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GMOs: Food companies need to speak now, or risk losing their place in the conversation

2014-02-18

Farmers shaking hands

For all the pro-labeling activism and anti-labeling push-back surrounding genetically modified foods, no single GMO story line has emerged for consumers, who remain confused and hungry for information. If food companies do not start speaking more openly about GMOs, they could lose their place in the conversation altogether. The power of social media, in particular, could quickly overwhelm any message that food companies want to convey once information or misinformation start taking hold. 

Consumers have a strong need for more information right now. Although many people say they do not know what GMOs are, 19 percent of shoppers look for foods labeled non-GMO—which is more than the 16 percent who seek the organic label. Their interest has been heightened by voter measures calling for labels in California and Washington, by Whole Foods’ decision to label products with GMOs by 2018 and by manufacturer shifts, including General Mills removing GMOs from the original Cheerios. 

The percentage of consumers who deliberately avoid GMOs is even higher—33 percent—and growing quickly. Only 15 percent avoided GMOs in 2007. That growth rate is faster than any other ingredient except soy isoflavones, among ingredients avoided by at least 10 percent of consumers. 

There is some gap between what consumers aspire to and what they actually buy, but the trend is undeniable: People are becoming aware of GMOs, and even though many do not know what they are, a sizable and growing proportion of shoppers is avoiding them. 

Among people avoiding GMOs, 70 percent say it is because they are concerned about the impact on their health and well-being, while half say they want to know what goes into their food, 36 percent are concerned about possible environmental impacts and 30 percent do not want to support companies that use GMOs. 

Despite those answers, a relatively large 24 percent said they do not know enough about them.

A vacuum of uncertainty is building around GMOs, rooted in concerns relating to health, the environment and a basic lack of knowledge. That makes it essential that food companies speak now, before distrust builds further and people start giving credence to a set of facts they have decided are relevant. The lack of communication only feeds suspicions. Consumers assume that, by not openly justifying a position in favor of GMOs, companies must have “something to hide.” They also wonder why companies that speak out against GMOs do not boycott them. As their suspicions grow, people become distrustful of what companies do tell them and seek more information to decide for themselves. 

One example of a consumer making his own connections in the absence of real information appears in The Hartman Group’s Sustainability 2013 report: “I saw a documentary about fish near Chernobyl whose genetics had been changed by the disaster. They looked exactly the same! You’d never want to eat radioactive fish, so why would you eat GMOs?” 

For some companies, talking about GMOs will mean finding out if it is feasible from cost and other standpoints to remove GMOs from their products and whether customers will accept any resulting price increase. For other companies, it could mean talking openly about why they use GMOs and what would happen if they stopped—to prices, for example. Many companies have an interest in discussing the science behind GMOs but are not sure how to do it or whether they will be trusted. One thing is certain: if they do not begin, the story could be taken away from them entirely.

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