December 15, 2015

GMOs To Label or Not…That is the Question

Discussions about the labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were abuzz in the hallways following the “GMO: What’s on Your Label” workshop at the Western Growers 90th Annual Meeting in San Diego this November. Led by a group of industry experts, the workshop engaged the audience in an informative and lively dialogue about the potential effects of implementing GMO and non-GMO labels in the fresh produce industry.
The educational workshop kicked off with Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam, a cooperative extension specialist at UC Davis, who spoke about the science behind genetic engineering (GE) and the potential impacts of mandatory labeling for genetically-engineered food in the United States.
“Scientifically, genetically-engineered food is safe, but many people have a perception that it is dangerous,” said Van Eenennaam. She defined GE as the manipulation of an organism’s genes by introducing, eliminating, or rearranging specific genes using biotechnology. While the application of GE in fresh produce has been limited so far, it could present solutions to many of the challenges the industry is facing now and in the future. For example, through GE, you can turn off a gene that makes a fruit or vegetable susceptible to a certain disease. GE can also result in benefits such as greening-resistant citrus trees, non-browning apples and potatoes, and disease-resistant grapes, Van Eenennaam said.
Van Eenennaam highlighted two driving forces behind the push for mandatory food labeling. First of all, consumers have a right to know what is in their food, as is the case with mandated calorie and nutritional content labels. However, she argued that there is a difference between knowing what is in food and what processes were used in its production. Secondly, consumers should have a choice regarding what types of products they purchase and consume. This is counterintuitive, Van Eenennaam pointed out, as countries that have implemented mandatory GE labeling have generally seen those products removed from the market, thereby reducing choice. Ultimately, she concluded that the science community nearly universally recognizes the safety of GE crops, and no special labeling should be required since there are no material differences between non-GE and GE crops.
The Supermarket Guru Phil Lempert jumped in as the next panelist, building on the topic of public perception of GMOs. Lempert cited that because food labeled with health benefits have the highest sales, more suppliers are listing unnecessary facts to market their retail products, including non-GMO labeling. “We have to be conscious of what product labeling is about,” said Lempert, referring to the potential for consumers to be confused — rather than informed — by non-GMO labeling.
Lempert suggested that Millennials will drive retail trends in 2016, generally focusing on healthier eating and products with minimal processing, making it even more difficult for the industry to fight public misperceptions about GMO products. He stated that if suppliers want to be successful, they need to make a real connection with today’s consumer and help relay the truth about GMOs using the appropriate communications channels.
“Millennials aren’t looking to newspapers or television for news, like previous generations. They are getting their information from the Internet,” said Lempert. Suppliers need to inform the public about the benefits of GMOs through social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Periscope. That way, the message may go viral and reach the audience who will have the most buying power in the future.
As part of the discussion about potential paths to progress on the GMO front, Michael Dimock, president of Roots of Change, highlighted strategies and tactics for giving consumers the information needed to make informative decisions about the their purchases.
“The root cause of food system problems is the industrial mindset,” he said. GMOs emerge from the industrial agriculture — the system of chemically intensive food production featuring enormous single-crop farms and animal production facilities — and appear to cause more challenges than they solve. Dimock argued that GMOs are perceived by consumers as part of the concentration of power in agriculture and undermines public trust in science. The result is consumer backlash against GMOs.
Dimock argued that there needs to be a dramatic paradigm shift toward greater transparency, which would include highly-visible studies, publicly-funded science for GE seed research, more diversity in cropping patterns, and allowing labeling. “If you were to label, this issue would go away in the food movement. Allowing labeling will support informed choices,” said Dimock.
In a development new to Western Growers, audience members were able to engage with the presenters by asking questions using the Annual Meeting app. JV Smith Companies President and CEO Vic Smith moderated the session and fielded a variety of questions on topics ranging from GE plants and animals to future consumer trends using the app, as well as from the live audience.