Everything Wal-Mart does is closely watched. Any action taken by the world’s largest retailer can cause ripples up and down the supply chain. Its size and influence are well known throughout the industry.
So, what to make of the company’s decision to sell genetically modified sweet corn? At a time when consumer groups have successfully raised public awareness of GM foods and are leading a movement to have products made with genetically modified ingredients labeled, Wal-Mart’s actions have done more than any march, protest or petition could do to bring the issue to the forefront.
“After closely looking at both sides of the debate and collaborating with a number of respected food safety experts, we see no scientifically validated safety reasons to implement restrictions on this product,” the company told the Chicago Tribune , which first reported the story.
The corn Wal-Mart will be selling — the first crops are presently being harvested — comes from Monsanto, the giant agricultural biotech company.
Ever since the spring planting season, critics of GM methods have been calling on Wal-Mart to not carry the corn. Other retailers, including Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s, stated earlier this year that they wouldn’t carry genetically modified corn this season. Food and Water Watch, which advocates for clean water and a safe food supply, went so far as to submit a customer-signed petition to Wal-Mart in an effort to convince it not to carry the modified corn.
The announcement comes as debate over labeling GM products heats up prior to a November vote on California’s Proposition 37, which will determine whether labeling of GM products should be required in the state. Opponents and supporters of the initiative have raised millions dollars to back their individual positions. Recent filings  with the state of California show that many of the nation’s food producers and marketers have donated funds in opposition the ballot question, including PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Kellogg, ConAgra, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
That food manufacturers are leery about GM labeling is no surprise, since an estimated 86% of all corn and 93% of soy crops grown in the U.S. are genetically modified, according to statistics quoted in the Tribune article. A “yes” vote on the ballot initiative would mean spending millions of dollars labeling packages of products for sale in the state, and millions more spent on explaining why GM ingredients were used.
Indeed, the corn Wal-Mart is selling will not be labeled.
Monsanto made a point of saying its GM sweet corn will help farmers who grow it reduce insecticide use by as much as 85%.
Statements like that complicate matters and cloud the debate. Consumers will have to ask themselves which is safer for them and their families: conventional corn or corn that has had its genetics tinkered with to make it more resistant to pests.
With its decision, Wal-Mart believes its shoppers will opt for the latter. The rest of us will have the chance to see just how important the question is long before California’s Prop 37 vote rolls around.