Natural Selection

Whole Foods Loses Its Taste for Genetically Modified Foods

Margaret Wittenberg, Whole Foods
Margaret Wittenberg, Whole Foods (Photo By John Anderson)

With the announce-ment just before New Year's that Whole Foods Market Inc. would be banning genetically engineered foods from its store brands, Austin's hometown "natural" grocery store placed Central Texas in the middle of the ongoing debate over the evils of messing with Mother Nature. Under consumer pressure, Whole Foods said it plans to eliminate genetically modified ingredients from its private labels -- which include Whole Foods, Whole Kids, and 365 -- at some point this summer. In doing so, the Austin-based chain will join many of its European counterparts in providing concerned shoppers with an alternative to the flood of so-called "GE" foods that have swept onto grocery shelves since the early Nineties. In recent months, it has been difficult to avoid the myriad complaints about GE foods and their impacts. Shoppers are concerned that many genetically engineered substances, found in an astonishing multitude of processed goods, may pose health risks, while conservationists argue that biotech crops pose a threat to wildlife and plant species on a broad scale. Having dubbed GE foods "Frankenfoods," critics complain that not enough research has been done to ensure human or environmental safety when it comes to altering such life-giving structures as a vegetable's DNA. Predictably, defenders of genetic engineering counter that theirs is an agricultural revolution that will feed the world a more healthful diet.

In a state like Texas, where agriculture forms the second-largest industry, Whole Foods' effort to winnow out the results of controversial biotechnology marks a trend that could have widespread impacts, not just for consumers but for big business and the environment as well.

At the same time that Whole Foods made its announcement, the chain's primary national competitor, the Denver-based Wild Oats Markets, also declared that it was going GE-free. A spokeswoman for Whole Foods, which has 103 stores nationwide -- Wild Oats has 111 -- said the two chains were not acting in concert, but the timing of these decisions goes to show that the market might very well be changing.

This fact has not escaped the nation's mainstream grocery chains and food producers, and even the federal government has been forced to take notice. In 1998, the Iowa-based Alliance for Bio-Integrity filed suit against the Food and Drug Administration to force the federal agency to address concerns over testing and labeling standards; in the wake of that lawsuit, the FDA -- which, along with the Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency, has oversight over America's food producers -- just last week closed the public comment period on whether biotechnology ought to be noted on food labels. Likewise, Congress is currently considering legislation that could require the labeling of products that contain GE foods.

What Is GE?

Genetic engineering -- sometimes referred to as biotechnology, GE, or GM, which stands for genetic modification and is usually termed "GMO" for genetically modified organisms -- is the process of manipulating living cells, primarily DNA, to select for desired traits. Such traits include resistance to animal pests, fungus, and weeds, as well as longer shelf life, improved nutritional value, and increased flavor or size. Currently, about 18% of American cropland is estimated to be planted with GM plants, in particular corn and soybeans, which can be found in nearly 60% of canned or packaged food on grocers' shelves. But if concerned consumers get their way, the face of agriculture could revert to more conventional farming methods as quickly as many growers embraced genetic engineering -- and that point has given hope to those so vociferously campaigning against GE.

At Whole Foods, the new policy stemmed from a desire to meet customer demands, says Margaret Wittenberg, vice president of governmental and public affairs, although environmental and health concerns also played a role in the decision. "We made this decision so that we could provide our customers with a choice," Wittenberg says. "People are still learning a lot about both sides of the issue, and we believe that a lot of questions still need to be answered before consumers can know whether they want genetically engineered foods."

Faced with criticism that Whole Foods has not moved quickly enough to eliminate GE foods, Wittenberg explains that until recently it was unclear that such a move was feasible. Tracking the lineage of everything that goes into the company's 600 product labels has been a serious challenge, she notes, and figuring out which suppliers to keep and which to jettison has required taxing negotiations and new contracts in many cases. Nonetheless, Wittenberg is quick to point out that, in many cases, the store's products, which include everything from tortilla chips to salad dressing to breakfast cereal, already used organic -- and therefore GE-free -- ingredients. Finally, she acknowledges that in many cases, outside of Texas-grown tomatoes for salsa, most of the crops used by Whole Foods do not come from Lone Star farmers.

Fighting the Power

Paul Robbins, the man behind the recently updated Austin Environmental Directory, is one of a growing number of Texans fighting both the specter and reality of GE foods. From his duplex in south central Austin, Robbins helps coordinate efforts to get the word out about the dangers of genetic engineering; he abandoned efforts to cull together an enormous article for his latest directory, because he says it was just too much work. But in the opinion of Robbins and others, the United States has been foolhardy in its rush to move genetic engineering from the labs to farmers' fields, and they see something sinister in the government's presumption of safety when it comes to GE foods.

"This is part of a bigger issue," says Robbins. "It's not just GE foods, but control of governments and the means of food production -- England and other countries have huge GE-free demands, and the World Trade Organization is the mechanism being used to thwart that. In America, the issue has been much more of a sleeper, but finally we're getting a real subculture dealing with the issue."

Carol Ann Sayle of Boggy Creek Farm
Carol Ann Sayle of Boggy Creek Farm (Photo By John Anderson)

Underlining this theory, the United Nations has been meeting this week to hammer out language for a food safety treaty intended to provide guidelines for shipping GMOs internationally.

It's a sign of the times that the World Wide Web forms a floating clubhouse for GE activists to brainstorm and keep track of news stories and emergent information about food safety and biotechnology. And as befits the code-writing capital of the country, Austin's safe food activists track efforts across the country and around the globe, working to develop strategies that might help them take on the powers that be -- both public and private -- as they try to reform the agriculture industry. Robbins says that nearly 80% of his e-mail these days comes from the GE newsgroup he subscribes to.

If Robbins can be considered something of a soldier in the free-floating army opposing the application of gene modification to our diets, Renu Namjoshi must be viewed as a kind of general. A suburban mother of two for whom politics are indeed personal, Namjoshi was part of the alliance -- Texas Consumers for Safe Food -- that helped force Whole Foods' hand. Currently, Namjoshi is working to warn the shopping masses what ambush awaits in the supermarket aisle; in the near future, she also hopes to mount a campaign modeled on efforts in California to get a labeling measure placed on Texas ballots.

"What is "genetically altered?' " Namjoshi asks urgently. "Most people don't know what that means, so we need to demand labeling and make sure that testing takes place. There are serious human health issues and serious environmental threats from GE foods. We need to ask ourselves, "When are we going to draw the line?'"

Namjoshi and her colleagues insist that the biotechnology represented by GE has not been adequately tested by the government for either environmental or health impacts. These activists worry that its widespread application could lead to a full-fledged ecological meltdown. They express concern over both crops bred for pest resistance, so that they can be grown with fewer herbicides and other poisons, and crops that have been engineered for resistance to herbicides so that they can withstand heavier applications of those poisons. One of the primary fears is that weeds and pests could eventually themselves become resistant to the poisons currently used to control them. Likewise, concerns persist about the health effects of consuming foods that contain pesticides in their DNA.

One substance that has drawn much of the ire of environmentalists is "Bt," or Bacillus thuringienis, a pesticide that has been bred into corn, potatoes, and other crops, that traditionally was used to treat only extreme insect invasions. A widely publicized experiment that led to the death of monarch butterflies in a lab at Cornell University suggested that this controversial pesticide could linger in the atmosphere and the soil, leading to the evolution of poison-resistant bugs. Compounding fears is the possibility of cross-pollination for non-GE crops -- sometimes referred to as "genetic drift" -- which could increase the difficulty of maintaining purity in the diminishing numbers of conventional and organic crops grown in U.S. soil.

Claire Porter, a member of the Alliance to Label Genetically Engineered Foods who also works on Boggy Creek Farms, a five-acre organic operation east of downtown, is succinct in her criticism of GE: "When you inject genetic information into a plant's DNA, you're not just changing one characteristic. You could be changing things we don't even understand yet," she says. "For farmers who want to go back to non-GE crops, or eventually move to organic, what about the microbes in the soil? To me, it's a no-brainer: If it kills bugs, it can't be good for any of us." Another concern is that undisclosed genes in otherwise nontoxic foods -- soybean genes, for example, inserted into peanuts -- could cause potentially deadly allergic reactions for those who are susceptible and who ordinarily avoid such foods.

Despite recent polls suggesting that growers have started taking such concerns more seriously, such logic doesn't hold a lot of weight for Texas' mainstream agricultural community. According to Gene Hall, public relations officer for the Texas Farm Bureau, the pressure to eliminate GE foods comes as much from European trade insecurities as from anywhere. "It's mostly about trade," says Hall. "It's not about food safety. The European markets just don't want U.S. products, and they're trying to close the door using this argument about genetic engineering. Technology is the edge America has in food production, and we think it would be foolish to close the door on this technology."

Renu Namjoshi,  Texas Consumers  for Safe Food
Renu Namjoshi, Texas Consumers for Safe Food (Photo By John Anderson)

Hall notes that, in some cases, the promise of GE foods offers a chance to offset the growing number of mouths to feed around the globe. Specifically, he speaks highly of the recent announcement that scientists have successfully bred a new strain of rice -- one of Texas' largest food crops -- that has a high Vitamin A content, which should help eliminate a dietary deficiency that has led to blindness in many of the world's children. In the words of the Farm Bureau's Web site: "Among the many questions raised about biotech foods, it's proof of one of the many benefits they provide to the world."

It's worth noting that some Texas growers have also benefited directly from the work being done to genetically engineer crops. Delta Land and Pine Company, a seed provider to much of the South and Southwest with research facilities in Lubbock and Hale Center, and operations centers in Killeen and Lubbock, has worked extensively with the USDA and GE giant Monsanto. According to a spokeswoman for DL&PC, the company focuses primarily on developing cottonseed and soybeans and has come up with new cotton varieties compatible with Texas weather.

As for the criticisms of GE foods, Hall says that the Farm Bureau's constituency is sensitive to consumer demands, but also needs to keep track of the bottom line. "We should never turn our back on food safety," he says. "Safety is one of our top concerns. Still, you have to realize, without this technology it would be impossible to maintain our level of production, and we'd risk losing our position as a major food exporter."

You Are What You Read

With the number of questions that have been raised, it's no surprise that in addition to pressuring grocers to reject GE foods, activists hope to advance the cause of adding labels to products that pose a potential threat to human health. In this struggle, at least, they seem to have captured the attention of the Clinton administration (though it continues to be widely viewed as simply a booster for biotech), as well as the more liberal quarters of Congress. Says Namjoshi, "There is no easy way to assess the risks, so the least the FDA can do is label it, so we have a choice in what we buy."

Just last week, the FDA closed its comment period on whether foods containing GE ingredients should bear labels; that's a decided change of posture from the agency's earlier controversial position that GE did not represent a substantial change in the makeup of produce. Although comments still must be formally counted and considered, a quick survey of the FDA Web site shows that the cyber warriors have been active when it comes to registering complaints about current policies. Likewise, a press officer for the EPA notes that many of the GE seeds that have been registered through that office, including Bt corn and cotton, will be reevaluated in 2001.

Currently awaiting review in the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment is HR 3377 -- the Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act -- which would require the labeling of all products that contain GE ingredients. Introduced on the floor in November, the bill has garnered 20 co-sponsors and the support of Austin Democratic Rep. Lloyd Doggett, who was also an outspoken critic of allowing some GE foods to be considered organic, as the USDA proposed in 1998. At that time, Doggett said: "The need for strong standards is an environmental issue, a consumer issue, and a right-to-know issue." By contrast, Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas opposes such legislation. According to an aide: "Rep. DeLay believes that mandates and regulations such as this only serve to expand bureaucracy and do nothing to improve consumer safety."

The Farm Bureau's Hall says he views the labeling issue as part of the general hysteria that Europeans have drummed up to keep U.S. produce from reaching their grocers' shelves. "There's so much fear mongering going on right now, we have to be very careful about labeling. We already practice a lot of overkill when it comes to issues of food safety, and this could provide people with an excuse to boycott or ban American produce."

Whole Foods is supportive of the labeling campaign. Wittenberg agrees with the activists when it comes to challenging the wisdom of approving GE foods without substantial long-term research. "We have genuine concerns about how these things are going to affect the environment," she says. "There are still so many questions, and we believe that there needs to be an objective look at these issues. Until the questions are answered, I think it's safe to say, we're not really dealing with sound science."

Viewing the Whole Foods announcement as a victory of sorts, Nemjoshi says her group will push other area grocers, especially HEB, to move away from GE foods in their product lines and will continue to insist on labeling in the case that they don't. Central Market, HEB's upscale grocery that competes directly with Whole Foods, has only three stores -- two in Austin and one in San Antonio -- which means it has leeway to negotiate with suppliers but not a lot of clout. HEB spokeswoman Kate Brown says that while the chain is considering a changeover, she believes that many HEB customers would rather not be burdened with having to read more labels.

"We've been looking at genetically engineered food issues for years," says Brown, "and we stand behind the FDA in their decision and projects concerning food safety. The debate that's taking place is happening on a national level, and the decisions that manufacturers are going to make are at that level, but we do feel that our customers should have a choice."

Ask activists who's going to pay if changes don't get made down the line, and they'll tell you that first the grocers will. According to this domino theory -- based largely on European trends and recent announcements by various domestic growers that they're going to decrease the number of GE crops -- farmers who continue to rely heavily on biotech will soon have no choice but to switch to conventional methods.

"I think the grocers in the UK didn't give a flip about this until consumers raised holy hell," says Claire Porter. "The Europeans really just seem to know more about this sort of stuff, and at first the grocers didn't like it. Now they've got Prince Charles speaking out against GE. What I keep asking myself is, who do we have that's flashy and cool to talk about GMOs? The media just treats us like ninnies so much of the time." end story

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