Fresh Talk blog: Is market ready for biotech fruits and veggies?

01/03/2012 08:39:00 PM
Tom Karst

The question is simple: Is the market place ready for GMO fruits and vegetables?

How can growers/marketers prepare consumers/retailers for introduction of GMO varieties in coming years?

It is a question I posed to the Fresh Produce Industry Discussion Group not long ago, and this particular discussion was one of the more rigorous and spirited in the history of the group.

There is a persistent belief consumers will exhibit an active "anti GMO" attitude in regard to biotech fruits and vegetables. That is, unless the biotech designation is unspoken and stealthy (hello biotech sweet corn at road side stands),  some segment of consumers will punish retailers who sell genetically modified fruits and vegetables, making life generally unhappy.

Bradley wrote:

Where farmers look at the bottom line, consumers have a range of concerns and values that might conflict with perceptions of GMOs. Anti GMO groups will seek to inflame these, and retailers and everyone else in the supply chain will be looking to minimize risks.

Industry needs to start communicating better on GMOs with consumers. Where farmers have been the main audience, Industry will need a different strategy and a different voice in reaching out to consumers. Social media will be key, as will engaging appropriate pundits. The oddly worded and neatly typed press release isn't going to cut it any more. Frankly, I don't see Industry gearing up to do this.

Consumers will accept GMO fruits and vegetables. Virus-resistant sweet corn and papaya have long been on the market, as has Bt sweet corn. They have largely flown under the radar screen for most folks. As more prominent products are brought to market, it is going to take some skillful, and honest, PR efforts to bring consumers around.

 

TK: Bradley mentions the virus resistant papaya. It is notable that the Japanese government has approved the Rainbow papaya from Hawaii, a biotech papaya modified to resist the ringspot virus. This USDA FAS report talks about the market opening, which included, by the way, some "skillful and honest PR efforts." From the USDA:

On December 1, 2011, Rainbow Papaya from Hawaii will be fully approved for commercial shipments to Japan. This announcement marks the end of a long and tedious approval process which started in 1999, and the beginning of a new chapter for Hawaiian papaya growers. The approval of biotech papaya is significant because it is the first horticultural product, and the first direct-to-consumer food product to gain regulatory approval in Japan. The degree of acceptance of this product at the consumer level will serve as a leading indicator for numerous biotech products that are in the developmental and regulatory pipeline.

TK: Reading about the work the the Hawaiian papaya industry did to secure the Japanese market makes one appreciate the considerable investment they have made in the market. Will it pay off? Considering that each papaya must be labeled as genetically modified, the Rainbow papaya may indeed be a valid test case and barometer for market acceptance of genetically modified fruits and vegetables in Japan.

I assume that a certain portion of consumers in the U.S. - perhaps 10% or so  - may resist biotech fresh produce. Most probably, that 10% can deter the introduction of biotech fresh produce in the U.S. until a significant GMO consumer health benefit is associated with a biotech  fruit or vegetable. The fountain of youth pear,  the anti-cancer carrot, the teeth whitening radish.

When I say biotech produce, what do you think of? The next true test case and public relations challenge in the U.S. may be the non-browning Arctic apple,  currently under review by the USDA. Beyond regulatory approval, what will the market decide about the Arctic apple?

Once consumer acceptance is secured - with the Arctic apple now or another fresh produce item in five years - the flood gates will open.  I have to believe pent-up research efforts will be expressed in a, ahem, "rainbow" of altered fruits and vegetables marketed all over the globe.



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