Shop at Whole Foods. Spend your Whole Paycheck.

That’s the popular description of the upscale grocery store. Last year, in a Consumer Reports survey, Whole Foods tied with Jewel-Osco as America’s most expensive supermarket.

Now its prices almost certainly will go up.

Whole Foods announced on March 8 that starting in 2018, it will require labels on all items in its stores that contain genetically modified ingredients.

The Austin, Texas-based chain is a private company making a business choice. It has the right to stock certain goods and not others. If it wants to insist on labels for GMO foods, then it may do so.

The rest of us can exercise our own rights–including our right not to shop there. Demanding special labels on GMO products won’t just make grocery-store bills rise, it will also spread misinformation about safe and nutritious food.

Whole Foods wants consumers to think of its stores as places where health-conscious people shop. Its slogan is “where great tasting food is only natural.” This marketing strategy has led to incredible success. With 339 stores now operating in the United States and Canada and more on the way, Whole Foods is one of the fastest-growing food retailers on the planet.

 

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“We are the first national grocery chain to set a deadline for full GMO transparency,” says a press release. “We will work [with suppliers] as they transition to sourcing non-GMO ingredients or to clearly labeling products with ingredients containing GMOs.”

The only problem–other than the added expense, which surely will be passed on to shoppers–is the profound misperception. There’s no nutritional difference between food with GMO ingredients and food without, so labels can’t convey useful consumer information. In fact, labels will send the opposite message, hinting that a problem exists when this simply isn’t true.

GMO foods are safe to eat. That’s the conclusion of every scientific and regulatory agency that has studied the question, from the American Medical Association to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to the World Health Organization.

A few days after Whole Foods announced its new policy, the editorial page of the New York Times – one of the most liberal newspapers in the country – voiced its skepticism. “There is no reliable evidence that genetically modified foods now on the market pose any risk to consumers,” it said. “For now, there seems little reason to make labeling compulsory.”

The Times went on to make a common-sense suggestion. Consumers who are determined to avoid GMO foods already may do so. They can select organic food, whose federally certified labels already mark products that don’t contain GMO ingredients.

Organic illusion

Even people who do this, however, should not operate under the illusion that organic food is healthier than conventional and more affordable varieties.

Last October, a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics said that organic food and non-organic food are nutritionally equivalent. The key is to eat a balanced diet.

A month earlier, Stanford researchers published their own report that showed much the same thing. “Some believe that organic food is always healthier and more nutritious,” said Crystal Smith-Spangler of Stanford’s medical school. “We were a little surprised that we didn’t find that.”

Perhaps Whole Foods should require labels that say: “May contain GMO ingredients, not that it matters.” Or: “Don’t pay high prices for organic food because it isn’t any better for you.”

Then again, that would undercut Whole Foods’ very reason for being.

In a grand irony, Whole Foods criticized food labeling last fall, when Californians voted on Proposition 37, which would have mandated special labels for foods with GMO ingredients. Initially, Whole Foods backed Prop 37, but the chain also publicized its “reservations,” due to “consumer confusion” and “costly litigation”, ultimately ending its support of the ballot initiative.

Prop 37 was a bad idea that would have raised grocery-store bills and enriched trial lawyers. At first, polls indicated that the measure would pass. In the end, following a public-education campaign, voters had the good sense to reject it.

That’s what happens when consumers know the Whole Truth.

Ted Sheely raises lettuce, cotton, tomatoes, wheat, pistachios, wine grapes and garlic on a family farm in the California San Joaquin Valley. He volunteers as a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).

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