Is Big Food Starting to Favor GMO Labeling?

26 Jan, 2013

by Tom Laskaway, via

Labeled gmosSince food companies collectively spent over $45 million to stop Prop 37, California’s GMO labeling law, it’s hard to believe that they—and Walmart in particular—would turn around and push for a federal GMO labeling standard. But a trickle of reports, aspects of which we’ve now confirmed, suggests just such a turnabout.

Playing a state-by-state game of whack-a-mole with grassroots groups trying to pass laws across the country (as is occurring in Washington state, Vermont, New Mexico, and Connecticut) may simply have become too exhausting and costly for these companies. If so, such an about-face would vindicate GMO opponents’ strategy of a direct appeal to consumers. GMO-labeling advocates may have succeeded in beginning to drive a wedge between biotechnology seed companies, like Monsanto and Syngenta, and the food companies that have to sell what’s produced with their wares.

That’s because GMOs, for all the claims made on their behalf, actually provide very little benefit to consumers—one of the strongest arguments against them. GMO innovations to date have simply allowed farmers to plant vast acreages of commodity crops like corn, soy, and cotton with less labor (but not, despite industry claims, with fewer chemicals). It’s on this basis, perhaps, that food companies felt like the fight wasn’t really theirs.

I first learned of this possible labeling sea change through an article by Ronnie Cummins, head of the Organic Trade Association, who caught wind of news that a group of food companies went into the FDA earlier this month to “lobby for a mandatory federal GMO labeling law.”

Cummins went on to speculate the following:

Is it possible that the threat posed by the growing grassroots GMO labeling movement has prompted a number of Fortune 500 corporations to abandon Monsanto and the biotech industry, and rethink the PR and bottom-line costs of clinging to their anti-right-to-know positions? After all, it’s not as if these companies are incapable of making GMO-free products. Though many Americans don’t know it, Walmart, General Mills, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nestle, Unilever, Kellogg’s, Starbucks—even McDonald’s—are GMO-free in Europe, thanks to strict GMO labeling laws.

I have been able to confirm through sources close to attendees that such a meeting did occur on Jan. 11. It did not take place at the FDA, however, though FDA representatives did reportedly attend. The meeting was “sponsored” by the AGree Foundation, which is a coalition of foundations active in agriculture and co-chaired by former Clinton Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman and Gary Hirshberg, CEO of Stonyfield Farm Organics.

I was also able to confirm that, as Cummins claimed, a Walmart vice president did announce that the company would no longer take a lead in opposing GMO labeling efforts. Other food company executives agreed, saying that the fight had become too expensive, especially given the prospect of more state-level initiatives. And if Walmart moves to support, or rather to no longer oppose, GMO labels, others will certainly follow. (Walmart did not respond to my requests for comment.)

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