National Editor Tom Karst
National Editor Tom Karst

The long-sought acceptance of genetically engineered fruits and vegetables by their forward-thinking marketers won’t happen when the collective public says “wow!!” about the consumer benefits that biotech fruits and vegetables will bring.

Sure, we can expect biotech fruits and vegetables may someday offer consumers unusual tastes, colors and combinations of antioxidants and nutrients. Still more may boast disease-fighting characteristics that are absolutely vital to growers of a given commodity.

Those issues won’t matter much. They haven’t mattered much in the past, at least.

In 1994, Iowa State published a perspective on biotech fruits and vegetables and the tone of the piece was the quickening pace of biotech selections for vegetable growers. Called “The Vegetable Revolution,” the piece described the hot competition at that time to bring biotech veggies to the public.

“There is stiff competition among companies to bring genetically engineered fruits and vegetables to market. One government official estimates that there are almost 300 projects under way to develop genetically engineered plants.”

As we know, the flurry of optimism in the early 1990s was misplaced. What happened to the Flavr Savr, tomato anyway? There are a few biotech fruits and vegetables in the market place today, but certainly not hundreds.

Consumer acceptance of biotech fruits and vegetables continues to be a question mark, with some consumer groups still trumpeting worries about “frankenfoods.” That note is getting tired.

There will be more and more attempts to bring biotech fruits and veggies to market. The non-browning Arctic apple is waiting USDA approval. J.R. Simplot has recently petitioned the USDA for approval of a biotech potato that the company says is engineered for “genetically engineered for low acrylamide potential (acrylamide is a human neurotoxicant and potential carcinogen that may form in potatoes and other starchy foods under certain cooking conditions) and reduced black spot bruise.”

Del Monte has won USDA approval for a biotech variety of pineapple that the company is still undergoing tests.

The signal that “the market” accepts genetically modified fruits and vegetables comes when John and Jane Q. Consumer say “ho hum” when given news of another unveiling of another biotech fruit or vegetable.

In the end, it would healthy for marketers if consumers thought of biotech fruits and vegetables as “just an excuse to charge more money,” as a mid-April Harris poll indicated that nearly 60% of consumers believe about the organic label.

From the Harris release:

Turns out that more than half (59%) agree that labeling food or other products as organic is just an excuse to charge more.

"What surprised us most was that while Americans are showing more concern for the environment, they aren't necessarily willing to pay more to do anything about it," said Mike de Vere, President of the Harris Poll. "While Americans feel better about the economy, many are wary of the 'greenwashing' concept that gives companies a chance to cash in on consumers who want to help the planet but are confused by all the eco-friendly jargon."

I don’t think there will be any one event that will be the turning point in the market acceptance of biotech fruits and vegetables. But with one new biotech variety finding approval after another, retailers and consumers may not get so excited about the next. Biotech will neither save nor destroy agriculture as we know it.  In the end, it is the “no big deal” response that will finally signal a new norm.

 What do you think? Vote on Fresh Produce Industry Discussion Group poll here:

True or False: GMO fruits and vegetables will be commonplace in ten years in the U.S. fresh produce market.