Yesterday morning, I woke up in an alternate universe. I know this because the subject line of an email in my inbox said, “Boycott Working!!! WalMart wants GMOs Labeled!” Yeah, right. Some well-intentioned reader was putting a spin on things.
I opened the email and clicked on a link to this New York Times article.
My jaw dropped. I think I heard it hit the floor. Could this be real? I think it is… Sometime after my happy dance, I had to ask myself why WalMart and Big Food would begin pushing for GMO labeling. The answer is not quite as happy.
Is the Boycott Working?
I don’t really know. The Boycott was initiated after Big Food donated more than $46 million to defeat the Prop 37 labeling campaign in California. After their narrow defeat, consumers decided to hit these companies where it hurt. Not only have similar ballot-initiatives been started in numerous other states (33, if I recall correctly?), but consumers are now organized and ready to tighten their purse strings.
They are not spending their dollars on previously popular “organic” or “natural” brands that are subsidiaries of the corporations that donated to the campaign. The Organic Consumers Association is calling it a “Traitor’s Boycott,” and it seems to be making waves:
Brands like Honest Tea, which is owned by Coca-Cola, have written to the association, which estimates 75 percent of grocery products contain a genetically modified ingredient, to protest its “Traitors Boycott,” which urges consumers not to buy products made by units of companies that fought Proposition 37. Consumers have peppered the companies’ Web sites, Facebook pages and Twitter streams with angry remarks.
Ben & Jerry’s, the ice cream company, announced recently that it would remove all genetically modified ingredients from its products by the end of this year. Consumers had expressed outrage over the money its parent, Unilever, contributed to defeat the California measure.
But are those waves large enough to cause WalMart to suddenly jump on the GMO-labeling bandwagon?
I suspect ulterior motives.
Remember when Big Food started lobbying for a national organic certification program? Many organic growers protested the move, not only because certification would be costly (and possibly cost-prohibitive) for smaller farmers, but also because they felt the national standards far too lax.
It was an example of Big Food trying to control the inevitable in the hopes of increasing their profit margins.
Remember how the greatest lobbyist for pollution controls is Big Energy (Oil & Coal)? Again, it’s in their own best interest to make their pollution legal, to control the conversation at the national level.
Yes, we gained some traction because the worst things are now decidedly illegal. But those are the bare minimum of changes that Big Industry thought they could live with while still saving their public face and increasing their profit margins.
I suspect that this recent meeting of the minds between WalMart, PepsiCo, ConAgra, and 20 other major food companies belies a similar mission.
They see the inevitable.
They’ve read the writing on the subway wall.
One of these days, one of the ballot initiatives in one of these states is going to pass. This will start a cascade of similar laws being enacted in other states.
Rather than deal with a plethora of diverse laws in multiple states, Big Food wants to deal with one law of the land. And they want to control the national conversation so that whatever changes are enacted are the least costly to them.
Is this still good news?
I think so. It at least means the national tide is turning.
It means that capitalism is working because Big Food is being forced to respond to the natural checks of public demand.
Here’s how the chairman of Stonyfield put it:
“They spent an awful lot of money in California — talk about a lack of return on investment,” said Gary Hirshberg, co-chairman of the Just Label It campaign, which advocates national labeling, and chairman of Stonyfield, an organic dairy company.
If faced with spending equal amounts of money defeating similar ballot initiatives in other states ad infinitum, wouldn’t you also begin seeing the light and seek to give the public what they want?
But in the same way that we consumers still have to be savvy when navigating grocery store choices and understanding the limits of the USDA’s organic certification program, we’ll also have to be savvy about understanding the limits of the inevitable national GMO-labeling program.
What do you think?
(photo by methodshop.com)