Whole Foods is at the heart of a controversy over GM Alfalfa

On December 20, 2010, members of the USDA, including Secretary Tom Vilsack, sat down with leading nongovernmental organizations and manufacturers in the organic community to discuss what “the conditional deregulation” of genetically modified alfalfa might look like. Then, surprisingly, in late January, the USDA approved total deregulation of genetically modified alfalfa, offering no conditions or protection to organic farmers now facing another risk in maintaining the integrity and quality of their crops. In the wake of the USDA’s controversial decision, the Organic Consumers Association, a consumer advocacy group, singled out organic companies, particularly the grocery retailer Whole Foods, over their meetings with the USDA, calling it a “betrayal by the organic elite.” Did Whole Foods play a role in the unconditional deregulation of GM Alfalfa? What really happened?

Shortly after Whole Foods and other members of the organic community, including Stonyfield Yogurt and Organic Valley, met with the USDA over Monsanto’s GM Roundup Ready Alfalfa, Whole Foods CEO, Walter Robb, posted a blog on their Web site addressing the issue, letting their consumers know that with a total ban out of the question, a conditional coexistence would offer better protection than an unconditional one. The Organic Consumers Association retaliated and began its accusations that these key organic industry members were “getting in bed with Monsanto” in support of the GM alfalfa.

Monsanto, which regarded health expert Dr. Mercola has called “the most evil corporation in the world,” is the leading producer of GM seeds, providing 90 percent of the technology in the market and is the number one producer of the toxic herbicide, glyphosate, commonly marketed as Roundup. They employ hoards of lobbyists in Washington DC to fast-track deregulation before health studies and environmental impact statements (EIS) are complete, and their strong-arm approach to biotech around the world has given them a reputation as tyrannical and highly controversial.

One cannot simply ignore Monsanto’s reach, especially if in the business of promoting and safeguarding organic food. GM ingredients are already found in the majority of non-organic foods and spreading fast. According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, at least 70 percent of processed foods in U.S. supermarkets now contain GM ingredients. 93 percent of soy, 86 percent of corn and 93 percent of cotton and canola planted in the U.S. in 2010 were genetically engineered.

Alfalfa represents 23 million acres—15 percent of all U.S. cropland—and is a huge source of food for billions of livestock animals. It’s a hardy crop and most often is not sprayed with herbicides, says author of “In Defense of Food,” Michael Pollan, making the GM situation even more baffling. Why genetically engineer a crop that’s already pest resistant?

According to Whole Foods spokesperson, Libba Letton, being able to discuss the issues and impacts of GM alfalfa with the USDA is a responsibility to the organic movement that they take seriously. The hopes for these unprecedented discussions were that even with the USDA not moving towards banning the seeds altogether, at the very least, there would be conditions, such as compensation for organic farmers affected by crop drift, and regulated growing areas for Monsanto’s GM alfalfa, providing the organic industry with safeguards, time, and an opportunity to protect its farmers.  But, Letton says, “The December conversations sounded like conditional deregulation would happen. Then all of a sudden it was, ‘whoops we made a decision. No conditions.'” She said, “The USDA just decided to go ahead and deregulate it completely. We were shocked.”

And not helping the matter was the lashing from the OCA, which had angry and confused consumers calling for boycotts, starting anti-Whole Foods Facebook pages and writing letters.

In an email from the OCA regarding this article, I was told that they did not really have the time to respond to my questions, but they did say that, “After we saw Whole Foods misleading alert we felt it was important that we try to reach people with more information and how as a consumer group we feel about coexistence.” The OCA singled out the retailer, saying they “surrendered to the USDA policy of coexistence” and “asked their customers to do the same.” On a telephone interview with Dr. Mercola, Ronnie Cummins of the OCA said of Whole Foods, “They have not educated the public to the fact that you shouldn’t buy anything that is not certified organic unless you know the farmer directly or you grew it directly…unless you want to be a human guinea pig.”

Whole Foods, which has 302 stores worldwide representing less than 3 percent of the U.S. grocery market, began pushing for labeling of genetically modified ingredients back in 1992, according to Letton, “before they were commonly found in our food supplies”, and a decade before organic was a label with definable regulations and standards. They’ve come to be recognized as the most important retailer of their time—blending education and ethics along with unrivaled customer satisfaction. Whole Foods was the first national retail chain to receive organic status and they’ve chartered new territory in setting standards for what is and what is not acceptable in food items, body care, and baby products, and will soon be announcing standards for household cleaning items. They banned plastic grocery bags, refuse any eggs that are not cage-free, will not sell live lobsters or unsustainably sourced fish, and have recently enacted a set of animal welfare standards to ensure the most humane animal treatment.

Their commitment to keep GMOs out of their stores has been a laborious and confounding journey, but even their non-organic 365 private label products are sourced to avoid GMOs. The bad news is that GM crops are now abundant in the U.S.—forcing a coexistence whether one likes it or not. But, by definition, a certified organic item cannot contain any genetically modified ingredients. Whole Foods has done its work in educating its consumers on this issue by constantly increasing its organic offerings, through various in-store and online information mechanisms, and in a partnership with the Non-GMO Project, a non-profit committed to preserving and building sources of non-GMO foods and helping vendors verify and label their products non-GMO.

According to the Non-GMO Project’s Web site, “More than 200,000 people submitted comments to the USDA highly critical of the substance and conclusions of its draft EIS on GM Alfalfa.” But, the Non-GMO Project says the USDA did not respond to the comments and concerns, as evident in their unconditional deregulation, and called the USDA “a rogue agency in its regulation of biotech crops,” saying that “its decision to appease the few companies who seek to benefit from this technology comes despite increasing evidence that GM alfalfa will threaten the rights of American farmers and consumers, as well as damage the environment.”

Whole Foods is hopeful that mandatory labeling of GM foods will soon become a requirement. But until then, they’re continuing to promote organic, “the bread and butter of our operation,” according to Letton, and “constantly working to educate our customers about this and many other issues so that they can make informed decisions about their food.”

For more information on the GMO issues, check out Jeffrey Smith’s book and Web site, “Seeds of Deception” and the films “The Future of Food” and “Food, Inc.”

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Photo: Whole Foods