Profits for the Monsanto Co. this most recent quarter were up 45% over last year, though there continues to be a significant deficit in the ledger book of public opinion. When the company released its new line of genetically modified “Roundup Ready” sugar beets this spring, the outcry from the public, environmental groups and even the religious right was louder than ever. Media heavyweight Vanity Fair weighed in with an investigative story titled “Monsanto's Harvest of Fear” that centers on the ag-tech giant's bullying tactics. And now there's even a movie: “The World According to Monsanto,” which aired recently on French public television and is now available for free online.
Monsanto and others involved with genetic modification are no strangers to criticism. They counter that their technologies help farmers and feed millions. Roundup Ready seeds, for example, allow growers to kill troublesome weeds while harvesting a high yield.
But after years of indifference, there's increasing dissent creeping into the mainstream, and manufacturers and retailers are starting to mobilize. Seattle's PCC Market and other natural and organic stores, for example, have asked suppliers to source non-GMO ingredients.
Then there is the Non-GMO Project, which looks to develop a voluntary standard and label claim for GMO-free products by fall 2009. Right now the project is campaigning for retailer support and signing up manufacturers interested in completing the standard's certification process, outlined in a 22-page manual on the organization's website, www.nongmoproject.org. Supporters so far include Whole Foods Market, Nature's Path, Organic Valley, United Natural Foods and White Wave Foods.
“No GMOs” is certainly not a new claim. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Certified Organic label stipulates no genetically engineered ingredients. Non-GMO Project members, however, say that the organic label's regulation in this area could use some tightening.
“The fact is, we would like to restore confidence that organic does mean GMO-free, and for those companies who want to make a non-GMO claim, that the claim has been verified and agreed to by a common standard in the industry,” said Michael Funk, chief executive officer of United Natural Foods and board member for the Non-GMO Project.
Companies may be reluctant to add another label to their packaging, however, and that's something the organization is taking into account, said Funk.
Greg Bowman, spokesman for the Rodale Institute, thinks a labeling standard like this could prove economically valuable if the certification behind it is foolproof. Public consciousness seems to be growing, and even those consumers who aren't well-versed on the topic say they want GMO labeling. Polls show that up to 90% of consumers would like to see this.
“I believe, and a lot of consumers believe, that what goes into a food system has a lot to do with what comes out at the other end,” said Bowman.