The food and beverage industry is in the midst of perhaps its most revolutionary changes ever. Consumer education has increased dramatically, resulting in the need for greater transparency, fresher products and cleaner labels from food and beverage manufacturers. The impact of these changes has been felt across the value chain – from ingredient suppliers through the retail channel. Among the more controversial issues within the industry is the use of genetically-modified organisms (GMO) in the production of consumer food products.
GMOs are food products/ingredients which have been altered at the gene level, by transferring genetic materials from a different species, in ways that do not occur naturally or through traditional breeding methods. Proponents argue that GMO crops are essentially equivalent to non-GMO crops, with the same protein, calories, fiber, carbohydrates, etc… Further, GMOs have had a significant impact on crop yields, with some estimating up to a 25% increase in corn yield from the use of GM varieties. GMO opponents argue, among other things, that the long-term impact of genetically modified foods on human health is unknown and that GM crops are negatively impacting the environment, by allowing farmers to use more pesticides and other chemicals on their crop land.
Despite the often-negative perceptions of GM products and the high costs of research, development and licensing associated with these products, there seems to be no end in sight to the proliferation of genetic modification. For example, researchers and scientists are working on genetically modified rice and wheat varieties that could increase the yield of these products by 50%. Going further, the real game changer is the potential use of CRISPR to edit the genome at the cellular level. Historically, the cost to sequence a genome was prohibitive for most applications. However, these costs have fallen dramatically over the past several years: from $100M in 2001 to approximately $1,000 by 2015. This has the potential to open the GM market to other products that generate too little revenue to bear the cost of traditional genetic modification. All of this seems like positive developments in a world where food scarcity is a long-standing problem, particularly in developing countries with rapidly increasing populations.
However, the biggest barrier to greater wide-spread use of genetic modification may be consumers themselves. According to a recent survey from GMO Answers, nearly 70% of US adults don’t understand what GMOs are and only one-third are comfortable having GMOs in their food. This despite the fact that the majority (60-70%) of processed grocery store products contain some GM ingredients.
Adequate consumer education appears to be the missing puzzle piece. The same GMO Answers survey found that a majority of consumers want to know more about the impact of GMOs on health and food safety. But what is the food industry – growers, suppliers, processors and retailers – to do about this? Consumer education comes at a high cost, and not all supply chain members in the food industry have the resources to fund a wide-spread educational campaign. At first glance, it appears the use of product labeling specifically for GMOs would be the answer. However, many consumers already are confused by the variety of labels currently on the food they purchase, making it difficult for families to make decisions at the grocery store.
When it comes to GMOs, the genie is out of the bottle…GMOs are mentioned in nearly all of the food-related projects we do here at Martec, whether the context is positive or negative depends on audience. Regardless, GMO products are not going away any time soon, nor is the issue becoming any simpler. Until consumers have a full understanding of the long-term impact of GMOs, they will continue to question these products. We believe it is the responsibility of food growers, manufacturers, processors and retailers to provide the information required so consumers can make the best possible food choices for themselves and their families.
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