Jeff Heuchert, Gazette staff
Vanessa Purc watched last Tuesday’s elections in the United States with great interest, particularly the results of Proposition 37 in the state of California, a ballot initiative to mandate labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients.
The measure, which would have required most processed foods to bear the label “partially produced with genetic engineering” or “may be partially produced with genetic engineering,” was defeated by voters 53 per cent to 47 per cent.
Supporters of the measure on both sides of the border, including organic and natural food companies and retailers, and environmental and consumer groups, saw the state – the most populous in the country – as a stepping stone for required labeling right across the country, and eventually into Canada.
Their largest concern is what they consider to be the unknown dangers to human health resulting from eating foods like cereals, baked goods and soda produced using crops that have been genetically modified to enhance desired traits such as increased resistance to herbicide.
“I’m a little disappointed, but I do believe (the labeling) will eventually pass,” says Purc, the assistant manager at The Gentle Rain Natural Health Food Store in Stratford, which offers shoppers a growing selection of products free from any genetically modified organisms (GMO).
“I understand why (the initiative) didn’t pass,” she adds. “There were a lot of things going up against it.”
Proposition 37 was opposed by a well funded – to the tune of $45 million – campaign led by multinational food and biotech companies like PepsiCO and Monsanto, who maintain genetically modified food are safe. They argued consumers would avoid products with the label and demand more GMO-free goods, resulting in higher manufacturing costs being passed down to consumers.
Purc believes the issue boils down to consumers’ right to choose and knowing what they are putting into their body.
At Purc’s urging, The Gentle Rain joined the Non-GMO Project, a multi-stakeholder collaborative working to preserve and build sources of non-GMO products and provide verified non-GMO choices. Labels identifying which products are GMO free can been seen throughout The Gentle Rain’s Rebecca Street store, where Purc says items are continuously being replaced with non-GMO alternatives. For instance, the store recently stopped selling soy lecithin and some of the snack items in its bulk section.
The store carries an expanding selection of GMO-free products, including everything from chips, soups, beans, drinks, gum, cookies, cereal and pasta.
“There are a lot of people who are concerned about his issue, so we’re going to supply the customer with healthier options,” says Purc, who notes demand from the store’s customers for non-GMO products has jumped in recent months, particularly after the store participated in the third annual Non-GMO Month in October.
To mark the month, the store started a petition calling on the federal government to mandate labeling. So far, it’s received about 300 signatures.
Purc says companies like Monsanto have been effective at hiding evidence that might suggest genetically modified foods aren’t as safe as they claim, and that what studies have been done only report short-term results.
“People don’t know what is being done to our food. Consuming something that hasn’t been studied long-term, people are fearful of that,” she adds.
Purc also questions the claim that a greater demand on non-GMO foods will lead to higher prices at the grocery store, suggesting food manufacturers will be willing to absorb any additional costs to accommodate the growing health-food market. Likewise, she says farmers will adapt their own practices to reflect changing consumer demand as they have done in the past.
A grower of both GMO and non-GMO crops, including corn, soybeans and wheat, Kirkton-area farmer Bill Denham understands and appreciates both sides of the debate.
He believes the market should be dictated by consumers, but questions whether most people are as worried about GMOs as health food advocates would suggest. He doesn’t believe the average consumer wants to be bothered sorting through another label on their product, given there are already organic certified products for the health-conscious shopper.
“From the outside it sounds like a good idea, but what you end up doing is totally confusing the consumer to the point they don’t know what they should eat.
“If you walk through a grocery store and read every label and look for ones with a corn or soy product in it, you’re hitting 95 per cent of the food.
“All of those would be affected by labeling. That’s a pretty massive change,” he adds.
Manufacturers pay farmers like Denham, who serves as chair of the Perth County committee of the Grain Farmers of Ontario, a premium for his non-GMO crops. If demand for GMO-free products rises, as opponents of the labeling suggest would happen, Denham says manufacturers will look to make up the cost by either passing it on to consumers or deducting it from farmers.
Denham also worries even with labeling, the anti-GMO crowd might not be satisfied and demand more changes, creating an even more convoluted and confusing food market.
Asked whether he believes the genetically modified crops he grows are safe, Denham says he hasn’t seen any concrete evidence to suggest otherwise, adding everything you can buy in the grocery store meets federal health specifications.
Still, supporters like Purc believe the call for labeling will get louder as more consumers become educated on the issue, whether it is by reading about GMOs online or picking up some of the material available at her store.
“If people put up enough fight about this issue things will change,” she adds.