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USDA Disappoints: No Regulations on GE Alfalfa

It is difficult to express how disappointed we are by the USDA’s decision to completely deregulate genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa without restrictions. This news means farmers will now be able to plant Roundup Ready GE alfalfa without restrictions, beginning as soon as this spring. The USDA had been considering two potential decisions on this issue – either full deregulation or deregulation with restrictions. The latter would have set rules to protect non-GE crops from contamination. While Whole Foods Market and other advocates for non-GE and organic foods feel the USDA’s deregulation decision is a setback, we will continue the fight for the protection of non-GE food, as we have ever since genetically engineered crops first appeared in the marketplace. Whole Foods Market advocated strongly for deregulation with restrictions to preserve the ability of non-GE and organic growers to avoid contamination. It seemed that the USDA was finally recognizing that cross-contamination of GE alfalfa could potentially impact organic and non-GE farmers and consumers, both domestically and for our export markets. In fact, by inviting non-GE industry members to D.C. to discuss this issue, it appeared as though the USDA was acknowledging that organic and non-GE agriculture has the right to not only survive, but to thrive alongside GE agriculture. Unfortunately, the USDA’s decision fell far short of this mark, and we believe that unrestricted planting of GE alfalfa without setting any clear coexistence framework, with thresholds for contamination and providing for ongoing testing and verification, is irresponsible. As true advocates of non-GE foods, we had hoped for far better from this process. Here is a post on Samuel Fromartz's Chewswise blog that does a good job of describing the potential fallout. And this blog from the Non-GMO Project website responds to "the misguided distress expressed by the Organic Consumers Association and others in the last two days since the USDA announced deregulation of GMO alfalfa." Many people have asked us why we endorsed the coexistence option rather than an outright ban on GE alfalfa. That was never an option in Washington!  The USDA presented the industry with only two options that they were considering– deregulation and deregulation with restrictions. Given the pervasive planting of GE crops in the U.S. – 93% of soy, 86% of corn, 93% of cotton and 93% of canola seed planted were genetically engineered in the U.S. in 2010 – the option of an outright ban was not on the table. Whole Foods Market — along with the National Cooperative Grocers Association, the National Organic Coalition, the Organic Trade Association, and other companies and groups — endorsed the path of deregulation with restrictions, or coexistence, not because it was a perfect path, but because it was a path to create meaningful change right now in the regulating of genetically engineered foods and the protection of non-GE foods. Because we supported the USDA’s approach of coexistence, certain consumer groups misunderstood our efforts and accused us of supporting big biotech, endorsing the proliferation of GE crops, and turning our backs on our shoppers’ and their desire to avoid GE food. Nothing could be further from the truth! Whole Foods Market has been a staunch supporter of non-GE foods in the marketplace.  We have taken a strong and visible stance on biotechnology in agriculture, and will continue to do so. 
  • We believe that GE food should be clearly labeled, and that the USDA and FDA’s policies on GE foods are not consistent with our consumers’ expectations.
  • Since 1992, before GE crops were even commercialized, we have been educating and advocating on this issue, and we will continue to pursue our right to sell non-GE food.
  • We are proud to be a founding leader of The Non-GMO Project, which works to ensure the sustained availability of non-GMO choices through an industry-wide product standard. (Genetically engineered and Genetically Modified Organism — GMOs — are used interchangeably.)
  • We are committed to sourcing our store brand products to avoid GE ingredients, and we will continue to fight for strong organic standards that do not allow the use of GE crops.
  • We support the National Organic Standards, which prohibit GMOs in organics, and we champion informed consumer choice with regard to GMOs.
  • Our 365 Everyday Value® and Whole Foods Market™ brand products are sourced to avoid ingredients grown from genetically engineered seed, and our partnership with the Non-GMO Project will enable us to verify and label these products.
We will continue to work aggressively on this issue because we believe that GE food ingredients should be clearly labeled, and that consumers who want to avoid them should have an actionable way to do so. While yesterday’s decision will make our work more difficult, we are as committed as ever to ensuring that non-GE food remains available and we will continue to advocate for our farmers and for our shoppers on this issue.