This month, Whole Foods became the first retailer in the country to announce that it would require its more than 300 stores to label all food containing genetically modified ingredients.
The move, to be phased in over five years, marked the latest salvo in a decades-long, global fight over the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) such as corn, cotton and soybeans in food. As the use of GMOs in a variety of products has proliferated, so has the argument over whether they are safe for humans and the environment, whether they deserve more scrutiny from regulators and how they should be labeled.
The biotech industry has argued that GMO technologies are a safe way to reduce plant disease, increase crop yields and create a more efficient global food supply. The Food and Drug Administration has said there is no meaningful difference between foods that use organic ingredients and their genetically modified counterparts. Meanwhile, consumer groups and public health activists have continued to raise questions about the long-term effects of genetic manipulation and to push for mandatory labeling requirements throughout the country.
That clash culminated in California last fall with Proposition 37, a measure that would have required labeling of any foods containing genetically engineered ingredients. The measure was narrowly defeated, in part because of opposition funded by Monsanto, DuPont and other companies, which argued that the "flawed" initiative would increase grocery bills, lead to frivolous lawsuits and allow "special interest" exemptions.
Despite its defeat, Prop 37 has helped trigger GMO-labeling initiatives in other states and an upcoming protest at the FDA. It also played a role in the decision by Whole Foods, according to Walter Robb, the Texas-based chain's co-chief executive.
Robb spoke with The Washington Post about the thinking behind the recent announcement and the ripple effect he hopes it will have. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation:
Q: I'm curious about the thinking behind this decision and the timing of it.
A: Our company has been in support of mandatory [GMO] labeling for years and years, starting in the '80s. During the last couple years, we really heard a lot from our customers about their desire for labeling. In 2009, we helped to start the Non-GMO Project, which provides the protocols to do Non-GMO tests and Non-GMO labels. Then we had Prop 37. Now there are initiatives in about 20 other states.
As we began to look at our position, I think it became clear that this was a step that we needed to take. Fundamentally, [customers] were right about the fact that food should be labeled so that they had the right to choose. We have a long history of [supporting] that. The timeliness of these events, plus the encouragement of our customers ' it all led to us saying this is the step we need to take as a company.
Q: Were there people at Whole Foods who were wary of doing this?
A: Look, this is a big step. We didn't say some of the product. We said all of the product. So, this is going to be a lot of work. It's a doable goal. But we need to proceed in a very thoughtful manner.
Internally, we have different points of view on GMO technologies within our team. I think that's healthy. Particularly over the last six months, we just kept coming back to, "What's the step here we need to take?" How do you argue with the fact that a customer has a right to know what's in their food? It's so fundamental.
It was a consensus decision at the end. But there are different views as to the current practice of GMOs, the future potential of GMOs. This is an issue about the appropriateness of these technologies, the potential of these technologies. Our team is no different than the cross-section of the country. People just think about it in different ways for different reasons.
Q: What about the reaction of your suppliers? Obviously, some welcomed it. For some, I'm sure five years seems like a short time frame.
A: People were surprised. They seemed pleased. Remember, a lot of our suppliers have already moved on this. A percentage of their product is in the Non-GMO Project. We've been encouraging them to do that for a few years. We realize this is complicated. The commitment to folks was that we're going to do this together.
The thing is, it's a free world. 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.
We want to make sure that every supplier can participate here. If we get started this way, I think we're going to build the marketplace. Right now, you've got organic corn at pretty high prices. Same for soy. If you know there's going to be a market for products made with non-GMO, organic ingredients, more folks are going to get involved in the production of it. It's going to put an incentive to increase the acreage and increase the production, because there's going to be a market for the end ingredient. That's using the power of the marketplace to create change.
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. Labeling is in 60 countries. It's not like it hasn't been done before.
Q: So it made sense for Whole Foods, but you're also trying to use whatever leverage you have in the industry to try to spur change?
A: Absolutely. We think this is the right thing to do, make no mistake about it. Abraham Lincoln said about leadership that you're representing the collective will of what the people want, but you also are there to provide leadership as best as you can see it. So it's a combination of both ' respect for the people, but also leadership. That's true for us.
Q: Would you sell products that have GMO ingredients that are labeled? Or would you prefer to be a completely GMO-free store? Is that the end goal?
A: It's our customers who are going to make those choices. To be clear, right now, GMOs are primarily in five or six crops in the United States. So there are many foods in the store where no GMO technology is involved. Everybody that's selling food in the United States is probably selling some GMOs now because of the prevalence of them and the lack of the labeling laws. We don't know, so [customers] don't know.
I don't know how this will come out in terms of the labels. It's not like we're going to put a skull and crossbones on it. We're just going to put a label on it and let people make their decisions. We're not aiming to be a GMO-free store, but we're aiming to be a 100 percent transparent store.
For customers who want the non-GMO choices, they can choose right now. Organic, by law, doesn't allow GMO technologies.
Q: You mentioned that you hope this new policy will spread. Have you heard from others in the grocery industry in the past week? Not just suppliers?
A: Anecdotally, there have been folks who have reported conversations with folks within other big companies and other trade associations who have said, "We've been thinking about this." The fact is, a lot of our suppliers supply other folks, too. And a lot of companies that supply us have companies that have non-GMO organic brands. What are they going to do? Are they going to do these efforts for just one part of their company? All this is going to bring these questions to the fore within other companies and other suppliers.
Q: There are people who argue that to require labeling would stigmatize food that really hasn't been shown to be harmful. What's your reaction to the notion that, by putting on a label, it inherently signals there's something wrong with [GMO] food?
A: You could flip that and say that if that's true, then why would you have a problem labeling it? The fact is, the science is very mixed. Science can be trotted out in both directions.
It's going to take time to settle some of these questions. Science doesn't actually settle anything here. Which is why you come back to labeling. At least we can let folks know while we're waiting to actually see if science is going to render a verdict.
The FDA has made their decision [that GMO crops are "substantially equivalent" to traditional crops], but it obviously has not satisfied people, hence all the activism around this. There's a lot of concern out there about long-term effects on health and the environment.