Ever heard that old expression, “hoist with his own petard” and wondered what it means? Turns out it comes from the old days of siege warfare, when some unlucky guy was ordered to pick up the mediaeval equivalent of an IED (the “petard”) and plant it beneath the iron-studded oaken gate of a fortified city. Explosives being pretty new in those days, it often happened that the thing would go off before the guy could get rid of it. Hence the expression.
Whodathunk it? That’s exactly the kind of result Monsanto & Co. got by wasting millions of dollars trying to block GMO labeling initiatives (and in most cases succeeding). In two states alone (Washington and California) they spent, according to one source, more than $55,000,000, of which Monsanto’s share fell just short of a whopping $12,000,000.
They should have saved their money.
We first got wind of what was happening several weeks ago. Costco seldom if ever used to carry organic produce. Suddenly, overnight it seemed, the megastore blossomed with organic signs and labels in almost every food department. Safeway and other mainstream supermarkets followed suit. What was happening?
Well, frustrated at the ballot box, consumers were voting with their wallets.
It wasn’t long before even the MSM caught on to the trend. On April 15th, Mark Bittman wrote a column on it for the N.Y. Times. “A growing demand for organics, and the near-total reliance by U.S. farmers on genetically modified corn and soybeans, is driving a surge in imports from other nations where crops largely are free of bioengineering”, he opened, and went on to recite a litany of woe for the GMOers. Since most corn and soybeans become chicken or cattle feed, GMO varieties can’t be used if the meat is to be labeled organic. But customers had decided that if they couldn’t get labels for GMO food, the only way they could avoid GMO-fed meat was by buying organic. As a consequence, countries where few if any GMO crops were grown reaped a bonanza—soybean imports from India doubled in a year, while Romanian corn increased almost twentyfold. And guess what?—prices for organic meat are starting to fall already.
The meat story is only part of a much larger trend that’s featured in a special report, “The War on Big Food” by Beth Kowitt in the June issue of Fortune magazine. “Major packaged-food companies lost $4 billion in market share alone last year, as shoppers swerved to fresh and organic alternatives,” says Kowitt. “This is the most dynamic, disruptive, and transformational time that I’ve seen in my career” says one food executive with 37 years’ experience. One new organic-food company has grown to an astonishing $1.2 billion in sales in a space of only two years.
Of course the trend didn’t begin with the labeling referendums. Organic-food sales have been growing steadily over the last decade. Most processed foods contain other things besides GMOs—artificial preservatives that, ironically, were put there to stop food going bad and sickening people. But, as our experience in Costco showed us, the trend only reached the tipping point—the point at which retail companies started to jump the sinking GMO ship—after labeling initiatives in Washington, California, Oregon and Colorado had failed. That caused even companies as big and seemingly impregnable as Hershey’s to look at the sales figures and decide it was time to switch teams. In 2014 Hershey’s had kicked in $258,000 to defeat the Washington initiative and $493,900 to defeat the California initiative. But even if you do beat them, you may still have to join them. In February of this year Hershey’s announced the start of a campaign to clean up their act. In future, they would remove all “unnatural” substances from their products, including milk from GMO-fed cows and artificial sweeteners made with GMO corn.
It’s interesting to see exactly how the “hoist-with-own-petard” machinery worked. Prior to the initiatives, most people had little if any idea of what GMOs were. If instead of jumping immediately into battle mode the Big Six had just waited on the sidelines, things would probably have stayed that way. If the vote had gone against them, as well it might, they could have fought a series of delaying actions in court—just as they are now doing with the successful initiatives in Hawaii counties—and meanwhile spent some of the money they’d saved on pro-GMO propaganda. Thus, even if they didn’t win back what they lost at the polls, their control over the media and their relentless “Science, science, science” b.s. could have taken any steam out of the rush to buy non-GMO-labeled foods.
But no. They made a big production out of it. GMO foods were suddenly on every TV and radio station and in every newspaper and magazine. They came front and center to public awareness as never before. And while John and Jane Q. Public might buy the arguments about labeling adding to food costs, they were still far from sure about GMO safety. Why would GMO firms spend all that money if they weren’t hiding something? So, once you knew you weren’t going to be able to buy stuff with non-GMO labels, the logical thing to do was to buy food that had an already-existing label that could by law be placed only on non-GMO foods.
The Law of Unintended Consequences has struck again. GMOers seem especially prone to it. Look at the “superweeds”, herbicide-resistant species that Monsanto swore could never be produced by its precious Roundup. Look at all the GMO wonder products announced with great fanfare that have quickly fizzled.
The market has its own inexorable logic. Sellers will sell whatever sells. If it stops selling, they’ll switch to something else. It would be ironic indeed if GMOs were finally defeated, not by new scientific revelations, not by government legislation, but by the inscrutable workings of the Invisible Hand. And those same market forces are not yet done with GMO foods. Any trend, once it passes the tipping point, automatically picks up strength as a rolling snowball picks up snow. Increased demand causes increased production. Increased production brings a fall in prices. A fall in prices results in more and more customers. So even one of the GMOer’s favorite stories--the one about organic food being just a rich yuppie fad—no longer works for them, as Mr. & Mrs. Average find growing quantities of competitively priced organic food on their local supermarket shelves.
GMO firms must be kicking themselves. With their shot foot, in their petard wound.