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GMOs and Willy Street Co-op

Perhaps you’re one of the (couple hundred?) folks that have joined me on a bulk aisle tour or taken a class on seasonal eating. Maybe I’ve showed you the YouTube cartoon “How to Make a GMO” narrated by Vandana Shiva, or pointed out our bulk sugar cane offerings while mentioning the genetically-modified realities of the sugar beet industry. It’s possible that I’ve directed you to our Non-GMO Project list in one of the Owner Resources Areas. Regardless, I have never written an article about GE/ Genetically-Engineered foods (or GMOs/ Genetically-Modified Organisms) until now. I don’t even know where to start.

When I first began working at WillyStreet Co-op, my supervisor at the time cautioned me about the GMO realities of Madison. I imagine she said something like, “The University is a very biotech-friendly place. Be mindful that our Owners come from all different backgrounds, with differing perspectives on GMO foods.” Sure enough, when I held one of the first controversial ingredients classes/discussions, Todd* spoke up about the Vandana Shiva video I had just shown. In my memory, he said something like, “I think this video hypes up certain irrelevant points, like the mention of plant cancers. By the way, I studied biotechnology at the University.” I had that moment of dread. “I can’t go toe-to-toe with this guy,” I thought, “Unless we’re talking the politics of GMOs, not the exact science of them. I’m a farmer, not a scientist!” Luckily, I didn’t have to put on my diplomatic debate persona. He continued, “I left that career track because I think GE food is highly problematic.” I exhaled, and recognized him as another ally of sustainable farmers everywhere.

Genetically modified food remains a highly contentious and controversial topic, one that has previously been difficult to navigate as a grocery cooperative. It is highly politicized while also being personal. What am I putting into my body? What are you putting into yours? What am I feeding my children? Do I even know? Why don’t I know? Why are there no labels to guide me? Who controls the labeling process? Who regulates the safety of these foods? The questions can and do pile up.

Taking a position
Eventually, a handful of staff with decision-making power realized that Willy Street Co-op had to take a position on this topic. As advocates for proper labeling, local farmers, food system development, and clean foods, the Co-op had to recognize how the GMO industry has grown into an overwhelming threat to many of these things that we hold dear. (Note: I realize it may not be entirely universal, but I am not using the word “we” lightly.) So, in August of 2011, the Co-op signed on to participate in and support the Non-GMO Project.

Non-GMO project
According to its mission, the Non-GMO Project is “committed to preserving and building sources of non-GMO products, educating consumers, and providing verified non-GMO choices.” It works like this: vendors submit each of their products to be tested by this third-party project, and if verified, this information is passed along to retailers. Some vendors elect to add the Non-GMO Project label to these products. The Non-GMO Project has also recently added a “Restaurant Verification” process, which deals with verifying individual ingredients, select dishes, or the entire restaurant/deli.

Top GMo crops
So, is there a quick guide that all U.S. consumers can use when shopping at their local grocery store? The Non-GMO Project asserts that GMOs are in as much as 80% of conventional processed food. Some of the top genetically-engineered crops include corn, canola, sugar beets, soy, rice, summer squash, papaya, cotton, flax, and alfalfa. Milk, meat, eggs, and honey are also considered high-risk, due to “potential GMO contamination in feed and other inputs.”

Naturally, there is a solid argument for the labeling of GMO products. Currently, 64 countries—comprising over 40% of the world’s human population—require such labels. Many other countries have banned the growing or importing of specific GE crops or GE products altogether. Saudi Arabia has banned the growing of GMO foods and the import of GMO wheat. In May of 2013, Peru instituted a ban on all GMO foods: import, production, and use. Poland recently banned MON 810 maize and Amflora potato (two GE crops), citing the damage they have done to honeybee colonies. But where are we at in the U.S.?

On May 23rd, 2013, the U.S. Senate took a vote on adding Amendment 965 to the Farm Bill. Its purpose was “to permitStates to require that any food, beverage, or other edible product offered for sale have a label on indicating that the food, beverage, or other edible product contains a genetically engineered ingredient.” Seventy-one senators voted against this amendment, including the two elected Wisconsin senators, Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin. This was brought to our attention by a number of astute and engaged Owners (thank you!!!). In response, we have contacted these Senators to disagree with their votes, and ask for their perspectives. If you also disagree, I would encourage you to contact them as well. [Ron Johnson: 202-224-5323; Tammy Baldwin: 202-224-5653]

As a cooperative business comprised of over 30,000 Owners, when is action on a larger, politicized scale needed? There are 30,000+ perspectives to consider. Many Owners have been dismayed or frustrated by Willy Street Co-op’s refusal to take an official position on political candidates or parties. Many Owners have also applauded the Co-op for this decision (or lack thereof). So, how do we then navigate electoral politics? What makes the above action (contacting Senators who oppose GMO labeling) different from, say, collecting signatures for a recall election?
clear and gray areas

Let’s just say there are some clear areas and some gray ones. The Co-op as an entity, directed by Owners and a Board of Directors, refrains from participating in “partisan politics,” which translates into not endorsing candidates or political parties, nor giving candidates or parties a forum. However, there are specific issues that directly affect the well-being of the Co-op, including those related to organic foods, sustainable agriculture, food accessibility, and the cooperative business model. When issues like these arise, it could be argued that it is the role of the Co-op to advocate on Owners’ behalf. The focus is on the issue at hand, not the candidate or elected representative or political party.

Tell us what you think
So at the end, beginning, and throughout the day, we want to know your thoughts on these matters! Your voice is welcomed, your opinion considered, your perspective weighed. The person in front of you in line, behind you at the juice bar, next to you in the frozen aisle, that person also has a voice, opinion, perspective. How do we listen? How do we respond? Who is this “we”? (It’s rich, isn’t it?) This textured tension, this layered thoughtfulness, this complexity... this is why I find the Co-op model so incredibly fascinating.