“There is a disconnect between science and consumer understanding” of genetically modified organisms, which manufacturers and suppliers must help repair, Mike Robach, vice president of corporate food safety, quality and regulatory affairs at Cargill, told FoodNavigator-USA.
He explained at the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s Science Forum in Washington, DC, last month, “We have a very interesting dilemma, which is we are using science and technology to increase food production, increase the efficiency of food production, lower costs, actually aid sustainability and the fact that we are now creating crops with fewer inputs thanks to technology and genetic engineering,” but “the problem is it has never really been articulated in a way to consumers.”
As a result, GMOs are a “black box” that many consumers don’t understand, which can be frightening, he said.
“The benefits have never really been talked about to the consumer at the consumer level,” he said. For example, “What does it mean as a consumer? Why is this good? … We have to do a better job from the farm all the way to the consumer being able to tell the message and break down some of the silos that exist.”
Robach cautioned, however, that as companies begin talking about the benefits of GMOs, they also must refrain from disparaging non-GMO options. Instead, he said, they should let the facts and values of both options speak for themselves.
“We need to have all the stakeholders together to talk not about good or bad, but talk about the attributes of conventionally raised versus non-GMO so we are not really polarizing the situation,” he said, adding, “Part of the problem today is that the non-GMO folks are trying to demonize conventional ag, and the conventional ag folks are back on their heels saying, ‘We are not doing anything wrong. We are actually applying science and we are increasing yields. We are increasing efficiencies. We are lowering costs. We are going to be doing things that make more nutritionally complete products.’ So, we have to figure out a way collectively that we can put this in a position of choice as opposed to good and evil.”
Cargill is taking its own advice by offering its customers a choice between genetically modified ingredients and non-GMO ingredients.
Robach explained that Cargill is “very technology forward” and believes in innovation and science that is properly vetted for safety and suitability, but also believes in choice and providing solutions to its customers. This is why, he said, Cargill also created a number of non-GMO supply chains to help manufacturers meet consumer demand for these options.
“For us, it is not about right or wrong or good or bad. These are just choices that people make in terms of what they want to eat. Conventionally raised is great, wonderful, it is wholesome, nutritious and safe. And the same can be said for non-GMO,” he said.
Could the disclosure law level the playing field?
In some ways, the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law, could facilitate a shift in the conversation by mandating that companies tell consumers when they use genetically engineered ingredients and creating an opportunity to explain their choice and the benefits of the ingredients.
And one way to do that without cluttering packaging is with SmartLabel, according to Jim Flannery, senior executive vice president of operations and industry collaboration at the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
“The GMO disclosure law says a brand must disclose whether they contain genetically engineered ingredients and they have given three options: They can use text, they can use a symbol or they can use digital disclosure,” he said.
Using SmartLabel to digitally disclose the presence of GMOs also provides companies space to explain to consumers what GMOs are, when they are in a product and why and what they do that is different than non-GMO ingredients, he said.
Robach agrees that disclosure through SmartLabel is a major step forward in increasing transparency and changing the conversation about GMOs.
“We in the industry need to do a better job of talking about science and benefits. So this gets back to transparency, so you can start rebuilding the trust that really eroded away because there was not transparency” initially, he said. “We have to figure a way to take that space back and talk about it more and more openly and more clearly in language that consumers can understand.”