Sacramento, CA -- Major players in the organic food market have been conspicuously silent in what has become the food fight of the decade. This November, voters in California will have the opportunity to approve a ballot initiative (Proposition 37) that would require the labeling of all food products containing genetically engineered (GE) ingredients, commonly called GMOs.
Major agribusiness and biotechnology corporations, like Monsanto, and food manufacturers, like Pepsico and General Mills, are spending tens of millions of dollars in their effort to deny the consumer's right-to-know what they are eating.
Numerous smaller companies and organizations involved in organic food production -- which, by law, is prohibited from using GE ingredients -- have responded with their own campaign in support of the right-to-know initiative, raising over $3 million. However, this amount is dwarfed by the $23.5 million raised by the agribusiness and biotechnology corporations. (A September 13 New York Times story provides more detail on this dynamic.)
But many organic industry observers are most puzzled by the failure of some of the giants of the organic industry to throw their support behind the initiative, which reflects the values held by their most dedicated customers.
"Whole Foods Market, Stonyfield, Hain-Celestial and Trader Joe's are among the biggest manufacturers and retailers of organic food in the country, yet they have been AWOL during this epic food fight," says Mark Kastel, Codirector of The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm and food policy research group. "These companies should be proud to stand with their health and food conscious customers and join their efforts for the right-to-know what we are putting in our mouths and feeding our children," Kastel added.
The Hain Celestial Group has annual sales exceeding $1 billion from more than a dozen brands that are popular with organic consumers, including Earth's Best, Arrowhead Mills, Garden of Eatin' and Soy Dream.
Information reported by the California Secretary of State has helped illuminate the corporate players fighting the Proposition 37 ballot initiative. Monsanto and the giant food lobby group Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) have been joined in the effort to defeat the initiative by multi-billion-dollar, multi-national companies including General Mills, Dean Foods, Kellogg and Pepsico. Monsanto alone has donated $4.2 million, while food giants Pepsico and Coca-Cola have each donated more than $1 million.
According to Cornucopia, and California state records, numerous more modest companies, such as Nature's Path, Dr. Bronner's, Nutiva, Eden Foods, Organic Valley and Lundberg Family Farm are "walking their talk," having collectively contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the campaign in favor of Proposition 37 and food transparency. But the California Secretary of State's records fail to show one red cent from the missing organic industry giants.
"There's been speculation that because some of these company's leaders have close relationships with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, a proponent of genetically engineered foods, and others in the Obama administration, that they are sitting on their hands, and sitting on their wallets, so as not to embarrass the president during an election year," Kastel notes.
"The sad reality is that the Obama administration has done nothing more to make GMO labeling happen than the Bush administration, while accelerating--at the behest of the biotech companies--the review and approval process for an increasing number of genetically modified food crops by the USDA."
"To be candid with you," Stonyfield's Chairman Gary Hirshberg told the New York Times, "I understand exactly what they're trying to accomplish, and I'm supportive of their goal, but I don't believe that in the long run we can solve a problem like this on a state-by-state level."
Cornucopia's Kastel countered by saying, "Does anyone really believe that after our experiences with both the Bush and Obama administrations, and their kowtowing to the biotechnology and agribusiness lobby, due to their massive federal campaign investments, that we are really going to see within the foreseeable future Washington side with the majority of the population that wants to opt out of GE foods?"
"We are a small store that has been in business in Concord, MA since 1989," said Debra Stark of Debra's Natural Gourmet. "We contributed to the Prop 37 effort because we believe it is important to stand with our most engaged customers who are voting with their forks every time they come into our store to purchase wholesome food. Today, more consumers "get it' than ever before. Imagine if some of these giants stood with us!"
Independently owned Debra's Natural Gourmet competes directly with Whole Foods and Trader Joe's in the Boston metropolitan market.
Mandatory labeling of GE food ingredients is required in the European Union and dozens of other countries across the globe. Where in place, it has led to broad consumer avoidance of foods made with inputs from the biotechnology industry. The most recent polling from California indicated that almost 70% of the population supports labeling of GE ingredients. This level of support will soon be tested by an impending flood of advertisements, financed by Monsanto and the giant food lobby, in opposition to Proposition 37.
With stock prices for at least two of the missing organic giants, Whole Foods Markets and the natural and organic foods conglomerate Hain Celestial, at all-time highs, John Roulac, founder and CEO of Nutiva, an organic superfoods company, doubts that their absence is about a lack of resources.
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