GMO...The Domino Effect
GMO seeds, also known as biotech seeds, became commercialized in 1996. “Genetic modification, or genetic engineering, is the process of manipulating an organism’s DNA to display specific traits. Gene splicing introduces new genetic material into an organism’s DNA, resulting in a genetically modified organism (GMO).”1 Today, four crops around the world (corn, soybeans, cotton and canola) account for the majority of biotechnology used in agriculture, but these are only a few of the GMO products on the market.
The intent of creating and using GMO seeds is to help farmers take advantage of biotechnology, promote plant growth, withstand powerful weed killers or produce their own pesticides, enable higher crop yields, and thus increase a farmer’s income. Another reason is to augment production and keep up with the ever-growing demand worldwide.
Seed companies, farmers, consumer product companies and consumers
Several organizations, like Non-GMO Project or GMO Inside, have gathered information and made a concerted effort to inform the public about the negative health impact that food produced with GMOs can cause. Other groups like the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and the British Royal Society have done the opposite stating that GMOs are rigorously tested before going to market2. According to Non-GMO Project, “In the U.S., GMOs are in as much as 80% of conventional processed food.”3 That means most CPG companies are using GMO ingredients to produce their products.
In 2014, the state of Vermont passed a mandatory genetically modified ingredient labeling law4 that requires most human food products containing GMO ingredients to include on-pack labeling as of July 2016. To comply with that law, some CPGs are introducing clear, on-pack labeling on products that contain GMO ingredients nationwide.
Many food companies already have approval for the language they will use on packaging, but until recently it was unclear if other states would pass similar laws. Many people have hoped for Senate leaders to establish federal standards that would provide clear rules and clarity for consumers. As this article is being written, Congress has sent legislation to President Obama that would require most food packages to carry a text label, a symbol or an electronic code readable by smartphone that indicates whether the food contains genetically modified ingredients, or GMOs. The Agriculture Department would have two years to write the rules5.
If this legislation is approved it will not go beyond labeling GMO products to include non-GMO varieties that are treated with GMO pesticides or weed killers. This is a vitally important fact to keep in mind as GMO labeling becomes more mainstream. Labeling GMO foods may be better than not having this information, but it would not mean that the food has not been treated with harmful GMO weed killers or pesticides.
How are CPGs responding?
In the meantime, many CPG companies like General Mills, Kellogg’s, ConAgra, Unilever, Campbell’s, Mars, Hershey’s, Post, Abbott, Smucker’s and Nestlé have been working to include GMO information on their packaging. Including “Produced with Genetic Engineering” and acknowledging the existence of GMO ingredients is only the first step.
Companies are on a journey to evolve with consumer preferences and in some cases have to find ways to reformulate products to eliminate the use of GMO ingredients. An uneasy process for CPGs, as it is a multi-year effort to update existing products across the entire portfolio of brands. The focus currently is on simplifying ingredient lists by removing artificial colors and flavors, high fructose corn syrup, and GMO ingredients while keeping the taste and characteristics the consumers are used to.
CPG companies must also work with suppliers like farmers and seed producers and many are sponsoring new crops to promote healthier and more sustainable solutions, which could take years to achieve. CPGs also have to worry about cost because some of these changes will increase the cost to produce their products. They could face the uncertainty of whether or not consumers will be willing to pay more for their products.
1 GMO Inside; 2 Inside Battelle, 3 Non-GMO Project, 4 The Huffington Post, 5 Associated Press
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