Stakeholders in GMO Debate Prepare to Clash Again

Stakeholders in GMO Debate Prepare to Clash Again

In the food industry, there are always culprits. They usually have long tenures, and can even define the decade in which they were topical. In the '80s, it was fat; in the '90s, it was carbs. So far, as we near the end of the first decade of a new century, it would seem to be a toss-up between sodium and added sugar. We still have a year left to determine which one claims the title.

There are other issues that grab consumer interest but, for whatever reason, never seem to break through the public consciousness and out into the open. This has been the case with genetically modified foods.

Government statistics from 2007 show that the vast majority of the country's commodity ingredients come from GMO crops: 91% of soy, 87% of cotton and 73% of corn. It's estimated that GMOs are now present in more than 80% of packaged food products found in U.S. or Canadian supermarkets.

The coming year promises to bring about a greater, more pervasive awareness of those numbers as opponents of GMOs bring a unified campaign — complete with a non-GMO standard — to the public.

The Non-GMO Project has launched the country's first consensus-based guidelines, which include third-party certification and a uniform seal for approved products. Tests must indicate that the ingredient is below 0.9% GMO — compatible with laws in the European Union. The organization also requires documented traceability and segregation to ensure the tested ingredients are what go into the final product.

Concurrent with this, a new non-GMO website was launched by the Institute for Responsible Technology that provides consumers with a directory of non-GMO brands. The site was developed “for the 53% of Americans who say they would avoid GMOs if labeled.”

The website and the label have the potential to spark a new round of concern among shoppers who are today much more attuned to the ways their food is produced. The growth of the organic (which bans GMO ingredients), local and green product categories reflects a generation of consumers who could be less tolerant of genetic modification.

Yet, this whole issue might still go away (again), if the concept of GMOs is changed. A study written up in a recent New York Times blog noted that when apples from the Midwest, modified to resist apple scab disease, were presented to local consumers labeled “Reduced Environmental Impact,” they scored much higher on the preference scale. The test subjects liked that the apples required fewer pesticides and fungicides, and were locally grown.

The study raises an interesting question: Is genetic modification a problem of science, or of marketing? Ultimately, that's the question to answer: Not whether GMO foods are bad, in and of themselves; rather, does the technology allow us to reduce or eliminate older, more obvious evils?

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