At precisely noon one morning last week, in front of the U-District outpost of Trader Joe's, a platoon of demonstrators in birght white HazMat suits unfurled a banner that read "Stop Selling Unlabeled GMOs." The banner belongs to the Organic Consumers Association, whose political director, Alexis Baden-Mayer, traveled from Washington, D.C., to oversee the protest against unlabeled, non-organic processed foods made with Genetically Modified Organisms.
"GMOs Gotta Go," the demonstrators chanted, tossing an assortment of packaged foods into a plastic trash can.
Inside the store, a manager in a Hawaiian shirt set the ground rules. "We don't allow filiming inside, we don't use GMOs in our private-label products." Unperturbed, Baden-Mayer led a couple of reporters around the stores. "These power bars," she said, "contain high-fructose corn syrup, not labeled as containing GMOs."
Trader Joe's, for its part, makes no claim that its shelves are free of GMO-enhanced products, and one wonders, on behalf of its management, what has brought on this sudden wrath of anti-GMO activists. In fact, the path of protest sponsorship runs from the Organic Consumers Association to the United Food & Commercial Works Union in the nation's capital to its Local 21 in Seattle, where it claims to be the state's largest private-sector union.
It doesn't seem to be news anymore that GMOs are essential to the business model of Big Food, so this might be considered a rear-guard action. Not that Trader Joe's, which takes pains to appear politically correct, should be immune from criticism. Hawaiian shirts and nautical bonhomie aside, the chain is owned by a reclusive, hardnosed, ultra-wealthy German businessman, Karl Albrecht. (What? You didn't know? You thought all those proprietary brands come from lovable, benevolent elves?)
Even though they continue to wrap their produce in layers of plastic, Trader Joe's did announce earlier this year that it's going sustainable, at least as far as its seafood is concerned, and will no longer sell Orange Roughy or Chilean Sea Bass after 2012. If memory serves, it's all frozen at any rate.
The protestors eventually dispersed, and the sidewalk fiddler serenaded the remaining shoppers with a rendition of "Memories" from Andrew Lloyd Weber's "Cats."
But the glorious food revolution isn't fought on a single front.
There's a new book, Force of Nature, about the "greening" of Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer. A case study, if you will, of a corporation that changed its culture for the better once its CEO realized that doing the right thing would actually be profitable as well responsible. We'll leave for another day the argument that Wal-Mart's business model has done great harm to the nation's independent businesses over the years. For the moment, let's applaud them for taking a stand in favor of sustainability and health.