Pamela Ronald asks: “Considering our long history of plant genetic manipulation and the success of modern GE seeds in enhancing the sustainability of our farms and food supplies, why do some consumers still express grave unease over the planting of GE crops?” She attributes “much of the concern” to “a general distrust of large corporations, in particular Monsanto.”

She is right about that—Monsanto’s PR and legal blunders have set back the cause of genetic engineering and, in the conspiratorial narrative favored by some anti-GMO activists, Monsanto wants to control the world’s food supply. But large U.S. corporations also have helped fuel the anti-GMO movement. Some brands seek to capitalize on consumer anxiety about GMOs, while others simply steer clear of GMO-related controversies. Both positions stand in the way of biotech innovations that, at least in theory, could make agriculture more sustainable.

Whole Foods is the most influential corporate opponent of GMOs. As Ronald notes, Whole Foods says that within five years it will require labeling of all GE foods in its stores. Such labels will likely stigmatize the technology. And Whole Foods’s opposition to genetic engineering goes beyond what the company calls “full GMO transparency.” The company says that it encourages “manufacturers and producers to create products without GMO ingredients or processes,” and tells its suppliers that new products with GMOs will have a tough time finding space on its shelves, labeled or not.

Whole Foods makes no claims about the dangers of GMOs to human health or the environment, saying its policies merely reflect customer preferences.

This antipathy to GMOs has unexpected consequences.

Biotech giant DuPont, in partnership with a Chilean aquaculture company, spent years developing a brand of farm-raised salmon called Verlasso. The salmon themselves are not genetically engineered, but they are fed a genetically modified yeast instead of fish oil extracted from forage fish. Substituting yeast for fish oils helps protect marine ecosystems, but Whole Foods won’t carry Verlasso, which fails to meet its aquaculture standards for several reasons—one of which is that it contains GMOs. Notably, Whole Foods makes no claims about the dangers of GMOs to human health or the environment, saying its policies merely reflect customer preferences.  

It’s not just Whole Foods. Naked Juice, a unit of PepsiCo, markets its bottled smoothies as “GMO-free,” saying on the label, “Naked Juice does not use ingredients that were produced using biotechnology as a matter of principle.” But what is the principle? That’s hard to know—the company had no answer when I asked them back in 2011. There’s not a little bit of hypocrisy at work: PepsiCo uses GE ingredients in other products and said, in response to a shareholder resolution a few years ago, that “genetically engineered products can play a role in generating positive economic, social and environmental contributions to societies around the world.”

Even McDonald’s has sought to keep the taint of genetic engineering away from its fabled fries. More than a decade ago, McDonald’s told J.R. Simplot Co., its biggest potato supplier, that it didn’t want to accept a genetically modified potato developed by Monsanto. The GE potato repelled a pest called the Colorado potato beetle, reducing the need for expensive chemical sprays. Now Simplot is trying again, seeking government approval for spuds that are engineered to remove ugly but harmless black bruises, and to make less of a natural but potentially carcinogenic neurotoxin called acrylamide. Eliminating the bruises will reduce food waste, a favorite cause of environmentalists. But groups such as Food and Water Watch and the Center for Food Safety have urged McDonald’s to reject the high-tech potatoes. The company hasn’t disclosed its plans.

Meanwhile, organic and “natural” food companies Stonyfield Yogurt (a unit of Danone), Annie’s Homegrown, Horizon Organic, and Honest Tea (a unit of Coca-Cola) provided initial funding for the “Just Label It” campaign. The campaign Web site says GE foods have “consistently failed to meet expectations while raising new concerns about safety, health and sustainability.” Organic farmers understandably worry that their crops will be contaminated by genetically modified crops growing nearby; more broadly, the entire organic industry stands to benefit from rising worries about GMOs because organic food is GMO-free.

This corporate opposition to GMOs surely has effects, hard as they may be to measure. In all likelihood, they discourage research into biotech solutions to plant diseases such as the coffee rust that threatens the coffee industry and the “citrus greening” that has spread through Florida orange groves. Biotech companies have developed soybeans with a healthier fatty acid composition, which would give canola (rapeseed) oil a profile more like that of heart-healthy olive oil. But consumer resistance could mean that such healthier products never reach the shelves. Indeed, despite the defeat of California’s GMO labeling initiative last year, it appears as if the anti-GMO forces are winning the battle for the hearts, if not the minds, of America’s food shoppers. So much for Monsanto’s quest for world domination.