Corn, canola, cotton, soybeans, sugar beets, papaya, alfalfa. If you’re a natural products shopper, you probably know what these plants represent: the top genetically modified crops grown in the United States. But just a few years ago, GMOs were  a mere blip on the radar. Many people didn’t fully understand what they were, nor did they know how to identify foods that may contain GMOs.

These days, however, the non-GMO revolution has caught fire. Mainstream media coverage of GMO-labeling ballot measures that attempted to pass in states like Washington and California bolster the movement, as do educational films, including the recent documentary GMO OMG, and burgeoning research suggesting that GMOs increase pesticide use. And perhaps you caught the celebrity-studded Right to Know video during the heated debate over California’s Proposition 37—a measure that lost in the November 2012 election. (Corporate interests from biotechnology and conventional food outspent organic advocates,
$46 million to $9 million, to defeat it.)

But who’s truly on the front lines of this growing awareness? You guessed it: Natural foods and products stores. Around the country, retailers are developing a variety of initiatives, from simple product tweaks to major political initiatives. “I think we are seeing a tipping point, for sure,” says Corinne Shindelar, CEO of the Independent Natural Food Retailers Association (INFRA). “The natural industry is rallying around the issue in a way they haven’t since they worked on getting an organic certification. It’s exciting.”

The following examples show how forward-thinking natural retailers—even small-scale stores—demonstrably influence the non-GMO movement.

No at-risk products

For several years, the five-store San Diego–based natural food chain Jimbo’s Naturally has refused to bring in new products that contain at-risk ingredients if they aren’t non-GMO verified. Plus, Jimbo’s has stopped promoting GMO products already on its shelves. Now the stores are down to just a few GMO holdouts, and owner Jim Someck says the operation is taking the final step: “As we go through each [product type], we are starting to eliminate those products that have been grandfathered in, if we have a suitable replacement.” Even for those that don’t, he hopes to eliminate most, if not all of them, within the next year.

In March 2013, Dean Nelson, owner of Dean’s Natural Food Markets, with three New Jersey locations, set a similar policy: Although current products are grandfathered in, no new products can be introduced that contain ingredients at high risk of being genetically engineered, such as corn, soy, and canola, unless those products are non-GMO verified.

Nelson says he expects his stores will eventually start discontinuing products already on their shelves with at-risk ingredients, but adds, “It’s a slow process.” In the meantime, the stores’ current policy attracts local shoppers, and it has inspired some vendors to get their products non-GMO verified. That has made Nelson’s job easier: “Now, we just say, ‘If it is not non-GMO verified, it can’t come in.’ That’s actually a blessing.”

Instead of pushing customers away, Someck says the policy has actually inspired increased store patronage. “What it has done, even though it wasn’t intended, is build up a lot of loyalty in our stance and what we believe in,” he says. “I didn’t make this stand because I thought it was going to be financially successful. I did it because that’s who we are.”

Clear labels

Labeling—product information that alerts customers that an item has or may have GMOs—is the focal point for most non-GMO activists. Over the past five years, Good Earth Natural Foods in Fairfax, California, has developed an increasingly strict non-GMO policy; owner Mark Squire estimates there are only a couple dozen products left on its shelves that are at risk of containing GMOs. For those, says Squire, “we decided to put stickers up saying, ‘This product may contain GMO ingredients, and we are only selling it because there are no alternatives.’”

Some retailers might think they’re sending mixed messages by keeping and labeling GMO products, says INFRA’s Shindelar. But as she points out, “You are [empowering] customers to make informed decisions about the products on your shelves.” As an example, she points to the FishWise labeling program, which identifies the sustainability level of various kinds of seafood—information that discourages many people from choosing less-sustainable species and pushes up demand for better options.

Squire has seen the same results from his GMO labeling program. “If customers have all the information and they make a different choice, that’s a positive thing.”

Political activism

David Hinckle, owner of Earthbeam Natural Foods in Burlingame, California, helped get the state’s GMO labeling initiative Prop 37 on the ballot in 2012. When the issue failed at the polls, he says, “I took a pretty drastic step.” Not only would his store be entirely organic and non-GMO by August 1, 2014,
it would no longer carry any brands owned by the major food corporations that fought the initiative, including General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft, The Hershey Company, The J.M. Smucker Company, The Coca-Cola Company, Mars, and Nestle.

“These [natural] brands are good, the companies are probably good, but the larger companies that bought these companies for a larger share of the natural food market, it was apparent their heart wasn’t really in it,” says Hinckle. He says
95 percent of his customers have been supportive: “The main reaction was, ‘I am glad you are looking out for me.’”

But ultimately, says Hinckle, he did it because of his personal beliefs. “For me, the GMO issue is the issue of the century,” he says. “I am 56 years old, and I’ve been reinvigorated by this issue. I really think it surpasses all with regards to sustainability.”

In-store GMO expert

In October 2012, Nature’s Food Patch Market & Café in Clearwater, Florida, took matters into its own hands and hired Patience Melton as its full-time GMO researcher. Along with educating her coworkers, demoing non-GMO products, and responding to shoppers’ questions about the issue, Melton researches each store product and confirms whether all at-risk ingredients are non-GMO. If a product’s ingredients aren’t verified by the Non-GMO Project, she contacts the company and asks if it can provide documentation to prove the ingredients are non-GMO or if they’re working on becoming non-GMO. “If they are not concerned with GMOs, I let them know they will be marked as GMO on our shelves and that we will eventually pull them,” says Melton.

And if she can’t find a company phone number or email? “At that point, social media sites such as Facebook are very useful,” she says. “Companies want to show customers that they care, and by asking a public question about GMOs, you get an almost [instant] response.”

It’s not necessarily easy to confront your favorite brands about their GMO policies, Melton says. “But vote with your dollars with these companies,” she advises. “Once you vote with your dollar, they will listen to you.”