Curious customers can be great for a produce department. The more questions they ask, the better chance they get something they're going to be happy with, and the better chance they'll be back for more. But what happens when they ask questions you can't answer?
What exactly is a GMO? Are your cranberries genetically modified? How about that bag of conventional navel oranges? Do you stock any of that produce with extra vitamins built in?
Unless your produce department is 100 percent organic, you may have some questions lurking in your bins. The United States does not require labeling for altered foods, so if you sell conventional produce, you may be selling genetically modified foods. If that's the case, you'd better be prepared with some answers, and you'd better give yourself some time to find those answers because, as often is the case when an issue involves both money and politics, disinformation seems to characterize this debate.
According to consumer research, avoiding foods grown with pesticides, hormones or genetically modified ingredients is a priority for many Americans. But there is a big gap in the information available to the average Joe. The people and companies with the most to gain from GE crop proliferation provide much of the mainstream information, such as the report by the National Centre for Food and Agricultural Policy that declared, "Data show economic success for GM crops."
What most of your customers probably don't know is that the report was partially financed by the Biotechnology Industry Organization, whose job is to influence public opinion on the subject of GM foods entering U.S. grocery stores. Another well-known company, Monsanto Co., sponsored the report.
The biotech industry's statement contradicts a few reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other sources regarding farm profitability on acreage under biotech cultivation. Here are summaries from the Natural Law Party's Web site (btinternet.com):
- "The latest USDA report reveals for the first time from an official U.S. government source using unequivocal language, that most of the basic economic claims made for GM crops are either false or suspect."
- "Perhaps the biggest issue raised by these results is how to explain the rapid adoption of GE crops when farm financial impacts appear to be mixed or even negative."
- "In short the 'success' of the introduction of GM crops in the United States owes more to marketing hyperbole than it does to objective science and agronomic delivery."
As you might have guessed, these comments didn't make the front page of papers here in the United States. I read the full reports in an English farming journal. So where do get your answers about GMOs? Do your conventional wholesalers have it? Don't count on it. You're going to have to do a little homework.
First, look up the latest GMO crop status reports. A few sources I read that seem to balance each other and provide good information are the Information Systems for Biotechnology Web site, www.isb.vt.edu, and The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Food, www.thecampaign.org.
Next, ask yourself some questions so you can be prepared with answers. The biotech industry might have developed a tomato with more vitamins and lycopene, but is that really necessary? According to research available at www.healthwell.com, you need 10 servings a week of tomato products, or 6.5 mg a day, to receive the health benefits from lycopene. Heck, during the summer I can eat 10 fresh tomatoes a week.
Sometimes the answers and solutions we seek are right in front of us. There are already heirloom tomato varieties with more vitamin C than your standard slicer. Wendell Berry puts it well in his article, "The Agrarian Standard," in Orion magazine, Summer 2002: "Industrialists are always ready to ignore, sell, or destroy the past in order to gain the wealth, comfort, and happiness supposedly to be found in the future."
Oh, by the way, here are the answers to my earlier questions: The National Organic Standards Board defines GMOs as those foods "made with techniques that alter the molecular or cell biology of an organism by means that are not possible under natural conditions or process." Conventional cranberries are permitted by the USDA to be genetically engineered, but none are commercially available at present. No requests for approval have been submitted to the USDA for GM navel oranges at this time. But what about next week?
Mark Mulcahy runs an organic education and produce consulting firm. He can be reached at 707.939.8355, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 11/p. 26