Is a ‘DARK’ cloud looming for brands over GMO labeling?

Discussion
Aug 09, 2016

A commentary.

Ken Lonyai

Bill S.764, or “The DARK (Deny Americans the Right to Know) Act” as it’s known to many, which contains an amendment for federally mandated and defined GMO labeling, was recently signed into law by President Obama after a long, impassioned controversy. At issue: the nefarious language/mechanisms of the bill, the Senators that railroaded it through Congress without public debate, its usurping of state’s rights like Vermont’s GMO labeling law, and the food/ag brands in favor of it.

With the vast majority of Americans wanting clear GMO labeling, this law might be a potential time bomb for grocers and the brands that have rallied behind it. Here’s why: Ronnie Cummins, international director of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), said, “The bill is a sham, a slap in the face to the 90 percent of Americans who support labeling.”

Center for Food Safety executive director Andrew Kimbrell noted: “The president refused to listen to his own FDA, a majority of the Democratic members of the Senate, hundreds of thousands of comments from the public and the pleas of civil rights leaders…”

So now, incensed consumers may make grocers’ shelves the next combat zone for this still flourishing and heated issue.

Gary Hirschberg (Stonyfield Farm) and Walter Robb (Whole Foods), who were seemingly supportive of consumers, have been labeled “traitors” by the OCA for their clandestine activism on behalf of this legislation. The group has an app called Buycott to “reject brands owned by corporations that lobbied against GMO labeling.” Plus, there are serious rumblings about organized boycotts against GMO-proponent big brands, including General Mills, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Nestle, ConAgra Foods, Mondelez, Kellogg’s, Smuckers, Groupe Danone, Whole Foods, and others.

However, some grocery purveyors are moving in a direction that might win them favor in this clash. The converse of GMO’s are certified organics, which compromise the fastest growing segment of U.S. grocery sales. Both Target and Walmart are expanding their footprint in the $39.7 billion organic market and Costco launched a program to help finance organic farmer’s expansion. Amazon Fresh, Jet, many smaller e-tailers, farm CSA’s, and farmer’s markets make organic produce and other products increasingly more accessible.

It just might be that despite corporate lobbyists winning legislative battles, consumer voices may still win the war affecting the bottom line.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you think that there are particular retailers or CPG brands more at risk as a result of the passage of “The DARK Act”? How should retailers and brands respond to the criticism and boycotts they may be facing as a result of their support of the legislation?

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19 Comments on "Is a ‘DARK’ cloud looming for brands over GMO labeling?"

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Dr. Stephen Needel
BrainTrust

Despite all the hype and inflated statistics, I think some people want to know what’s in their food. Let’s be honest — there’s no nutritional value in my Cocoa Puffs or Apple Jacks and we don’t much care what’s in it as long as it won’t kill us. GMO labeling, or non-labeling, will not incite riots or boycotts. People in general have more important things to worry about these days.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

Stephen, it was I who clicked on the thumbs down but the red indicator looked far too aggressive a way to express my thought. I apologize for it. Because I’m a fan of your insights, a comment is a far better response. I see it differently on several levels. First, I think MOST people want to know what’s in their food. Second, what is in our food IS killing us. And third, there are few things more important to worry about than what we are doing to self-inflict harm through our food, water and air. My comment below gives a brief overview of my reasoning.

Max Goldberg
BrainTrust

Consumers want to know what they are putting in their bodies. GMO foods have been demonized, unfairly, in my opinion. Slogans are flying. Compromise seems to be nowhere in sight. At the same time, many consumers don’t want to pay the mark-up for organics. Maybe it’s time for some honest discussion and compromise (wait, it’s 2016 and Americans are decisively divided on so many topics and unwilling to even listen to opposing points of view).

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust
Look, this is an emotional issue. Just read the language of this article which uses words such as “nefarious language” and “usurping of state’s rights” and “potential time bomb” to make its case rather than explaining what the allegedly “nefarious” language was. Always easier to respond to fact than rhetoric, if admittedly often less fun. I think that Americans really don’t understand the issue. There is scientific evidence — something not always found in either the pro- or anti-GMO debates — that GMO seed is being spread by birds into the most pristine of organic patches. So there is no real guarantee, in many cases, that any harvest, unless micro-scutinized, might not contain trace GMO product. That’s for starters. I also don’t buy the argument that the way to protect yourself from GMO product entering the supply chain is to subscribe to any for-profit certification system. Look what chemicals are put on “organic” products now. As to the question itself, presumably any manufacturer whose products use grains as ingredients would be in the first wave… Read more »
Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

Ryan: first, happy to explain “nefarious language” but there’s a limit to article size here. “Whole Foods who stakes their reputation on carrying no GMO products…” Sorry friend, Whole Foods is loaded with GMO’s in most every aisle. You are buying into some false marketing hype that I don’t believe they ever made. More I can say if you’d like…

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

This is one of those occasions where we are in violent agreement! Sadly, it is becoming more and more difficult to produce chemical-free food — beyond “organic.” This is why, if you look for it, you’ll see a wave of new hydroponic food operations that look like a clean room for silicon chips. Sealed, climate-controlled rooms with employees encased in sterile suits. This may be the last bastion of self-preservation.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

Ian — totally agree! And, sadly — and I do mean sadly — that is exactly what it takes to prevent cross-contamination with GMO seed. That’s why my hackles jump to attention when people suggest the certification of a field solves the problem. This just is not realistic at least as long as there are insects, birds, animals and wind. This is a real problem that demands clear thinking and careful action — not just rhetoric and reaction. Interesting to me that so many “advocates” on this issue really undersell its complexity. Glad you chimed in. Thanks, as always.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

Ken, still don’t know what nefarious language is, but I’ll let that pass. For the record my point wasn’t that Whole Foods does not carry GMO products but exactly — as you correctly point out — that its marketing hype would lead shoppers to believe they don’t. Hence, since Hell hath no fury like a shopper scorned, they are, in my opinion, more likely to incur the wrath of advocacy groups precisely because their hype doesn’t live up to the reality. Their shopper base is, at least self-styled, advocates who are likely to react more aggressively to the notion of genetic betrayal than say, Walmart’s. That was my whole point. As to all the colorful descriptors, I agree space is limited, all the more reason to be concrete.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

The article is very concrete. You simply disagree. I’ve read the language of the bill, you can too. And… if it is so principled, why was it negotiated behind closed doors when many, including Senators, called for open debate?

Also, the point is about labeling and giving consumers choice, not stereotyping one store’s shoppers over another. Bromide (brominated flour) and Fluoride are labeled with simple text. Many people believe that they are very toxic chemicals and thanks to the text on the labels, can read that they are an ingredient and choose to buy or not.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

Last word … from me. I don’t believe I have taken a position on the bill. I did take a position against for-profit certification which I have fairly consistently opposed in multiple discussions on multiple topics not remotely related to this one. So, sorry to disagree, but I’m not, in fact, disagreeing. The example you just used is a tad clearer than “nefarious” and — as a result — makes your point more effectively. I’m with Ian on this though, if you want “pure” food in today’s world, it’s safer to turn to move produced off the land. Also, I don’t believe I ever said — or suggested — the law was principled. That would assume that politicians and regulators are honest — something I never believe in any case. If it got passed in a political environment, it is de facto corrupt in my book. Oh, sorry, I was disagreeing again.

Warren Thayer
BrainTrust

Sure, there will be some backlash. It won’t be like turning on a faucet, but the trickle is gaining volume. This was all about deep pockets and political money from the start. Both usually win versus what consumers want, but we’re finally seeing some organizing against this sort of thing — the increasing anger and distrust so many people feel toward government today. That anger and distrust fed both Bernie and Trump, and it’s not easily dismissed. The big money also ruled what nearly all trade associations did, which I thought was very short-sighted of them, to work against consumers. It’s a slow process and I’m pleased to see it gaining momentum. I hope consumers boycott products with those electronic symbols on them instead of plain English. That particular part of this law is so ludicrous that it belongs in a Saturday Night Live skit.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust
Along with the GMO assault it’s the chemical assault that we endure 24/7 that is costing us and hurting us and our children more than we know. Eighteen unregulated chemicals and 21 contaminants are found in one third of U.S. water supply. Chlorine is used to control that contamination, but it’s a poison itself. Only 1 percent of pesticide sprayed across food crops actually hits the pests. 99 percent is sent into the air we breathe. This is not some alarmist or conspiracy rant. It is simply our reality. The Alliance for Natural Foods reported significant amounts of glyphosate (a herbicide developed in 1970 by Monsanto) were found in 10 of 24 common breakfast foods … including non-GMO, non-food things like coffee creamer. Said the researchers, “We were unprepared for just how invasive this poison has been to our entire food chain.” GMO seeds with glyphosate poison — which the WHO declared a “probable” cancer-causing agent — account for 94 percent of all soybeans and 89 percent of all corn being produced. One estimate claimed… Read more »
Nikki Baird
BrainTrust
I’m not strongly for or against GMO. When there are millions of people starving, and GMO promises to increase yields and resist disease and drought, it’s not so easy to be against it. And when risks are being taken in regards to our food supply and decisions are being made without understanding the full implications of those risks, it’s not easy to be for it. I think the conclusion that the front line of the battle is going to be grocery store shelves is sound. This bill was passed in the face of a large and growing group of voices that want at least transparency so that they can decide for themselves, and it was pushed through in the manner of politics as it existed before the digital age. If consumers don’t like the outcome, they will indeed organize and vote with their pocketbooks — Whole Foods’ position on this in particular seems out of step with its customers. And digital makes it easier than ever to organize and sustain that kind of anger. But… Read more »
Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

Nikki – good summary. FYI – the solution to starving millions is not technology, there’s more than enough food being produced right now. The solution is less food waste and some countries are taking steps in that direction.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

Boy am I being prolific today! The reason is that I’ve work going on in the agriculture space so this is a passion. Ken, sorry, but Nikki is right. The answer IS technology but NOT of the Monsanto/chemical/GMO sort of technology. That food we’re wasting (and we should stop doing so)? It’s filled with chemicals. Not much of a gift; like giving your teenager the old car that doesn’t have good brakes. They are grateful, but….

It is possible to dramatically increase food yield WITHOUT chemicals of any kind. I won’t get into it because it will look self-serving, but merely changing the frequency of irrigation water for any and all crops will produce: 30 to 40 percent increase in yield, a better quality crop, the chance to eliminate pest and herbicides … and all while reducing water use about 30 percent.

What we need is a new mindset about food production!

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

Ian, must be something in the water. You are right again. “Technology” is a word Luddites use to frighten the kids. New food production technologies — hydroponics, vertical farming, etc., etc. — could go a long way to improving the quality of the food available to all. Although, Ken is right on one point. To paraphrase William Gibson, “Enough food is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed,” or of even quality as you pointed out.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

Ian, we’re in agreement. Yes, “technology” was an oversimplified word. Aside from what you mentioned, logistical technology and weather tracking, even potentially robotic weeders, are all technologies that can help food democracy. Still, waste control and better distribution is the ultimate solution.

BTW — last week I saw an article that organic (maybe conventional, but I don’t think so) rice and probably potato farming in a region of India, set new yield records. I’ve seen before that they’ve out-yielded GMOs, so while the straw argument for GMOs keeps taking a hit, the point here is put it on the labels and let consumers decide.

Mohamed Amer
BrainTrust

Brands are quickly changing their formulations and taking out artificial colors and such because they see those as means to rejuvenate and extend existing lines, to create new categories, to enter new markets and so on. Few are trailblazing for the sake of one political camp or the other. They’re in the business of increasing shareholder value, but they are doing so in a time when consumers have unprecedented access to information and are far more sensitive about product transparency and a healthy lifestyle.

For some consumers, as long as retailers make assortment and range decisions, then they will be seen as taking a position (even if passive) on this issue.

Industry bodies and influential brands need to tread carefully and keep an eye for the long view so this does not turn into a Pyrrhic victory.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

For almost anything, there is always a small, but very vocal group, of partisans who try to make the world revolve around their issue, but they are seldom successful.

Given the amount of coverage which this particular bill has received (i.e. very little) and the obscurity — at least to me — of the groups advocating boycotts, I suspect that is the case here.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"As for response, what can a retailer do except not stock certain brands and/or products if the protests gain demonstrable strength?"
"Maybe it’s time for some honest discussion and compromise."

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