Dan Murphy: A GMO Turning Point?

GMO technology has enhanced a variety of apples. ( The Packer )

Open the Urban Dictionary to the phrase ‘shoot yourself in the foot,’ and you’ll see a food package labeled ‘No GMOs!’ Fortunately, that disaster might be on the verge of a real reversal.

Quote of the week — maybe the entire month.

With regard to that three-letter “demon” activists love to hate, the president of a company successfully launching a genetically modified food product told it like it is.

“Everybody thinks, 'GMOs … consumers are all against that,' ” Neal Carter, president of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, was quoted on the website FoodDive.com. “But at the end of the day, they’re really not.”

Amen, brother.

You may have heard about the controversy anti-GMO advocates tried to stir up when Carter’s company introduced the Arctic Apple two years ago, a fruit that’s genetically modified so that it doesn't brown after being cut. Along with its marketing efforts, the firm also created a consumer information campaign, launched a website, published a toll-free 800 information number and put scannable QR codes on the stickers placed on the apples.

“Basically, only two people looked up the QR code to get more information last year,” Carter said.

What does that tell us?

Simple: The problem with GMOs, other than opposition from a small subset of food purists who loathe anything they deem as “unnatural,” is not the technology itself, but how it’s been applied in the marketplace.

Because genetic engineering was commercialized — with great fanfare — to develop commodity crops resistant to toxic herbicides, it started out with two strikes against it. Strike one, an application that does nothing for consumers, even if it does offer efficiencies to growers. Roundup-ready crops haven’t led to cheaper food products; they can’t be positioned as safer (although there is no proven risk to human health); and they don’t improve either nutritional value or eating quality for any food items manufactured from those crops.

In other words, there is no discernible benefit to consumers.

Strike two, the fact that GM crops are associated with herbicide use, even though such crops can be cultivated with demonstrably less use of weed killers. The scientific community and major farm input manufacturers foolishly touted how “efficient” and “effective” it was for farmers to plant Roundup-ready varieties, even as that gave opponents a powerful counterpoint to its widespread application.

And strike three? The seed patents were owned and marketed by Monsanto and other corporate giants who operate with a huge target on their backs, not only because of the accusations associated with their product portfolio but because those companies ruthlessly kept a stranglehold on their proprietary rights to maintain their market share.

Nothing illegal about any of that, but it damn sure doesn’t play well on Main Street, much less among the environmental groups and consumer activists opposed to genetic engineering on principle.

Targeting consumer benefits

In retrospect, had the science and the application technology supporting genetic engineering been made public — since much of its was developed at publicly funded land-grant universities — opposition to GMOs might have been muted from the start. Of course, that’s the price we pay for our collective devotion to a capitalistic, private-sector-dominant marketplace.

But the other part of the equation, the part about consumer benefits, can be changed, as Okanagan Specialty Fruits has clearly demonstrated. When GM applications are deployed to provide a direct and marketable consumer benefit, as well as a positive impact on environmental protection, resistance becomes far less of a problem.

Are consumers concerned about GMOs? To the extent that they absorb the activist screeds and media handwringing, sure. But does a vague uneasiness about a technology most people really don’t understand override an obvious benefit, such as an apple that doesn’t immediately turn brown once it’s sliced up for convenient eating?

Apparently not.

So if consumers can be persuaded to try products that have been enhanced — and that’s the proper word to be used — with genetic engineering, I believe they’ll appreciate the benefits, while realizing there’s no perceptible difference in organoleptic properties, versus “conventional” foods.

Not that anyone knows what “organoleptic” means.

The point is, for genetic engineering to be deployed across all of agriculture as a primary tool to ensure farm productivity and food security for a global population expected to top 9 billion in a few short decades, there needs to be wide consumer acceptance of GMO foods. Without it, the political momentum and marketplace demand will be insufficient to advance the development of applications that could produce hardier, higher yielding crops and more nutritionally beneficial foods and functional ingredients.

The Arctic Apple is an excellent template for how that process needs to evolve.

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, an award-winning journalist and commentator.