Europeans would be forgiven for thinking that the war against genetic tampering in the food supply has been all but won. There are labels in the supermarkets aisles, there is mounting political support for organic farming, and Greenpeace campaigners are seen to represent such a mainstream point of view that the courts have let them off for uprooting genetically modified crops. With 35 countries world-wide that have, or are developing, mandatory GM labeling laws, you'd think that the North American agricultural export industry would have no choice but to bow to the demand: keep GM seeds far away from their unaltered counterparts and, in general, move away from the controversial crops.
You'd be wrong. The real strategy is to introduce so much genetic pollution in the food system that meeting the consumer demand for GM-Free is seen as not possible. The idea, quite simply, is to pollute faster than countries can legislate – then change the laws to fit the contamination.
A few reports from the front lines of this invisible war.
In April, Monsanto recalled about 10 percent of the GM canola seeds it had distributed in Canada because of reports that the seeds had been contaminated by another modified rape-seed variety, one not approved for export. The most well-known of these cases is StarLink corn. The genetically altered crop (meant for animals and deemed unfit for humans) made its way into much of the U.S. corn supply after the buffer zones surrounding the fields where it was grown proved wholly incapable of containing the wind-borne pollen. Aventis, which owns the StarLink patent, proposed a solution: instead of recalling the corn, why not approve its consumption for humans?
And then there is the now famous case of Percy Schmeiser, the Saskatchewan farmer who was sued by Monsanto after its genetically altered canola seeds blew into his field off passing trucks and from neighbouring fields. Monsanto says that when the seeds took root, Mr. Schmeiser was stealing its property. The court agreed and, two months ago, ordered the farmer to pay the company $20 thousand, plus legal costs. “I was really alarmed at the fact that it said in the decision that it doesn't matter how it gets into a farmer's field,” Mr. Schmeiser said, “whether it blows in or cross-pollinates, floods, comes in on farm machinery – it doesn't belong to the farmer. It belongs to Monsanto.” The ruling was a warning to independent North American farmers trying to go at it without the gene giants: try it, and you'll pay the price.
Arran Stephens, president of Nature's Path, an organic food company in British Columbia, told the New York Times earlier this month that GM material is even finding its way into organic crops. “We have found traces in corn that has been grown organically for 10-15 years. There's no wall high enough to keep that stuff contained.” Indeed, there is so much genetic contamination in North American fields that a group of organic farmers is considering launching a class action suit against the bio-tech industry for lost revenues – how can you sell to consumers demanding GMO-Free foods when you can't keep the genes out of your fields?
Last week, the grounds for this case received a significant boost. Loblaws, Canada's largest supermarket chain with 40 per cent of the market, sent out a letter to all of its health food suppliers, including Nature's Path, informing them that they were no longer permitted to claim that their foods were “Non-GMO.” Company executives argue there is just no way of knowing what is genuinely GM free. “Dear Valued Suppliers,” the letter begins, and goes on to demand written commitments “to remove Non-GMO claims from …packaging no later than September 1 2001” and “make all necessary arrangements to sticker over, or otherwise cover, Non-GM claims prior to the September 1, 2001 deadline.”
You can already see the handiwork in the aisles of Canada's major
supermarkets: hand-drawn black scribbles on boxes of organic breakfast cereal where the labels used to be. At first glance, Loblaws' decision doesn't seem to make market sense. Although roughly 70 per cent of foods sold in Canada contain GM ingredients, more than 90 per cent of Canadians tell pollsters they want labels telling them if their food's genetic make-up has been tampered with. It would seem sensible for supermakets to give customers what they want, as chains like Tesco and Safeway tried to do by labeling their own lines “GMO- Free” when the frankenfoods protests first came to Europe. In North America, however the supermarkets are part of a broader agricultural strategy to present labeling as simply too complicated. In part this is because chains like Loblaws are not only food retailers but manufacturers of their own private lines. Loblaws' line is called “President's Choice” or “Memories Of,” containing such Third World-Chic products as Memories of Kobe Sauce and Memories of Singapore Noodles. Company chairman Galen Weston has publicly warned that "there will be a cost associated" with labeling and if Loblaws sells some products that are labeled “GMO-Free” it weakens attempts to block GM labeling for the rest of its wares.
What does all this mean to Europeans and your far more advanced campaigns against GMO? It means that your labels could soon be as obsolete as the scratched out ones in our supermarkets. If contamination continues to spread in North America, and agri-business's current push to overturn Brazil's ban on genetically modified seeds is successful, it will become next to impossible to import non-GM soybeans. Backed up by predatory intellectual property laws, the agribusiness companies are on their way to getting the global food supply so hopelessly cross pollinated, commingled, contaminated, polluted and generally mixed up, that legislators may well be forced to throw up their hands.
When we look back on this moment, munching our genetically modified Natural Values™ health-style food, our human approved StarLink tacos, and our mutated farmed Atlantic salmon (escaped from their pens, recaptured “wild” in the Pacific), we may well remember it as the precise turning point when we lost our real food options. Perhaps Loblaws will even launch a new product to bottle that wistful feeling, Memories of Consumer Choice.