GMO Debate is About Consumers, Not Sustainability
by Mike Opperman
Food companies are scrambling to provide consumers with products free from GMOs. Until recently the dairy industry has been on the outside of this debate, since dairy products are a step or two removed from the mostly GMO-based feed ingredients that make up dairy rations.
But with the announcement in April of the intentions of Dannon to supply non-GMO yogurt through three of its many brands, including establishing a supply chain to do so, the GMO debate is no longer outside of the dairy industry.
As expected, farm groups are defending the use of GMOs and have lobbed the first salvo around sustainability. They say Dannon’s desire to improve “soil health, increase biodiversity, decrease carbon emissions and manage water better” as stated in the Dannon Pledge can actually be supported through the use of GMOs. Farm groups said as much in a letter to Mariano Lozano, head of Dannon’s U.S. operations, saying Dannon’s strategy to eliminate GMOs “is the exact opposite of the sustainable agriculture that you claim to be seeking.”
Interestingly enough, in a response to the letter, Dannon states that “regarding GMO crops, we believe the currently approved GMOs are safe. Furthermore, we believe that sustainable agricultural practices can be achieved with or without the use of GMOs.”
So if both sides agree that GMOs can lead to sustainable agricultural practices, where is the disconnect? It comes in the next sentences in the Dannon response: “However, we believe there is growing consumer preference for non-GMO ingredients and food in the U.S. and we want to use the strong relationships we have with our farmer partners to provide products that address this consumer demand.” The letter goes on to say that the changes will enable consumers to make food choices consistent with the agricultural and environmental model consumer’s favor.
Even the farm groups agree with giving consumers a choice. Their letter to Dannon quotes Wesley Spurlock, president of the National Corn Growers Association, who says “Farming organizations believe in open and honest communication with consumers, and allowing people to make informed choices in the market. But we cannot sit by while certain food companies spread misinformation under the guise of a marketing campaign.”
So let’s recap: Both organizations believe in giving consumers the right to make their own choices about the food they eat. Both organizations state that sustainable agricultural practices can be obtained through the use of GMO crops.
It’s understandable that farm groups are defending the use of GMOs. On the other hand, Dannon isn’t the first food company to use buzzwords like “sustainability” and “non-GMO” in its marketing tactics knowing that it would pique consumer interest. In a September 2016 article in MILK titled “The Push for Non-GMO Food”, Bill Drake, an economist with the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University says “[Supermarkets] operate on a 1.5% margin and typically see 1.5% per year growth in sales. The only way to increase sales is to steal market share.” He says this forces food manufacturers to take a two-pronged approach: appeal to traditional customers through price, taste and convenience; or capture consumer preference through product differentiation and niche marketing. Marketing efforts that communicate non-GMO products and sustainability is one way to achieve the latter.
It’s hopeful, then, that consumers have the right information to make their food choice. And here’s where both groups are at fault. While stakeholders within and outside of agriculture have gone to great lengths to educate consumers about GMOs and their impact on sustainability, the speed at which a huge consumer population can learn is much slower than the speed at which a company can take advantage of the ignorance. And that’s where Dannon comes in. The company understands that consumers may not be fully aware of what “sustainability” and “non-GMO” really means, but based on consumer research they know that there is a preference for products that offer these claims. Hence the development of products that fill that demand to capture much valued market share.
For a case study on technology versus consumer preference, the dairy industry need look no further than rBST. Scores of research prove its safety, but savvy marketers took advantage of consumer preference faster than the dairy industry could deliver its message. Agriculture as a whole learned from this and began reaching out to food companies to create dialogue around food production practices. Organizations like Field to Market and the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy and others are prime examples. Let’s hope that work can prevent GMOs from going down the rBST path.