The GMO Debate Just Won’t Go Away
In 2014, I was the Vice President of Marketing for a $100 million-dollar frozen food company and I didn’t know very much about genetically modified foods (GMOs) except that none of my customers wanted GMO ingredients to be used when making in their products. Needing to understand why Whole Foods, Trader Joes and other important customers were forcing my company to reformulate popular products, I jumped into researching this issue. I was shocked to find out that mny consumers were unified against GMO’s and did not want to eat them. More surprisingly, I found that scientists and policy makers were enthusiastic supporters of GMO research and the results they were getting in their labs and the field. Who was correct? I was confused.
As I spoke to more food and agricultural scientists and dug into the research, I came to fall on the side of science. I was mystified that public opinion had taken such a forceful turn against crops that had never been proven to cause any harm to animals or humans. Over the next couple of years, many respected thought leaders including Bill Nye the Science Guy and climate activist Mark Lynas changed their stance on GMO foods as well. At the same time, the conversation online and in the news became heated and angry.
Today many North American consumers and retailers have reconsidered GMO ingredients and now agree with scientists that GMO crops can bring benefits to agriculture and, when combined with other systemic improvements, help farmers and food companies to feed the almost 9 billion people on our planet with no ill effect. Conversion has not been universal. Type #GMO into twitter and you’ll see that debate is not just active but frenzied! Like many modern arguments (including gun control and vaccines), the discussions are dominated by groups that have deeply entrenched and opposing opinions, making it difficult for anyone new to the discussion to participate. I’ve come to support the recommendation made by Theresa Phillips, PhD writing in Nature way back in 2008; before I was even aware of GMO’s, she demonstrated common sense:
“GMOs benefit mankind when used for purposes such as increasing the availability and quality of food and medical care, and contributing to a cleaner environment. If used wisely, they could result in an improved economy without doing more harm than good, and they could also make the most of their potential to alleviate hunger and disease worldwide. However, the full potential of GMOs cannot be realized without due diligence and thorough attention to the risks associated with each new GMO on a case-by-case basis.”
Why does the division about GMO’s matter, you ask? I’ll give you a few reasons.
- Let’s look back to my corporate days for an example; instead of creating new products with my R&D budget in 2014, my team spent most of our resources reformulating products that already tasted good, contained good quality ingredients and offered the best price to consumers. Sometimes by removing GM ingredients our products became more expensive and not as delicious as the originals. The result for our company was that innovation stalled and we had fewer new products to launch and grow our business.
- There are places in the world where people don’t have enough to eat and often GMO technology can help them to get more nutrients from their animals and the land than is possible using conventional production methods. For the citizens of these countries, GMO’s matter.
- We have real issues to debate and all this talk about GMO’s is distracting consumers, farmers, manufacturers, retailers, researchers and policy makers from tackling big issues such as hunger, climate issues and other important problems.
I’m curious to hear your thoughts about Genetically Modified Organisms. Ping me on twitter (@DanaMcCauley) to share our reaction to this blog post.
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