WHAT’S IN A CLAIM?
THE AG INDUSTRY RENEWS THE BROADER BATTLE FOR PUBLIC TRUST
BY IAN DOIG
One hundred and nine Nobel laureates can’t be wrong.
Matt Sawyer, a grain and oilseed farmer who raises Black Angus cattle near Acme, AB, and Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association director, said scientific consensus overwhelmingly pronounces foods made from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) safe and nutritious.
“Non-GMO organizations are well-funded and have a lot of power, and they do a lot of lobbying,” said Sawyer. Such frustration runs deep in the ag sector, and the vast flack cloud of anti-GMO material found online exhausts morale. When absurdly non-scientific advice about detoxifying your body by sleeping with onions in your socks goes viral on social media channels, what hope is there for a nuanced discussion of biotechnology’s potential to boost agricultural sustainability?
Nonetheless, Sawyer cited a 2016 open letter endorsed by the above-mentioned prize-winning scientists backing the safety of foods produced using biotechnology as yet another irrefutable scientific endorsement. But the fight has increasingly been framed in marketing terms—an apples-and-onions battle between science and consumer demand.
As more and more agri-food corporations act on increasing consumer demand for certified and labelled non-GMO products, and anti-GMO advocates claim an emerging, game-changing victory, the Canadian farm sector is quietly rallying for a counterattack.
WHAT’S IN A LABEL?
In March of this year, a skirmish erupted on social media between farmers and agri-food giant Cargill over the company’s engagement with the openly anti-GMO Non-GMO Project based in Portland, OR. Cargill had taken it on as the certifying body for its non-GMO food products. Many in the ag industry, Sawyer included, see such GMO content labelling as misleading. “Singling it out is suggesting to the public it’s not as healthy as a conventionally grown crop, and that’s false,” he said. “Losing the ability to use that genetically modified system would be very detrimental to our industry.” This is an understatement, considering the total average economic activity generated by canola alone in Canada in 2012/13 and 2014/15 was $26.7 billion.
Commenting in the media, Cargill management in the United States affirmed the company’s commitment to GMO crops, but claimed the demands of its food-company customers for certified non-GMO products could not be ignored. As well, Cargill defended the use of Non-GMO Project as the only viable certification option given the lack of U.S. federal or private standards.
“I can understand why this feels threatening,” said Non-GMO Project executive director Megan Westgate in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch interview. “There’s a big paradigm shift happening. The largest food companies in the world are looking for non-GMO ingredients and that’s really changing the supply chain.”
Sawyer sees the agri-food industry at another tipping point based on the way commodities and foods alike are being marketed. “It’s probably a renewed call to action,” he said.
LABELLED IN THE U.S.A.
In Canada, labelling of GMO content in packaged foods is voluntary, and the federal regulations governing it were reaffirmed in 2016. Along with making claim verification mandatory, these straightforward guidelines do answer in part to concerns that the act of labelling itself casts negative implications upon the product. Single-ingredient foods such as fruit and vegetables for which no genetically modified versions have been produced cannot claim to be non-GMO without the inclusion of a disclaimer.
Perhaps counterintuitively, farmers in the United States pushed the federal government to institute mandatory GMO labelling laws in 2016. The legislation, which has not yet been put in place, was created to head off an emerging state-by-state legal patchwork.
Vermont dairy farmer Joanna Lidback launched her fight against the state’s proposed labelling laws with blog posts and a letter to the editor of a local newspaper, eventually testifying before the U.S. Congress on the benefits of biotechnology. “It’s well documented that labelling would increase the cost of food, either through segregation or by encouraging other, less efficient and/or effective means of production from both an economic and environmental perspective. I felt I had to speak up for the sake of my community—both local and ag.”
She believes the federal legislation’s array of disclosure options, though a compromise, is good for U.S. farmers. “It offers the opportunity for labels to include more information to explain why farmers would want to use GMOs in the first place, either through websites or a QR code.” Consumers, she said, can access good answers to questions about genetic modification technology.
Steve Savage is a plant pathologist, sustainability consultant and commentator on food and farming who also works with CropLife Foundation. He believes the anti-GMO stance was never science-based, but rather a political, philosophical argument. He described non-GMO marketing as the next big thing in fear-based products. Well-fed consumers have become accustomed to purchasing food for what’s not in it, he said, citing non-fat, sugar-free and gluten-free items. “That’s fundamentally absurd.”
The institution of the U.S. labelling laws headed off a lengthy resolution process in the courts, he said. “But it didn’t do anything to resolve the issue, because it truly comes down to who has the leverage in the marketplace.”
Savage believes farmers should be concerned with GMO content labelling. “People with good intentions are really hurting the future of our food supply,” he claimed. The organic-upsell market makes it easy for corporations to excuse their concessions to anti-GMO sentiment by invoking customer preference, he added. “But the message you’re sending with the organic or the GMO label is there’s something wrong with what’s left.
“Especially when the people that organize that non-GMO certification have stated that’s what they want to do. Every marketer and other player along the chain is facilitating that goal. The fact Cargill, Danone, Costco and everybody else would go along with the non-GMO thing says these guys are going to win and farmers are going to lose.”
Savage is skeptical that labelling legislation and accompanying government and university public-education programs will increase acceptance of GMO foods in the United States, and believes pro-GMO initiatives are being outspent by anti-GMO forces.
But Lidback senses a rising backlash against the profusion of poor information available primarily online. “I see it more as a true grassroots movement of people seeking answers and ultimately finding good information,” she said.
Farmers, she said, should have got out in front of the issue earlier. “We took for granted that people didn’t care what we do and how we do it. Indeed, they are very concerned about the safety of the food they serve and that care was taken during production with respect to the environment and farm workers. Food is a very personal issue for them, for us, for everyone.
“When it comes to sharing why we do what we do, farmers can’t ever relax,” said Lidback. “And we need to do a better job of making sure we’re listening to concerns and meeting them just as much as we explain methodology and our own stories.
“Speak up and put good information out there, and if that’s not for you, then support individuals or groups that do.”
Savage believes the GMO narrative must change, and the anti-GMO movement tagged as anti-farmer. There are compelling truths to be told about farm life—that corporate farms are not the norm. “These people that grow your food are just regular people that you can relate to,” he said. “These are family operations that face some really severe challenges.”
Savage also suggested winning over open-minded individuals by telling the fantastic stories of new products that benefit farmers, consumers and the environment. He cited three with Canadian connections.
The first, by AquaBounty, which operates a hatchery in Prince Edward Island, is the AquAdvantage Salmon. Developed to be fast-maturing and raised entirely in indoor tanks, it may potentially take pressure off wild fish populations.
Approved for sale in the U.S. and Canada and marketed for their reduced browning and bruising characteristics, the J.R. Simplot Company’s Innate potatoes also have the potential to reduce food waste and farm input costs. A Boise, ID, company, Simplot operates Canadian test plots, and its first-generation potatoes are available in 4,000 U.S. grocery stores.
Arctic Apples from Okanagan Specialty Fruits are likewise marketed as non-browning. “It’s a small company doing something that makes sense for consumers,” said Savage. “Once consumers see those apples fresh, sliced or dried, they’ll say ‘OK, this is not an abstraction, it’s really cool.’”
Savage admitted these are complex stories and difficult to tell for the purpose of winning the public over, adding it may unfortunately take a crop crisis to sway public opinion. For example, Italian olives are being wiped out by xylella fastidiosa bacteria. “Biotech is probably one of their only solutions.”
MOBILIZING PUBLIC TRUST
Earning public trust in the agricultural sector is indeed a complex task, of which the GMO issue is just one facet. Launched in May 2016 and modelled after its U.S. counterpart, the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity (CCFI) is attempting to consolidate agriculture’s subdivided landscape of jurisdictions, sectors and associations to build trust in food and farming.
CCFI listens to consumers and shares this research and resulting messaging with industry groups. Among these, Agriculture in the Classroom works with schools, Food & Farm Care works with consumers, and Agriculture More Than Ever encourages farmers to speak up. While these “amplifier groups” spread tailored messaging, each company and association also carries out its own communications work.
“Fifty per cent of our population is unsure if the food system is even on the right track,” said CCFI president Crystal Mackay. “There’s this huge package of questions about everything that’s on their plate: the wheat in the pasta, the salt in the bacon, how was the pig treated and did it eat GMO feed?”
Overwhelmed by conflicting information, consumers may not have the ability nor the interest to sort through it for credible sources, said Mackay.
“Our focus is to help the food system earn trust. We do that through everyone from my dad, the beef farmer in the Ottawa Valley, to the CEOs of the biggest food companies. One company, one commodity, one sector, one business cannot tackle this effectively on their own.
“If you want to drive change, you’ve got to get out of the back of the truck,” she said. “The reality is, on many topics, the farm sector has been driven around by other people’s agendas and then we respond and react.”
CCFI has found antibiotics to be the top public food-system concern, with GMOs a close second. In 2016, it held a food-system forum on antibiotics for food-industry executives. A post-event evaluation revealed that participants overwhelmingly pronounced the issue “really complicated.”
“And that’s good,” Mackay emphasized. “We want the other end of the supply chain to realize a press release is not going to solve this topic. This is a complicated area, as GMOs are.” In late September of this year, CCFI held a similar summit on the GMO topic. The supply chain, she noted, was designed for competition, not collaboration, so facilitating a conversation between all its players is in everyone’s best interest. As is pooling investment dollars, ideas and expertise.
“It’s the difference between short-term competitive gain and long-term investment in public trust,” she said. “It’s a whole new way of doing business.”
The key to the GMO issue, she explained, is realizing that giving people more scientific information may not win them over. “We live in a country where food choice is abundant. There are people that choose different options. Price it accordingly and don’t be defensive about it.”
A pro-GMO paradigm shift is not near, but the farmer’s hands are back on the steering wheel. While it may be difficult to translate the agricultural efficiency of GMO crops, Canadians say access to affordable food is of top importance. “We can grow more food on less land with less inputs, but it’s hard to transfer that to a consumer benefit,” she said, suggesting the issue be positioned accordingly. “How does the GMO message frame up into providing healthy, affordable food? If we can achieve that, we’ll move the bar a long way.”
The stakes are high, said Mackay. “This is where public trust fits in: Will we be allowed to innovate? You can spend $100 million on some new, amazing technology, but if your neighbour says no…”