By Joe Romano,

Marketing Manager

I had a dream about you. We sold love like a couple of roadside lemonade-stand vendors. Your love was organic, and mine was made with yellow tennis balls.

— Jarod Kintz

The year 2015 saw an unnatural rivalry in the natural foods sector. After years of battling government agencies and big agribusiness, makers of organic foods have begun to take on foods that label themselves “Non-GMO.”

While many non-GMO foods are organic, food shoppers wary of GMOs are beginning to favor the “Non-GMO” label over the organic label. It is happening so much that the newer “Non-GMO” label is taking business away from companies that have chosen not only to exclude genetically modified organisms from their products, but have also chosen to abide by the much stricter standards associated with the “Organic” label. According to the Wall Street Journal, “The organic industry has responded to this situation with marketing campaigns that make their position clear.”

“Organic is non-GMO,” said Cathy Calfo, executive director of California Certified Organic Farmers, a trade group that recently started promoting a new label to highlight the difference. “Non-GMO is not organic.”

To her point, the article goes on to outline that the US Department of Agriculture, which has “certified organic foods since 2002, requires that producers also keep out most synthetic pesticides and certain fertilizers, and that animals used to produce organic food can go outdoors year-round and aren’t given hormones or antibiotics.”

In response, the Non-GMO Project, a private, Bellingham, Washington non-profit that does most non-GMO certification, says it tests more stringently to certify that GMOs aren’t being unintentionally mixed into ingredients during transportation or production.

This may seem like petty squabbling, but food companies that carry these labels pay a lot to be certified. So while the “organic” label has fought hard for years to protect consumers who want to know what is in their food, distinct labeling that indicates a product has not been genetically modified has become even more important to many consumers, who may not realize that the organic label protects them from GMOs as well.

According to data compiled by Spins LLC, a research company that has access to all co-op and natural food store sales data, non-GMO foods are on pace to surpass those of food bearing the USDA’s certified organic seal this year. According to Spins, non-GMO sales are growing at five times the rate of organics.

But it soon would become clear that 2015 was not a good year for infighting. The battle over labeling GMOs was rising to a crescendo, while food lobbyists wanted to end the threat of labeling once and for all. Even worse, a new player was suddenly on the field — genetically modified salmon had somewhat quickly and quietly been approved by the USDA for human consumption.

As if that weren’t enough, after Vermont passed a 2014 bill requiring the labeling of GMO foods, labeling opponents were working furiously on the federal level to stop that law and other state laws like it. They tried to include the cynically-named Safe And Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 as a rider to an omnibus bill that Congress had to pass to keep the government running. The bill, dubbed the Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act by its opponents, was intended to prevent states from passing labeling laws of their own and would override the Vermont law. This would finally ensure that Americans could not tell genetically engineered salmon from natural salmon unless it was organic.

As December 2015 began, it looked like a year in which not only new GMO apples, GMO potatoes and GMO salmon would be introduced, it was beginning to look like labeling them would be outlawed forever while we were occupied fighting amongst ourselves.

Instead, in a kind of holiday miracle usually reserved for sentimental movies, we learned of a stunning, eleventh hour reversal. Not only would Congress strip the DARK act from the omnibus bill, they would instruct the USDA to forbid the sale of GM salmon until the agency put labeling guidelines in place and “a program to disclose to consumers” whether a fish has been genetically modified.

This was a victory for co-ops and food activists who have worked for decades to keep genetically modified foods from ending up on our tables. If GMO salmon is eventually “approved by Congress” it will come with a label that tells consumers what it is.

Many large chains are moving away from genetically modified foods. Pepsico, one of the biggest food industry opponents to labeling laws and owner of Tropicana orange juice, has declared that product GMO free, even though there is no such thing as a GMO orange. Even poor old Chipotle took some time to announce that while their food could not be certified “e-coli free,” the customer could be assured that they would find no GMOs. Why are companies like McDonalds, Hershey, General Mills, and Ben and Jerry’s jumping on the non-GMO labeling bandwagon even if their foods couldn’t possibly contain GMOs? It is simple. While the industry has put forth studies and statistics to prove their claims of GMO safety since day one, there is one statistic they have not been able to refute: the majority of consumers don’t believe them. According to the Pew Research Center, 57 percent of Americans believe GMOs are generally unsafe to eat. The very labeling they thought would be bad for business has become good for marketing, as long as they are not forced to disclose when foods actually contain GMOs.

Lisa Archer, director of the food and technology program at the Friends of the Earth, said her group would continue to keep pressing to have labels on all genetically modified foods, but the salmon provision was a good start. “The vast majority of people want GMO labeling, and Friends of the Earth and our allies will continue to fight for our basic right to know what we are feeding our families,” she said in a statement.

But enough about GMOs, how did other food issues that are important to GreenStar shoppers fare in 2015? It seems that co-ops started a trend over 45 years ago that consumers everywhere are picking up on today. In fact, the average American shopper is becoming more and more like a GreenStar shopper everyday.

As a result, businesses are starting to respond. Companies like McDonalds, Costco, and Tyson Foods have announced that they will stop buying chickens raised with human antibiotics. Businesses tout their ethical and or sustainable protein products now, using terms like “grass-fed,” “pastured,” and “plant-based” to lure the health-conscious consumer. Probiotic and fermented foods are also becoming mainstream; consumers are looking beyond yogurt and supplements toward traditional fermented foods and beverages such as krauts, kimchi, kefir, and kombucha. Claims by conventional producers that their products are “natural” have forced even the normally complacent FDA to solicit comments on the use of the term “natural” on food labeling in direct response to consumer requests.

But what about those organic labels? How is the organic standard bearing up? Well, according to the Organic Trade Association, the organic sector is up 11.3 percent from 2015, and organic sales are now nearing a landmark 5-percent share of the total food market. So their squabbles with the non-GMO folks haven’t seemed to detract from a successful year for both parties. Think what 2016 could bring.

GreenStar, of course, is proud to display both the “Non-GMO” and “USDA Organic” labels. In addition, our local Food Justice and Basics (food access) labels reflect our principles, and so your co-op has always surpassed every standard mentioned in this article. Co-ops like GreenStar continue improving the food system, while taking time out to keep fracking, LPG gas storage, and pipelines at bay in the name of our environment. We do this while helping to forge the movement in our community to ensure that everyone has access to good and healthy food. We are able to do all this while tirelessly working to improve your experience in our stores. In fact, in 2015 we did the work and planning to open our third store in Collegetown in August of 2016.

All in all, it was a very good year.

May the New Year bring health and happiness to all the members of our GreenStar community.