by Lucy Sharratt, as published in the Watershed Sentinel, Nov-Dec-2012-Vol22-No5

The proliferation of genetically engineered (also called genetically modified or GM) ingredients is an extremely complex challenge that’s set to frustrate and test any food co-op, but the co-op model itself is uniquely placed to face this challenge head-on and make sense of it for customer-members and the community at large. In fact, food co-ops in Canada are charting a path through an industrialized food system riddled with GM foods. This groundbreaking work is made possible by the reciprocal relationships inside the co-op community including customer-member participation in the value-based decision-making at the heart of the co-op.

Food co-ops are daring to tread where few other retailers are willing to go on the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and community support and engagement is required for these difficult steps forward. Co-op members have a unique stake in the co-op’s choices and a unique voice in its decisions. Members are invested in the co-op and the co-op in its members. This dynamic reciprocity is needed to help navigate through such an emotional and logistically complicated issue as GMOs in our food. All the tools (and limitations) of a co-op come in to play and are tested by this issue.

Non-GMO Project at The Big Carrot

GMOs are prohibited in organic farming but many “natural” food products contain GM ingredients. As the health food sector has grown, so has the integration of GM canola, corn and soy ingredients. Customers cannot make assumptions that local and “natural” foods are non-GM and food co-ops are finding themselves in the position of explaining many contradictions in the food system.

Many food co-ops focus on healthy and ecological food options and interpret their mandates as requiring a strong position against GMOs. The Kootenay Country Store Cooperative’s mission (Nelson BC), for example, is to “promote community involvement by cultivating a cooperative, sustainable, organic way of life.” Handling the enormity of the challenge of GMOs however can be backbreaking, and heartbreaking. Without mandatory labelling of GM foods, food co-ops have picked up the grueling work of investigating each product, and each ingredient, that comes through the door. The Big Carrot in Toronto started this work in the late 1990s after conversations with customers on the store floor flagged concern over GMOs. At that time it was hard to conceive of the current high level of GM infiltration, via processed food ingredients and animal feed.

Maintaining vigilance over products is now only marginally easier with organic certification and the advent of a new North American “Non-GMO Project Verified” seal. Some non-GM or organic ingredients, such as soy lethicin for example, are hard to source. Even in the health food sector many food manufacturers are reluctant or unwilling to switch to non-GM ingredients that can require new recipes or squeeze more from slim profit margins.

An active membership passes a special resolution at the Kootenay Co-op.

For the Kootenay Co-op and the Big Carrot, the challenge of GMOs has brought the co-op’s responsibilities into sharp focus. The common experience is one of striving to provide the best for members. “We’ve always focused a lot of time and energy on providing non-GMO, local and organic products, and supporting educational and political campaigns to keep GMOs out of Canada” said Jocelyn Carver, Marketing Manager at the Kootenay Co-op, “and yet, it doesn’t feel like enough. Keeping up with this issue, feeling confident that we’re well-informed and able to make good decisions about next-steps requires doing a lot of homework on an ongoing basis…and the learning curve is steep.

The reality is that co-ops are engaging in advocacy campaigns against GMOs while still carrying many products with GM ingredients on the shelves. This struggle is inevitable in the process of moving towards a non-GM store. How to communicate this contradiction to members is an unusual conundrum that relies on the trust and engagement of the community. As Jocelyn Carver said, “We need to let our customers know how pervasive GMOs are throughout the food industry, including the fact that some are in the food on our shelves. It’s uncomfortable, because you’re disclosing something about your product that isn’t ideal…conventional grocery stores don’t offer that kind of transparency. But it’s at the core of what makes the Co-op different.” No corporate retailer would critically examine their products in public; this is what food co-ops are doing. The resulting process and dialogue challenges the entire community in a complex and long process of change making. “Our customers have a high level of trust and we feel very deeply the need to communicate honestly with our members about food issues like GMOs. We don’t do that lightly but it’s critical and needs to be done,” said Carver.

Heather Barclay with the "Citizens Say: No to GMO Contamination" banner at The Big Carrot

Both the Kootenay Co-op and The Big Carrot have a long history of engaging with their members on the GM issue, providing information and non-GM food choices, and this history creates expectations that need to be managed and balanced with the limitations of what the food system can provide at any given time, and what co-ops can achieve. However, it is those same expectations that keep co-ops constantly making changes and moving closer to the change that members want to create in the world.

It’s a common experience that those who make strides to improve are held to a higher standard, and so it is with food co-ops who constantly innovate within their capacity to change and build community. Large grocery chains operate without the same accountability to the community and, in response, community expectations of corporate retailers are very low compared to those of the local co-op. The food co-op however is expressly designed to enable people to take more control in the food system and collectively build new expectations together.

In addition to providing more and better food choices, busy food co-ops are also stimulating community discussion about the food system and GMOs. Co-ops often provide members with access to information and educational opportunities. Staff education and proactive community awareness is a huge part of moving an issue like GM forward but co-ops cannot research and advocate alone which is where other local and national groups like the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network can help. “It’s important to be an expert to some degree if you’re going to take responsibility for educating customers and members,” said Carver. “Our customers shop here for a wide spectrum of reasons and we need accessible information to meet people where they are at, and in a way that is galvanizing and not guilt-inducing.”

Delicious non-GMO treats at the Kootenay Co-op.

When we strive to be the change we want to see in the world, we come up against contradictions that can frustrate us and can become obstacles to further change. It would be easy for a small co-op to feel defeated by the enormity of the challenge of GMOs but food co-ops are navigating the most complex issues in our food system with integrity and determination. The genuine struggle to provide non-GM choices needs to be understood as an ongoing and uneven process. As Carver described, “What are we going to say about who we are in the face of this issue that is so hot and so important? We need to be able to say something thoughtful and clear. This will take some time. We want to be careful and build a response to GMOs that will guide us for a number of years so we are not just reacting to the latest news.”

Large grocery chains have little incentive to remove products from shelves for ethical reasons and such a move only invites further demands from customers. While grocery chains may dither over whether or not they should rule out GM sweet corn for 2013, food co-ops and smaller community stores can decide to source a wide variety of non-GM foods and are expected to do so. In this way, food co-ops are at the forefront, with the organic and small farmers and companies who supply them, of fighting back GM foods. “A grocery chain can do outreach, market, and choose a campaign but they are not owned by their consumers and those consumers can’t hold them to account,” said Jocelyn Carver, “On a daily basis our members hold us to our mission which is why we all want to work here. We all want to be held to account to make the best possible choices according to our values.”

Lucy Sharratt is the Coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network

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Food Co-ops and GMOs: Being the Change
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