Memories of Consumer Choiceâ„¢

June 20th, 2001
By Naomi Klein

In the aisles of Loblaws, between bottles of President’s Choice Memories of Kobe Sauce and Memories of Singapore noodles, there is a new in-store special: blacked out labels on organic foods. These boxes used to say “Free of Genetically Modified Organisms” but then Canada’s largest grocery chain sent down an edict that such labels were no longer permitted.

At first glance, Loblaws’ decision doesn’t seem to make market sense. When the first frankenfoods protests came to Europe, chains like Tesco and Safeway scrambled to satisfy consumer demand by labeling their own lines “GMO-Free.” And when Loblaws entered the health food market with its line of President’s Choice Organics, it seemed to be going the same route. In advertisements, the company proudly pointed out that certified organic products “must be free of genetically modified organisms.”

Then, the about-face, made public last week: not only won’t Loblaws make the GM-free claim on its own packages, it won’t allow anyone else to make the claim either. Company executives claim there is just no way of knowing what is genuinely GM free — apparently, it’s too confusing.

Loblaws’ argument points to a much broader strategy that North American food and agriculture giants appear to be using to take on anti-GMO forces. The goals seems to be to mess up the food system faster than consumers can demand labeling. Political will is pitted against nuts and bolts practicality so that by the time the political will arrives, effective labeling is no longer an pragmatic option.

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, but Galen Weston, chairman of Loblaws, has publicly warned that "there will be a cost associated" with such an initiative. This, in part, explains the magic markers: if Loblaws carries organic products that are labeled “GMO-Free” it weakens attempts to block GM labeling for all the roughly 70 per cent of Canadian foods that contain GM ingredients. So, the grocer has made a rather brutal choice: rather than give consumers some of the information they are demanding, they will provide none of it.

And this is only one salvo in a war being waged by the agribusiness industry on consumer choice in genetic engineering debate—not just in Canada, but potentially, around the world. Faced with 35 countries that have, or are developing, mandatory GE labeling laws, the industry appears to be doing everything it can to make those European and Asian labels as obsolete as the ones that have been scratched out at Loblaws. How? By polluting faster than countries can legislate.

A few reports from the front lines.

One of the companies that have been forced to remove its labels is Nature’s Path, an organic food company based in Delta, B.C. Earlier this month, company president Arran Stephens told the New York Times that GM material is indeed 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.”

Some organic food companies are considering suing the bio-tech industry for contamination but, in fact, the law is going in precisely the opposite direction. Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser was sued by Monsanto after its patented genetically altered canola seeds blew into the farmer’s field from passing trucks and neighbouring fields. Monsanto says that when the airborne 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.

The most well-known contamination case is StarLink corn. After the genetically altered crop (meant for animals and deemed unfit for humans) made its way into the food supply, Aventis, which owns the patent, proposed a solution: instead of recalling the corn, why not approve its consumption for human? In other words: change the law to fit the contamination.

All around the world, consumers are exercising a renewed political power, demanding organic options at the supermarket, asking their governments for clear labeling of GMO foods. Yet all the while, the agribusiness giants—backed up by predatory intellectual property laws—are busily getting the global food supply so hopeless cross pollinated, commingle, contaminated, polluted and mixed up that legislators may well be forced to throw up their hands. As biotech critic Jeremy Rifkin says, “They’re hoping there’s enough contamination so that it’s is a fait accompli.”

When we look back on this moment, munching our genetically modified Natural Valuesâ„¢ 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.