The Future for GMO Foods

On a number of occasions, I've been asked questions like, "What will it take for consumers to become accepting of GMO foods?"  My guess is that we probably aren't going to see much movement resulting from new information or new communication strategies, but rather I suspect a bigger catalyst may be the technology itself.  When scientists produce a product people really want, consumers probably won't care whether it's labeled and they'll overlook whatever small perceived risks are present.  

A while back when writing about the duplicity of a many food companies on the issue of GMO labeling, I wrote

For now, food companies are not required to add labels indicating the presence of genetically engineered ingredients. But, it might ultimately be in their best interest to do it voluntarily, and in a way that avoids the negative connotations implied by the labels that would have been mandated in state ballot initiatives.

Some day in the near future, after concerted efforts to educate the public and create consumer-oriented biotechnologies, we may see food companies clamoring to voluntarily add a label that proclaims: proudly made with biotechnology.

I've been reading Dan Charles's 2001 book Lords of the Harvest.  While I could quibble with some of the book's tone and framing of the issues, overall it is an educational and fascinating historical account of the emergence of biotech crops, including many first-hand interviews with the key players (many of whom are still active today).  

Writing about a new genetically engineered tomato that had longer shelf life and better processing characteristics that preserved taste, Charles includes a passage that indicates how GMOs might have evolved  differently (and might still evolve differently) in the public perception.  He writes the following about activities circa 1996:

Best and his colleagues at Zeneca Plant Sciences had spent an enormous amount of time cultivating British journalists and lining up partners in the food business. They’d already decided that this tomato paste would be packaged in special cans and labeled as the product of ‘genetically altered tomatoes,” even though such labels weren’t required. Two large supermarket chains, Sainsbury and Safeway, agreed to carry the product and promote it. They even turned genetic engineering into a marketing gimmick, advertising the launch of the tomato paste as ‘a world-first opportunity to taste the future.’

The Zeneca tomato paste was in fact purely an experiment in marketing. The tomatoes were grown during a single summer in California and processed using conventional methods, then packaged and flown to Europe. As a consequence, the genetically engineered paste actually cost more to produce than conventional tomato paste and tasted exactly the same. Yet Zeneca and its partners decided to charge less than the going rate for it. They were willing to take a financial loss just to find out if the British public would buy a genetically engineered product.

The answer turned out to be an unequivocal ‘yes.’ Through the summer of 1996 Zeneca’s red cans of tomato paste, proudly labeled ‘genetically altered,’ outsold all competitors.

‘You need to give the consumer a choice,’ says Best. ‘Once they had that choice, eaten it for a couple of years, found that there was no big deal, I think the whole thing would have gone away.’

So, what happened?  A confluence of events.  Mad Cow was soon discovered in Britain, which heightened food fears and undermined food regulatory agencies (who'd previously promised it was safe to eat beef).  Charles seems to blame Monsanto who he argues focused more on gaining regulatory approval than on charting a path that would engage the public on the issue. In several spots in the book, Charles talks about how Best, and Salquist with Calgene in the US,  masterfully shaped public acceptance for their tomatoes products before bringing them to market.   

 But, as I see it, it was also the technology itself.  While farmers could clearly see the benefits of herbicide-resistant and Bt crops, and they quickly snatched them up in every location where they were allowed, consumers couldn't and still can't.  Fast forward 20 years, and while "GMOs" have become a lighting rod and a proxy-fight for all sorts of agricultural issues,  the underlying reality of "who is  perceived to benefit" still hasn't changed.   I think the anti-biotech crowd knows this because they've fought hard to keep some of the most promising consumer-oriented products from the market.  

So, what will it take to change consumer acceptance of GMOs?  New companies with new products who want to sell and tout the use of biotechnology rather than hide it.  One of the implicit lessons of Charles's book is that companies who seem dominant and powerful today are often upended by entrepreneurs with a new products and a new vision for the future.  My bet is that the same forces will eventually end our current and long-standing quagmire related to public perceptions of GMO foods.