On the food front, Boston Common's portfolios have included Whole Foods Market, the world's largest retailer of natural and organic foods; Unilever, which has worked to produce sustainable sourcing practices for a wide variety of its food and personal care products; French dairy manufacturer Danone; and food producer Organic Valley, which offers debt instruments as a way to support sustainable agriculture, says Heim.

Whole Foods and some food manufacturers have recently begun using the "Non-GMO" seal through the non-profit Non-GMO Project. Labeling of items that contain GMOs is another story. There's been tremendous resistance by companies, says Sister Barbara Aires, coordinator of corporate responsibility for the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth in Convent Station, N.J., and the lead on DuPont.

For the 2011 proxy season, she and other ICCR members have submitted a Genetically Engineered Seed resolution to DuPont. It asks the company's board of directors to review the adequacy of its current post-marketing monitoring systems and of plans for providing alternatives to GE seed if necessary, the possible impact on all DuPont seed product integrity, and the effectiveness of established risk management processes for different environments and agricultural systems. It also cites several recent scientific studies.

For 2010, ICCR filed a resolution asking DuPont's board to review and amend its human rights policy to include respect for and adherence to the seed-saving rights of traditional agricultural communities.

On The Farm
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's recent request for "coexistence and cooperation" between biotech and organic farmers raised much ire from those who dub GMOs as "Frankenfoods." Organic farmer Margie Redmon, president of Honey Locust Valley Farms near Louisville, Ky., is trying to be open-minded but is worried for consumers and family farms.

"I don't blame food companies for buying whatever is on the market for their products unless they mislabel them, such as calling something 'organic' when it isn't [which they are not allowed to do] or calling a GMO product 'all-natural' [which they can do]," says Redmon. What she wants to see is labeling that gives consumers choice.

Outside of medical uses, Redmon doesn't like the use of GMOs. She says they've boosted pesticide use by 25%, and she also suspects a link between the concurrent surge in GMO peanut production and life-threatening allergies in children. "I would like consumers and investors to know that GMOs are NOT hybrids," she says. Bypassing the pollination process creates plants that may not be recognized by digestive systems or have natural predators. The latter can potentially threaten ecosystems if their pollen gets into the wild, she says.

Requiring farmers to buy new patent-protected seed each year is not financially sustainable for most family farms, says Redmon. "[This] is how we have destroyed most of the family farms," she says. "Also, monoculture is killing the very ground we depend on for survival, because of the chemicals used and the lack of a completed cycle of rotation to return to the earth that which we have taken from it," she says. Since plant pollen can drift up to five miles, she worries about the legal consequences if it's found on farms that didn't buy the seed.

Dion Madsen, co-founder and managing director of Physic Ventures, a San Francisco-based firm that provides capital and support to entrepreneurs focused on building science-based, consumer-directed health and sustainable living companies, has a different take on GMOs. "Our mandate is around health and sustainability. ... We don't see GMO as anti- to that thesis," says Madsen, who believes they can help meet global food needs.

Madsen, who grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan, sees no reason to be more apprehensive about GMOs than about the traditional cross-breeding techniques farmers have used for thousands of years. He likens gene sequences to Lego bricks and says GE enables them to be worked piece by piece in a very controlled process. "Traditional breeding takes it all apart and puts it all together. To me, that's more scary than the engineered process," he says. He does think companies should tell consumers which products contain GMOs.