By Treena Hein
The battle over the labelling of food products that contain GMO crops such as corn and soybeans is heating up in the U.S., and the Canadian food industry is watching developments closely.
Various U.S. media outlets have reported that more than 20 states have so far proposed legislation requiring products containing GMO (genetically modified organisms) to be labelled as such. Maine, Connecticut and Vermont are the only states to have approved laws at this point, with Vermont the only one where the law has actually passed — and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) has launched a legal challenge against it.
Whatever the outcome of that case, these developments are widely seen as the first rumblings of what could become a colossal earthquake within North American agriculture and food product manufacturing. It’s not just about labelling, but about market access, the staggering costs required to segregate crops, and much more.
“Could GMO labelling become a national issue in the U.S., or could a critical mass of states pass legislation?” asks Paul Hetherington, president and CEO of the Baking Association of Canada. “I wouldn’t rule it out.” At the federal level so far, the U.S. Food and Drug Agency shows no signs of changing its GMO policy from 1992, which states that there is no basis for concluding bioengineered foods differ from other foods in any meaningful way.
However, consumers believe otherwise. “The subject of genetic modification has been around for well over 10 years, and there’s still significant consumer resistance to it,” Hetherington notes. “This tells me that proponents have done a poor job of marketing, and that the idea that you can gain consumer acceptance with a science-based GMO message alone is not realistic.”
Before we get further into marketing messages, let’s look at where consumers are at. The 21st Annual Consumer Attitudes about Nutrition study, conducted in the U.S. by an independent research firm in February 2014 for the United Soybean Board, found that a large majority of those surveyed (71 per cent) believe GMO products should be labelled, a 10-per-cent increase from last year’s survey. Some even put the percentage of Americans wanting GMO labelling as high as 90 per cent.
Nicholas Fereday, a senior analyst at Rabobank, is blunt about what he sees as the food and agriculture industry’s marketing failure on the GMO front. In a Food Navigator-USA article by Elaine Watson in May, Fereday states that the food industry is “losing the battle to win hearts and minds” because it isn’t speaking to consumers about the issues relating to GMO crops that matter to them. He believes the industry’s main argument — that we’ll need GMO crops in order to feed a huge human population in decades to come — is not working.
Sean McBride, however, believes consumers will eventually come aroundand fully appreciate this point. The former executive vice-president of the GMA has publicly responded to Fereday’s assertions, stating: “Unfortunately, the expert and many observers are missing the point. The food industry’s…CEOs are looking at the future and want to ensure our natural resources are preserved and that the nine billion people who inhabit our planet in 2050 will have enough to eat…They have decided not to stand on the sidelines and let irrational fear and the politics of emotion eradicate one of the most positive forces for good our society has seen in generations. Their message to consumers and policymakers is simple and clear — the technology is safe and is making the world a better place now and for future generations. They have staked their reputations and much more on their position. In due time, consumers, policymakers and the courts will say they are right.”
Using phrases such as “irrational fear” and “the politics of emotion” that suggest consumer ignorance and overreaction may not be the way to bring consumers around, however. And straight science does not seem to be working either. Nevertheless, facts were a big part of the message just released in June by each of the main Canadian crop organizations — a trilateral statement voicing support for the future commercialization of GMO wheat in solidarity with similar groups from the U.S. and Australia. The statement reads: “More than 15 years of commercial production and peer-reviewed scientific research show [GMO] technology is safe for the environment and consumption. Over one trillion meals have been consumed without a single reported incident.”
If facts about safety and the prevention of future famine don’t work, what will? Meeting consumers on an emotional level, says Hetherington and others. “With food, it’s about what’s going into your body and what you’re feeding to your loved ones,” he explains. “That’s a very personal thing, and the science rationale to support controversial issues tends to go out the window.”
Perhaps the only other point that’s likely to dampen consumer desire for GMO labelling (and presumably more GMO-free products) is their pocketbooks. If the demand for labelling changes and/or reformulations of productsis so high that industry is required to provide them, consumers will be the ones who will shoulder the cost, all at a time when food prices are already steadily rising. As the Washington State Academy of Sciences stated in an October 2013 report Labeling of Foods Containing Genetically Modified Ingredients, “The costs of actual labelling are a tiny fraction of the costs of compliance and certification.” Indeed, many believe the staggering costs of full segregation of GMO and non-GMO crops from field to plate make the idea completely unfeasible.
“Some of our members are already offering GMO-free products so [a labelling law in any particular U.S. state] wouldn’t impact them,” notes Susan Powell, executive director of the Canadian Food Exporters Association. She says that if laws catch on, each exporter would have to decide whether it was best to not sell into a GMO-label state, or to reformulate some or all of their products. “Even if it became national, Canadian companies would adapt, as they have done so when other regulations come into force,” Powell notes. She says that not many of her members choose to do business in Europe, where GMO concerns are a large issue, but “those that do, do not sell products that contain GMO ingredients.”
Right now, U.S. food makers are dealing with a voluntary labelling situation. As James E. McWilliams recently stated on Slate.com, this “inadvertently shows confusion.” He points out that not every conventional food made with non-GMO ingredients uses the non-GMO label because a company might want to avoid the costs of testing. “Furthermore, non-GMO labels have been placed on products such as orange juice,” he says in his article, “suggesting that there are genetically-modified oranges on the market when, in fact, there aren’t.”
Hetherington says baking industry members have always focused on choice in the marketplace, and that this will continue. “Providing choice is paramount for us, and individual companies will decide how to fill the needs and proceed,” he says. “Consumers will lead the way, but in order for us to provide choice to them, the supply chain needs to provide us with choice.”
“GMO wheat is coming, but the challenge is that mycotoxins and allergens such as mustard and soy are already present in the wheat provided to us, and we hear from the supply chain that these are unavoidable,” adds Hetherington. “We must ask then, if the supply chain can’t handle these issues, how can they handle the segregation of GMO and non-GMO wheat? Yes, conventional soybeans are segregated now as there is a high demand for them in places like Japan, but those customers pay a premium for that. We don’t think we should ever have to pay a premium for conventional non-GMO wheat.”
This article appeared in the print issue:September 2014 edition, Special Report section