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Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

On Feb 2, 2014, the New York Times published an opinion article titled "We Need GMO Wheat". As You Sow has published an open letter to the editor responding to the article's misguided premise and factual inaccuracies.

Dear Editors of the New York Times,

The assertion that the U.S. needs GMO wheat ("We Need GMO Wheat", Opinion, 2/2/14) could not be further from the truth. GMO crops covering a majority of America's heartland have created a food security crisis, increased toxic herbicide use, and have contaminated our food system leading to long-term negative health impacts. Recognizing the long-term environmental and financial risks, 64 countries now require labeling of GMOs.

GMO monocrops are susceptible to blights like "Goss's wilt", a "tidal wave washing across the Corn Belt" ("A Disease Cuts Corn Yields", 9/30/13). A 2013 MIT peer-reviewed study demonstrated that the herbicide Roundup, which GMO crops are engineered to tolerate, is "linked to a range of health problems and diseases, including Parkinson's, infertility and cancers." This toxic chemical is being aerially sprayed on millions of acres of "Roundup Ready" GMO crops and farm-adjacent communities. Micro-doses of this endocrine-disruptor are found in our food supply, including infant formula and children's cereals.

GMO crops have not delivered on their promise of ending world hunger. They have created record profits for a handful of seed/chemical companies and left the rest of us exposed to toxic chemicals and vulnerable to food shortages. We do not need GMO wheat, what we need is a policy that supports sustainable agricultural for generations to come.

Austin Wilson, Environmental Health Program Associate
Andrew Behar, CEO
As You Sow

The controversy over genetically modified food has resulted in large-scale market and consumer backlash, which together pose material risks for investors of companies using GMOs. These material risks include the potential for financial liability if their company's products result in environmental or health problems.

After over a decade of shareholder advocacy and consumer pressure, General Mills has announced that they have reformulated original Cheerios breakfast cereal without genetically modified ingredients. This is a great victory for health and safety in food, and we congratulate General Mills for their leadership. But there is still more to do. General Mills should continue to phase out GMO ingredients from the rest of their food products, and other manufacturers should follow suit.

In the wake of the defeat of Washington state's ballot measure to require GMO labeling, As You Sow is filing resolutions asking the top corporate donors to the opposition of the California GMO labeling ballot initiative to refrain from using corporate funds to influence political elections. Investors note that many of the companies that contributed to defeat California's Prop 37 and other GMO-labeling measures experienced significant consumer backlash and were the subject of consumer boycotts. As You Sow has filed resolutions at E.l DuPont de Nemours and Dow Chemical Company, engaged in dialogue with Monsanto Company, and intends to file shareholder resolutions at General Mills and Abbott Laboratories, which combined gave over $17 million to defeat the CA labeling initiative.

In 2013, As You Sow filed a shareholder resolution with Abbott Laboratories asking for removal of GMO ingredients from the company's infant formulas. A similar resolution was co-filed with DuPont, a company that As You Sow has been engaging for more than a decade on this issue.

Additionally, Whole Foods' recent commitment to require mandatory GMO labeling for products sold in its stores marks a second victory in As You Sow's decade-long engagement with the company. Read more about our work with Whole Foods and other companies below.

Background

The genetic modification or engineering of food is a relatively new and untested technology that raises significant questions about its impact on human health and the economy.

Will genetically modified foods provide us with new health benefits or make us ill from allergic reactions and increased antibiotic resistance? Will it feed the world's poor as major corporations claim, or make the poor more dependent on patented seeds and food monopolies? Will it create more weed- and pest-resistant plants or create "superweeds" and "superpests" that will need even stronger poisons to kill them?

Studies can be found to support both sides of these arguments as scientists try to determine what are the real public health and environmental risks and what is the best way to safely harness the potential, and avoid the dangers, of GMO foods.

Many are uncomfortable that this decision has largely been left up to the companies that profit from their sale. The Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency have not carried out nor do they require long-term safety studies on health or environmental impacts.

Read our FAQs about GMOs to learn more about possible risks and pertinent scientific studies.

As You Sow has helped monitor economic risk in three reports:

As part of a shareholder coalition that has approached nearly 50 companies on this issue, As You Sow has or is engaged with the following companies:

Abbott Laboratories

Read about our 2013 resolution on the Abbott Laboratories page.

DuPont

Read about our 2013 resolution on the DuPont page.

Heinz

Heinz is one of the most recognized names among American food products.Heinz was one the first U.S. companies to publicly address the issue of GMO foods by guaranteeing that its baby foods would be GMO-free.

As You Sow was an active participant in the ICCR-Heinz dialogue from 2000 to 2003, when shareholders ended the dialogue after the company made significant efforts to eliminate genetically engineered ingredients from its products.

By 2002 Heinz completed an internal survey and released this statement: "We have investigated the source of all of our ingredients and reformulated, where necessary, our product range to eliminate GM [genetically engineered] content."

Heinz's transparency on this issue was matched by its willingness to engage in frank dialogue with shareholders on the workings of the food industry and the purchasing and marketing challenges relating to GMO ingredients. For example, the company reformulated genetically engineered ingredients in many of its products but would still not label its U.S. products due to the lack of crop segregation and the possibility of contamination.

The company's decision to actively and publicly address this issue allowed it to receive the benefits of consumer loyalty and investor confidence, as well as avoid the negative press generated by grassroots groups targeting those companies that hid from this issue.

Hershey Foods

Hershey's is the largest North American manufacturer of chocolate and non-chocolate confectionery products, with revenues of over $4 billion and more than 13,000 employees worldwide.

These products contain ingredients such as corn syrup and soy lecithin, which are derived from the two most commonly grown genetically engineered food crops - soy and corn. Yet Hershey has no policy to avoid GMO ingredients and its products are unlabeled.

In 2001, As You Sow organized a shareholder group of socially responsible investors - with over $21 million in combined Hershey shares - which filed a resolution that asked the company to report about steps required to phase out GMO crops, organisms, or products unless long term testing proves them safe to humans, animals and the environment.

Just two days after its annual meeting Hershey Foods made a rare public statement to the Wall Street Journal that the company had asked farmers not to grow genetically engineered sugar beets. The Consumers Union credits Hershey's decision with stopping the development of GMO sugar beet industry.

Kellogg

Kellogg is another of America's most recognized brand names, yet unlike Heinz, it became a target of an international boycott over the issue of GMO food.

ICCR shareholders filed a resolution in 2000 and As You Sow participated in a shareholder dialogue at Kellogg from 2000 to 2001. As You Sow developed an investor fact sheet that looked at some of the reputational and financial risks facing the company from its use of genetically engineered ingredients and the ensuing consumer backlash.

Shortly after this, Kellogg was one of many companies whose products were contaminated by Starlink, a GMO corn not approved for human consumption.

This prompted As You Sow to consider the overall impacts to the food industry as a whole in its report "Genetically Engineered Food and Financial Risks."

Kraft

Kraft Foods is the largest food and beverage company headquartered in North America and second largest in the world, marketing many popular brands in more than 155 countries.

As You Sow and ICCR members are in a multi-year dialogue with Kraft Foods. As You Sow helped develop financial risk materials such as the 2003 report "Risky Business: Financial Risks that Genetically Engineered Foods Pose to Kraft Inc and Shareholders."

Recent dialogues with the company have focused on Kraft becoming an industry leader and Kraft has lobbied for such policies as:

  • Standardized GE sampling methodologies
  • monitoring of health and ecological impacts
  • Opposition to "partial approvals" (products allowed for animal feed but not for humans)
  • Opposition to plant made pharmaceutical and industrial products in food crops

Kraft has also agreed to shareholder requests to:

  • Increase transparency on its web sites
  • Provide information on its sourcing
  • Provide more diverse points of views and reports on the website
Monsanto

Monsanto is the world's largest producer of genetically engineered (GE) seeds and has become synonymous with genetic engineering. Shareholders are very concerned about potential health and environmental impacts and financial liability from products that may be prematurely rushed to market.

As You Sow began engaging Monsanto on this issue since 2004. In 2005 As You Sow joined a dozen Catholic institutional investors in co-filing a resolution asking the company to report on the impacts of GE seeds and evidence of independent long-term safety testing demonstrating that GE crops, organisms, or products thereof are actually safe for humans, animals, and the environment.

As You Sow also commissioned the most detailed financial analysis of this issue and released the report "Monsanto and Genetic Engineering: Risk for Investors." The report found:

  • Significant risks to financial performance remain un-examined in Monsanto's business plan and are not properly reflected in current stock market valuations
  • Potential costs of "adventitious presence", or contamination of conventional seed with biotechnology traits, is not delineated properly for investors by management
  • Lack of regulatory oversight is not acknowledged as a business risk since liability remains with Monsanto once GE crops are commercialized
  • Regular appearance of "Extraordinary Charges" on the balance sheet as a result of environmental litigation costs and restructuring charges imply that such costs will likely continue to be burdensome
  • Ambitious profit targets do not reflect political and economic realities facing GE crops with respect to consumer acceptance and commercialization
  • Reliance on litigation to "capture value" and fend off competitors is not fully acknowledged in the business plan, or accounted for in SEC filings
  • Traditional chemical company risks remain a burden despite the shift to Ag biotech.

An ongoing dialogue with the company has focused on specific products including Plant Made Pharmaceuticals (PMP's), wheat, canola, and turf-grass; seed integrity; and impacts on developing countries. The shareholders were one pressure point among many that helped convince Monsanto to:

  • Abandon plans to develop GE wheat and
  • Abandon plans to develop Plant Made Pharmaceuticals

As You Sow and its ICCR shareholder partners co-filed a 2006 resolution asking the company to report on its policies, practices, and business rational regarding political contributions.

Safeway

Safeway is one of the largest supermarket chains in the country and was another early target of consumer activists. A shareholder resolution was filed in 2000 and, similar to Kellogg, As You Sow developed an investor fact sheet that looked at Safeway's financial liabilities associated with use of GE products. As You Sow conducted a media campaign around the Safeway shareholder meeting that resulted in extensive Bay Area TV, radio, and print coverage.

An exchange at the 2000 annual meeting between As You Sow and Safeway CEO Steve Burd was an example of things to come. Said Burd, "genetic engineering is not gene splicing," "these foods are pervasive, we have been eating it for decades," and government agencies "thoroughly tested and monitor" these products.

As You Sow explained that the gene splicing is, in fact, genetic engineering - fish genes were being inserted into tomatoes; that these products had only been pervasive for the last three years; and that testing had focused on the desired effect such as herbicide resistance or increased growth - and had not studied environmental and health related issues; and that the government did no testing, relied on voluntary consulting from the companies profiting from these products, and that regulatory loopholes exist like the Bt potato being classified as a pesticide not a food.

This lack of understanding of GE foods, and in particular, the misunderstanding of the government's role in testing and oversight, was typical of the 40 companies that shareholders eventually approached about this issue.

Five months later Safeway found itself the top story of extensive national TV, radio, and print coverage as Safeway brand taco shells and other food items were found to contain Starlink corn - a GE corn not approved for human consumption - that led to a massive recall of Safeway products.

Starbucks

As You Sow began a shareholder dialogue on GMOs with Starbucks in 2001. Our shareholder group includes Trillium Asset Management and members of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility. The GE food issues at Starbucks focus on the potential commercialization GE coffee and tea; the use of bovine growth hormone in its dairy products; and the use of GE ingredients in its food products.

At the 2001 annual meeting, under heavy pressure from consumer advocates and shareholders, the company promised to provide alternative sources of non-GE milk in stores. The company also told shareholders they would provide a report by the end of 2001 to look at the feasibility of purchasing non-bovine growth hormone milk for all 50 million gallons they use annually.

The company failed to deliver the report at that time and consequently in 2002 and 2003 As You Sow filed shareholder resolutions asking Starbucks to label GE food products.

As You Sow's persistence on this issue has helped move Starbucks towards more responsible practices:

  • 2004: The company began surveying its bakery and dairy product suppliers to determine which could provide non-GE ingredients.
  • 2005: As You Sow asked for and received a public commitment (printed in the company's 2005 Corporate Social Responsibility Report) to not use GE coffee or tea if commercially developed. Previously, Starbucks had only publicly committed to not support research into the commercialization of these products.
  • 2006: Starbucks announced it would incorporate the topic of GE ingredients into a company wide summit on supply chain issues. The company also promised to work with shareholders in developing a public statement that the company is committed to the long-term safety testing of GE products and to pressure its trade organizations to commit to long-term safety testing as well.
Sysco

As the largest food distributor in North America, Sysco has a considerable impact on the expansion of GMO products in the marketplace. As You Sow was part of a dialogue between ICCR and Sysco, which began in 2000. A shareholder resolution that year was withdrawn when senior management agreed to establish a task force to investigate the issue.

As You Sow organized an expert briefing for the company utilizing GMO scientific experts from both sides of the issue to discuss the environmental and health risks of GMO products. We also provided the company with research showing gaps in the regulatory process and a financial analysis of the biotech food industry indicating a loss of market share and falling stock prices. Sysco surveyed its suppliers and was told that their own brand name products could be GMO-free in 2 years.

In 2002, the company abruptly terminated the dialogue with shareholders. Consequently, a shareholder group filed resolutions from 2003-2005 calling for a report on the impacts of GMO foods; contingency plans for sourcing non-GMO food ingredients should circumstances so require; and any issues of competitive advantage and/or brand name loyalty from use or non-use of GMO ingredients.

While Sysco continues to avoid any transparency or dialogue on this issue, it has increased its use of certified non-GMO products by becoming a market partner of the Food Alliance, a nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable agriculture.

Whole Foods

Whole Foods Market is the world's largest retailer of natural and organic foods.

As You Sow and ICCR members have been in dialogue with Whole Foods since 2001 and co-filed a resolution in 2002 asking the company to identify and label GMO ingredients in its products.

The company committed to do this in 2003 in exchange for a withdrawal of the resolution, but failed to do so. This resulted in renewed shareholder and grassroots pressure and in 2005 Whole Foods announced a new policy of labeling its private label foods to indicate they are from non-GMO crops, becoming the first supermarket to do so.

As You Sow continued engaging the company and in 2013 it announced that by 2018, all products it sells that contain GMOs must be labeled. This marks the second industry-leading step on GMOs from the grocer and As You Sow encourages other companies to follow their leadership.

 

 



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