Can “green” claims turn the GMO debate around in 2016, analysts ask

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: iStock
Source: iStock

Related tags Genetically modified organism Genetically modified food

Growing consumer concern about food waste and the environmental impact of food production could be a “conversation starter” for food manufacturers to shift consumers’ focus on genetically modified organisms away from the perceived negative impact to the benefits, suggests one market trends analyst. 

But another wonders if the anti-GMO ship has sailed and if it is even possible for GMO supporters to catch up, let alone redirect the course of consumers’ opinions about the technology.

“Early generation GMOs are primarily seen as innovations to help farmers treat crops with higher levels of herbicides or pesticides than they would be able to do for non-GMO crops. In essence, all of the benefits for genetic modification were enjoyed by the farmer; these benefits have almost no consumer-facing relevance and may be perceived to actually lower the perceived healthfulness of a GMO food,”​ acknowledged Tom Vierhile, the innovation insights director for Canadean.

But, he says, “GMO 2.0 changes that with innovations”​ that benefit consumers, such as longer shelf life, reduced food waste and more efficient use of natural resources.

For example, he pointed to the new Arctic Apple from Okanagan Specialty Fruits, in which researchers “turned off”​ the genes that make apples brown when cut or bruise when the apple is drop, resulting in fewer wasted apples.

“This is a true consumer-facing benefit and opens up new innovation possibilities for fresh-cut fruit as a snack,”​ Vierhile said, adding, “Similar benefits are seen in Simplot’s Innate potato,”​ which also resists bruising and browning and could dramatically cut food waste.

“It takes a lot of resources to grow food. If you can cut down on food waste with a product that does not bruise as easily as ‘regular’ potatoes do, then you can conceivably cut down on wasting water and fertilizer used to grow potatoes that might later get discarded,” ​he reasoned.

FDA approved J.R. Simplot Co.’s first generation Innate potato in 2015, and earlier this month it approved a second-generation Innate potato that the firm says could reduce up to 986 million pounds of potato waste and significantly reduce CO2 emissions and water usage.

Just because it is safe, doesn’t mean it will sell, though. When the first generation was approved​, McDonald’s and Frito-Lay came out saying they wouldn’t use it. And anti-GMO advocates said the same benefits could come from other heritage potatoes and cleaning up chemical agriculture. 

Finally, Vierhile pointed to the AquaAdvantage Salmon from AquaBounty as a “positive example,”​ of how GM can help put a “‘better for you’ protein like salmon on more plates, at a lower cost,”​ in addition to potentially sparing wild salmon from over-fishing.

Trying to change consumers’ minds about the GM salmon could be like trying to swim upstream though. When FDA first declared the modified salmon as safe, consumers called for a boycott and the Center For Food Safety announced plans to file a lawsuit challenging the decision​. Likewise, consumers could push back against the idea of tank raised fish on similar grounds for disliking caged egg-laying hens.

Despite these rough initially reactions, Vierhile remains upbeat, that “these advances all offer the chance for manufacturers to make a more compelling case for GMOs with consumer-facing benefits,”​ and potentially could be leveraged “as a conversation starter so that consumers can re-evaluate GMOs.”

He pointed to the Campbell Soup Co.’s recent decision to label the presence of GMOs​ in its products as “a first step toward starting a conversation about GMOs that does not revolve around fear and trying to hide something.”​ 

No telling how consumers will respond to new GMO messages

While Campbell’s declaration may open a new direction for the GMO debate, it is unclear which way that conversation will go and how consumers will respond, said Carl Jorgensen, director of global consumer strategy of wellness at Daymon Worldwide, a company focused on brand building, sourcing and retail driven services.

He says Campbell’s approach “soft pedals”​ the issue by placing a small claim on the back of products with the likely hope that most people won’t notice or look for it. “If they do find it, we don’t know what they will do,”​ he said.

“It is hard to market GMOs as positive attributes because there is so much distrust,”​ he explained. “If long ago when GMOs first started coming to market there had been [discussions about their] higher nutritional content or GMOs were battling climate change, then [consumers] might have been excited. But up until recently all the products on the market are for the convenience of the producer and have no consumer benefits, so people have come to see these GMOs as unnatural and undesirable.”

With that in mind, Jorgensen said: “I can’t imagine what kind of marketing campaign you can build around having GMOs on your label”​ that would be positive. But, he added, “there are a lot of creative people out there”​ who could try to re-spin the GMO debate, and industry will just have to wait and see how consumers respond.

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