Berkeley Farmers’ Markets: GMO-Free Zone

The Berkeley Farmers’ Markets often pioneer innovations in ecological stewardship and social justice. Examples of our leadership include the all-organic Thursday market, extensive consumer education, and the effort to create zero-waste. In 2000, we banned all genetically engineered crops and products containing GE ingredients—and that prohibition has brought up intriguing complications.

A Community Advisory Committee guides the markets; it helps us hammer out policies and choose vendors. In 2000, when GMOs were just entering public consciousness (while simultaneously sneaking into foods), the committee decided to impose a ban on all genetically modified foods in our markets. It followed in the footsteps of the ban we had instigated several years prior against the toxic pesticide methyl bromide. (See page 5 for more on methyl bromide and methyl iodide.)

Like many policies at the Ecology Center, the GMO ban is based on the precautionary principle: since GMOs are a radical shift from traditional methods of plant breeding, and there has not been ample time to prove their safety, we do not support their use. The political climate under which GMOs appeared—with private companies patenting seeds and dictating government policies, and the government refusing to pass GMO labeling laws—led us to be even more suspicious. So far as we know, we were the first farmers’ market to take a stand against GMOs, and we adopted the most comprehensive ban in the nation.

The wording of the ban identifies certain crops and varieties: “Currently, the following crops and any ingredients containing them should be considered at risk of containing GMOs: soybean, canola (rapeseed), corn (sweet and seed), tomato (Flavr-Savr type), potato, summer squash, papaya, and red-hearted radicchio.” The ban also covers common staples: “Ingredients that are required to be Certified Organic include, but are not limited to, baking powder derived from corn starch, all other corn products, all soy products, and all canola products.”

It is easy to verify the non-GMO status of our farmers. Out of the four commercially grown genetically modified crops—corn, soy, canola, and cotton—only two are grown by our vendors: sweet corn and soybeans in the form of Japanese-style edamame. Since 80 percent of our farmers are certified organic, a third party has already screened them for GMOs as part of the certifying process. And all farmers who sell at the market must obtain a Certified Producer’s Certificate from their county agricultural inspector. The certificate lists crop variety names, so we can check for GMO varieties.

Adhering to the ban is considerably more challenging with our many categories of processed food vendors—the bakers, picklers, and hot food providers. Since they are purchasing ingredients rather than growing raw materials, they are less likely to have knowledge or control of the growing practices for each ingredient. Our market policy states that our processed food vendors must use 80 percent organic and/or purchased at the Farmers’ Market ingredients. We also require that all GMO hot buttons—corn, canola, and soy—be organic to guarantee that they aren’t transgenic. One would think that among our small, artisan food crafters it would be easy to eliminate the threat of GMOs. Their beautiful products don’t contain the high-fructose corn syrup, modified food starch, and partially hydrogenated soybean oil so ubiquitous on supermarket shelves. But with GMOs, the devil is in the details. Seemingly wholesome ingredients can have hidden transgenic components. What about that baking powder in your organic cookie? Most baking powder contains cornstarch, and unless it specifically claims to be GMO-free, it probably isn’t. Or how about the teriyaki sauce in that marinade? A potential source of GMO soy!

This year we required all of our processed food vendors to give us a month’s worth of receipts for their ingredients’ purchases. As the markets’ operations manager, I donned my detective hat and pored over each pile of receipts, on the hunt for GMO fugitives. The process turned into a great education for both the farmers’ market staff and our vendors.

As I sifted through receipts, the most common problem I found was inorganic canola oil. Canola oil is great to use for baking and deep-frying, as it has little flavor of its own and can be heated to high temperatures. Unfortunately, it’s a GMO culprit. But organic canola is easy to get in bulk quantities through wholesale distributors, such as United Natural Foods, and here I had an opportunity to educate vendors. The search for organic canola also became a way for our vendors to connect to each other. One vendor who had a wholesale account set up with the organic distributor offered to have others buy in on her order so that the $500 ordering minimum would be reached. Now several vendors buy oil together.

Other potential problems were harder to solve. One of our bakers makes fabulous multigrain bread that, in addition to her bread base, contains eight other grains, including soy and corn. The soy and corn weren’t listed as organic on her ingredients list, so I called her up to remind her of our GMO policy. The vendor was flustered because the soy and corn were part of a prefabricated multigrain flour mix that she would have to replace by buying each flour separately—a lot more work and potentially more expensive.

It turned out the mix was from Bob’s Red Mill. Bob’s is a reputable company that has been part of the health food industry for years; I volunteered to investigate the flour mix. A customer service representative at Bob’s soon reassured me that all of the company’s non-certified organic grains are guaranteed to be of unmodified genetic integrity at time of planting. (No one can guarantee against field contamination by GMO drift.) I let our baker know, to her great relief, that she could continue to use her multigrain mix even though it wasn’t organic. I also now had another product to add to my growing list of resources to help our vendors find non-GMO ingredients.

In the end, I found very few potentially genetically modified ingredients among the hundreds of items our vendors bring to market. Our vendors were already on top of the game, using the finest quality materials to make their artisan products. When I did find problems, it was an opportunity to educate vendors rather than chastise them and also to tighten the sense of community at our markets, such as in the case of vendors sharing a canola oil order. Although the government, under the pressure of corporate seed companies like Monsanto, has refused to take the step of requiring labeling of genetically modified foods, the Berkeley Farmers’ Market is one step ahead—and one of the only truly GMO-free places to shop for food in the nation.

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