Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were first introduced to supermarkets 20 years ago in the form of crops such as tomatoes, and since have crept into nearly every aspect of our food chain. With Whole Foods’ vow to label all GMO products by 2018, producers are scrambling to rid their products of GMOs in their supply chain, which can be more difficult in some cases than others. One example of producers facing a challenging transition? The nation’s dairy industry.
As the largest specialty cheese seller in the US, Whole Foods has many cheesemakers worrying about their future. The 2018 deadline is looming even nearer to those who sell aged cheeses; in the case of a three-year-aged cheddar, for example, the new GMO protocols must be in place by 2015. By Whole Foods’ labeling standards, products will need to be either certified organic—which already bans GMOs—or verified by the Non-GMO Project, a third-party non-profit group. (It’s worth noting that the US government has no set standards for non-GMO certification.) The problem the artisan dairy industry faces is not genetically modified livestock, but rather, sourcing genetically modified feed. As Mateo Kehler of Jasper Hill Farm explains to The Guardian, “There isn’t a large supply of non-GMO grain. In Vermont, there’s one mill that supplies it and they’re not taking customers. We’re on a waiting list.” Very large producers may be able to grow their own feed, but mid-size and smaller cheesemakers likely don’t have that option.
Even if organic or non-GMO feed were available in great enough supply for a creamery, cost is another hurdle producers must overcome. In the same Guardian article, Angela Miller of Consider Bardwell Farm explains the burden of funding appropriate feed: “We do add corn feed, and for a long time, we fed organic feed, and then it was too expensive for us—it’s double the cost.” This higher cost leaves dairy producers with two choices: eat the cost themselves (as Ben & Jerry’s plans to do), or pass that increased production cost on to consumers.
Adding fuel to the already heated debate is the question of how genetically modified feed affects animals, if it does at all. Several studies have shown that “GE [genetically engineered] crops can be safely used in animal feed, and rDNA fragments have never been detected in products (e.g. milk, meat, eggs) derived from animals that consumed GE feed.” In addition, the FDA has approved the use of GMO crops for both human and animal consumption. However, GMO-opponents are quick to point out studies that prove the opposite: GMO foods pose risks to both human and animal health.
With the science inconclusive, the pressure is on for cheesemakers big and small, who are hurrying to comply with Whole Foods’ certification lest they lose a spot on the retailer’s shelves. What do you think of Whole Foods’ stance on GMOs? Would you choose a non-GMO cheese over one that didn’t have that label? Let us know on our Facebook and Twitter pages.