we can drive the national food industry away from GMOs and provide the tipping point for the entire nation to drive GMOs out of our food supply." Smith believes that, once consumers know of these organisms' inherent danger, not just to agriculture but to livestock and human health, this knowledge will create a groundswell of grassroots activism, which retailers can foster through the education kit.

Funk would like to see help from another quarter—the national media. "The issue is pretty complex," he said. "The key is to get the media to report on it, because there isn't any way to move enough people without some positive media coverage. So far, that's been a problem."

Mitchell Clute is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 11/p.

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