Whole Foods maintains it has always opposed the presence of GMOs in food but acknowledges that some non-organic foods it sells may contain GMOs. The chain supports mandatory product labeling, something not required under federal law but is being pursued by several states, including New York, California, Oregon, Vermont, and Alaska.
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Whole Foods was one of several organizations and companies that last year urged the USDA to establish coexistence guidelines to help protect organic alfalfa from GE contamination. Suggestions included placing geographical restrictions on where GE alfalfa could be planted, requiring buffer zones between GE and non-GE crops, and forcing biotech companies to indemnify organic growers from economic losses should their crops become contaminated with transgenes. Other organizations involved in the talks included the National Cooperative Grocers Association, the National Organic Coalition, and the OTA. Their efforts, however, were not successful.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has spearheaded meetings between GE and non-GE stakeholders, including Whole Foods and other pragmatists, to discuss “feasible strategies for co-existence”
—one of several efforts the agency is making to build bridges.
One GE crop, Roundup Ready alfalfa, was developed by Monsanto Co. and Forage Genetics International and approved by the USDA for planting in 2005. GE alfalfa is genetically modified to resist the herbicide glycophosate, which is marketed by Monsanto as Roundup. Farmers who plant Roundup Ready alfalfa can more easily control weeds by blanket spraying their fields with the herbicide. In 2007, after several environmental and organic groups had sued the USDA, a federal court halted the planting of GE alfalfa until the USDA completed a full environmental impact statement (EIS). In December 2010, the USDA released its EIS and in January 2011 announced it would fully deregulate GE alfalfa, allowing the crop to be planted with no restrictions other than grower agreements with Forage Genetics to maintain minimum “isolation” distances between fields.
The decision shocked many in the organic community who believed they had gained some measure of influence over the biotech industry when judicial and regulatory challenges had successfully forestalled the planting of some GE crops. But the bad news was only beginning. About a week later, in February 2011, the USDA announced it would partially deregulate Roundup Ready sugar beets, allowing that crop to be planted this year as an interim measure after a different federal court in 2010 halted its use pending an EIS. As with GE alfalfa, growers of GE sugar beets must enter into and abide by a “compliance agreement” that outlines how the crop can be grown. The USDA plans to complete its EIS by June 2012 and issue a final decision sometime afterward.
But that wasn’t the end of it. In mid-February 2011, the USDA announced its decision to deregulate corn genetically engineered to produce alpha-amylase, an enzyme that helps break down starch into sugar, facilitating the production of ethanol for biofuel. Growers of the crop, developed by Syngenta and marketed as Enogen, must abide by a compliance agreement that specifies both the planting distance from food corn mills and details regarding harvest cleaning and transportation. Still, corn millers remain concerned about the potential for contamination.
Litigation involving Roundup Ready alfalfa and sugar beets is pending and likely to be brought in other jurisdictions. “Our only cause for optimism is in the courts,” said Mark Kastel, cofounder of the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm policy research group. “I can’t tell you I hold out much hope from the executive or legislative branches of government,” Kastel told Food Quality magazine.
Efforts are under way to find common ground or, at least, peaceful coexistence. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has spearheaded meetings between GE and non-GE stakeholders, including Whole Foods and other pragmatists, to discuss “feasible strategies for coexistence,” as the agency put it. Additional efforts at bridge-building by the USDA will include in-house research into preserving the genetic integrity of alfalfa seeds; providing third-party audits and verification of industry-led stewardship initiatives; and re-establishing two USDA advisory committees to address an array of biotechnology and agriculture issues, including the possibility of creating an indemnity fund to compensate organic farmers for their losses.