Can Whole Foods Usher In A "Labeling Revolution"?

Sunday's Washington Post featured an enlightening interview with Whole Foods Market CEO Walter Robb, discussing his company's decision to require any products containing genetically modified organisms, GMO's, to be labeled by 2018 in order to be stocked at the company's 300-plus stores. It's a bold move, and Robb's thoughts crystallize this growing and oddly contentious debate about whether consumers have the right to know if GM ingredients are used in the products they're buying — a right, as is often noted, that Europeans already have.

Robb points this out in the Q&A with the Post, saying, "I would hope that this action will spur other actions. Other grocers saying, 'Yeah, the time has come.' Other trade associations saying, 'Wow, this really is about what our customers want.' And perhaps some of these efforts legislatively may actually lead [to an agreement] that it's time for some sort of national standards."

This is the real issue, and it's commendable that Whole Foods is taking the lead — even if the company has received some criticism for setting such a distant goal as five years from now. It's also worth noting that this is a great PR move, and it's gotten the company tons of press, like splashy A1 Business section stories in the Post. But skepticism aside, the GMO debate is so far being dictated not by consumers or farmers or even Whole Foods but by corporate interests. This was proved last November in California, when companies like Monsanto, DuPont and others banded together to send voters the message that Proposition 37, a pro-labeling inititiative sailing towards victory, would hurt farmers and increase bureacracy, eventually increasing the costs passed down to consumers. The corporations put millions of ad dollars behind their message. California voters rejected Prop 37.

Other states have picked up on the momentum of the California debate and introduced GMO labeling initiatives, while the Federal government continues to stay on the sidelines on the issue — perhaps, as Mark Bittman pointed out in The New York Times in the days leading up to the Prop 37 vote, to see if there really is a Good Food movement out there.

It's certainly tough for politicians to embrace the issue of GMO labeling in this country. Clearly, the decision to do so would cost valuable campaign contributions from some of the nation's largest companies, which would be faced with the cost of labeling all products that include GMOs, as well as the possible setbacks if consumers start embracing non-GMO products. (Though it's entertaining to consider the marketing possibilities of products like "Organic Coke.")

The corporate culture in this country doesn't seem likely to change soon, especially in the agriculture sector, no matter how many rooftop farms open in Brooklyn or urban vegetable patches there are in Portland, Oregon. So Whole Foods' announcement is a splashy move on a variety of fronts, but most importantly, it sends a message that a growing part of the U.S. citizenry is potentially interested in consuming products that aren't mass-produced, that are more about the ingredients than the marketing.

Last fall, as I walked to work in Midtown Manhattan, I often passed a Subway advertisement featuring Eli Manning, the elite New York Giant quarterback, shilling for footlong subs. The irony struck me as profound — here you have a guy in peak physical shape, well-educated, wealthy beyond wildest dreams, and he's telling people to eat food that's manufactured for convenience above all else. This is but one example — athletes are the corporate food world's most sought-after celebrity endorsers, and many are all too willing to take the six- or seven-figure paydays for the easy job as "spokesperson" despite the message they might be sending. America embraces this ethos.

But it's a big part of the cycle that has led to corporate agriculture getting away with whatever it wants in the name of profits, and most importantly, with controlling the message. Are GMO's bad for us? It's a debate that the most open-minded scientists are having, so why can't Americans have a choice while scientists sort out whether a genetically modified corn kernel or soybean may affect our health, or the health of a future generation? Well, it's not in the corporate interest, for one thing. Which is why Whole Foods throwing down the gantlet is so intriguing. It moves the conversation out of the labs and the government buildings and onto the shelves. The consumers will call the shots, come 2018, and the executives at corporations making the products can will be faced with a choice of their own.

"The thing is, it's a free world," Robb said in the Post interview. "So in five years, if folks don't want to participate, they don't have to participate. They just won't be at Whole Foods."

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