It is estimated that 70% of the processed foods on retail shelves contain at least one genetically modified ingredient.
That’s largely because nearly 90% of field corn, soybeans and sugar beets grown in the U.S. come from GMO seeds.
In the produce aisle, GMOs have not been prevalent, but this is likely to change.
Recently, Monsanto announced field trials on GMO sweet corn varieties.
I believe that this entry into fresh produce will push the debate to the forefront.
Are you prepared?
The debate will be complex. After the spinach crisis of 2006, we all agreed that we needed to do better, and, in general, we did not have forces pushing against us.
But with GMOs, it is likely we will debate a great deal on whether we should even be messing with this area.
The debate will challenge conventional wisdom. Some consumers have the impression that “local” is organic, safer and more wholesome than food from a “corporate farm.”
Yet, most GMO sweet corn sold in this country today is produced and sold by roadside farms or at farmers markets.
So-called corporate farms have yet to really embrace GMOs.
Second, sweet corn is a crop that tends to be very pest intensive. In certain regions, farmers may have to spray their fields every two to three days (up to 25 times during the growing cycle) to ensure they get a reasonable yield.
In contrast, a GMO variety that is stacked with proteins that inhibit insects eliminates the need for sprays.
Since it is unrealistic to think we could maintain a year-round supply of reasonably priced, high quality sweet corn using organic farming methods, which method of growing sweet corn is the most environmentally friendly?
The debate will be emotional. GMOs have been supported by Republican and Democratic administrations, and the U.S. government doesn’t require labeling of GMO products.
Yet, researchers, legislators, regulators, consumers, growers and retailers may all have different takes on this issue.
Not all of these groups will base their opinions on sound scientific evidence. Some consumer groups, for example, use scare tactics to convey their positions, apparently with the sole purpose of creating an emotional response.
Some politicians are issuing statements along the lines of “don’t mess with nature.”
While virtually everyone agrees with that statement on the surface, growers and ranchers have been doing just that for years: cross-breeding, mitigating soils with fertilizer, and using organic and chemical pesticides are just a few examples.
Beyond the U.S.
Finally, this issue has a global effect.
You have probably heard the statistics. From 2000-50, we will need to double the world’s output of food to support population growth.
World hunger is at an all-time high and is expected to get worse. Since our debate is likely to help shape the global debate, the key questions should include:
- Will the GMO corn lead to better land utilization by increasing yields?
- Is there any credible evidence that suggests that eating GMO sweet corn will have a negative health effect?
- How could growing drought-resistant wheat affect sub-Saharan Africa?
The answers matter, and we need to focus on the facts and sound scientific process to make the best decisions.
We should all prepare by reading up on the science, talking with one another (including those who hold opinions different than our own) and listening carefully to our customers.
Debate over GMOs will come to the produce aisle over the next few years.
I fear retailers will get pressured to dismiss science as the foundation of their corporate policies.
As the debate escalates, consumers may change their shopping habits (buying more or less of a given item, or perhaps increasing purchases of organics).
Bottom line — GMOs have the potential to transform our industry, and it will be interesting to watch the story unfold.
Don Goodwin is the owner of Minnetrista, Minn.-based Golden Sun Marketing, a company that provides strategy and marketing services to the fresh produce supply chain from seed to retail. Don@goldensunmarketing.com.
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