A Call to Counter Fringe Food Activist Groups

A Call to Counter Fringe Food Activist Groups

Ask food company executives about what keeps them up at night, and high on the list would be drawing the attention of activist groups.

That's a nightmare in anyone's book.

A new industry effort aims to battle “fringe” activist groups opposed to use of technology in food production. This would include groups campaigning against GMOs and irradiation, for example.

This effort has taken the form of a sophisticated position paper advocating technology's role in food in the 21st century. Called “Making Safe, Affordable and Abundant Food a Global Reality,” it's worth exploring because it has the potential to change minds. Here's a link:

First, some background on the author. The paper was written by Jeff Simmons, president of Elanco, a unit of Eli Lilly and Co. that focuses on animal health and protein production worldwide. This paper's research will get wider exposure during a session at next month's GMA Executive Conference in Colorado Springs, which will include Simmons' participation.

Research conducted for this paper found consumers overwhelmingly favor unrestricted choices in food, and are “either neutral or fully supportive of using technology to produce their food.” Meanwhile, the paper asserts, a “fringe” group of food activists attempts to restrict choices, and this group comprises less than 2% of U.S. consumers.

The paper's main contentions are as follows: “Highly efficient food production can help end world hunger, lower food costs, protect consumer rights and safeguard our natural resources. Achieving this requires protecting the rights of the entire food chain to use new and existing technologies while sustaining consumer choice.”

This statement, however, doesn't fully relay the paper's tone, which at times reads like the Declaration of Independence in its emphasis on rights.

Consider this point: Access to safe, proven technology will help insure three rights: “Food, a basic human right, choice, a consumer right, and sustainability, environmentally right.”

This paper effectively ties all these things into the technology argument. It builds the case without getting lost in specific battles.

My one concern is this approach could create a backlash against activists that has the impact of limiting their rights too. The paper argues as follows: If ‘fringe’ groups “have credible scientific data that prove their claims, they should choose to share that information not with the media and online, but with the appropriate regulatory bodies authorized to examine and act upon that data.”

While I agree these groups need to share relevant information with regulatory bodies, I wouldn't want to bar them from also reaching out to other parties because that would limit their freedom of expression.

That said, the danger here is very low. The more likely outcome of all this is that industry leaders will begin to feel more empowered about bringing compelling cases for food technology to government, media and consumers without fear of being targeted. If that happens, this initiative will have done its job.