Business innovation | Opinion

The biotech food fight heats up

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North America an exception for GMO labelling

Campbell Soup’s advocacy for GMO labelling highlights contrasting views on the pros and cons of food biotechnology

Scepticism about food biotechnology, and in particular about genetic modification of crops, is usually associated with continental European nations. Countries with some form of ban or moratorium on GMO cultivation include Austria, France and Germany, and European Union law requires food products containing GMO ingredients to be labelled as such.

What might be surprising, however, is that many other countries also have GMO labelling laws. Sixty-four nations, from Australia to Vietnam, and including heavyweights such as Brazil, China and Russia, require GMO labelling, according to the US Center for Food Safety.

The big exception is North America. The United States has no federal requirement on labelling of foods containing GMOs, and GMO companies and food producers have typically taken a firm stand to keep it that way.

Monsanto, for example, says that GM ingredients are safe and “mandatory labelling could imply that food products containing these ingredients are somehow inferior to their conventional or organic counterparts.”

What it says on the tin

But now one company has broken ranks. Food giant Campbell Soup said in early January it would back mandatory GMO labelling in the US. “We’ve always believed consumers have a right to know what’s in their food,” says Dave Stangis Campbell’s vice-president for public affairs and corporate responsibility. He acknowledges that “the overwhelming majority of Americans support GMO labelling” – polls commonly find support running at more than 90%.

The GMO labelling debate crystallises issues of public trust of biotech food. Although food biotechnology is most developed in terms of genetic modification of crops, it can include other uses of technology, such as cloning or genetic engineering of animals.

The Campbell labelling move has made a big splash in the US, where cultivation of GM crops is widespread – 94% of US soybeans are GM, for example. Unlike in Europe, US food companies are already widely embracing biotechnology.

Hard to resist

Campbell’s initiative seems to a great extent to have been triggered by the view that GMO food labelling in the US is looking increasingly hard to resist, and that it would be better to swim with the tide rather than against it.

Some US states have proposed bills requiring some form of GMO labelling, though none so far has been implemented. This is set to change, however, in mid-2016, when a first state-level law requiring GMO labelling will take effect in Vermont.

In a blog post, Campbell’s president and CEO Denise Morrison says that “a state-by-state piecemeal approach is incomplete, impractical and costly to implement for foodmakers”, arguing this leads to consumer confusion. Therefore, Campbell would advocate a single GMO labelling law for the whole US, and would withdraw from industry groups that fight against it, Morrison says.

Gain from transparency

However, the view espoused by Monsanto that consumers might look askance at foods labelled as containing GMOs is undoubtedly right. Underlying the opposition of Monsanto and other companies to labelling is the fear that they will lose out from greater disclosures.

But is that really a justification for not labelling foods containing GMOs? Perhaps the time has come for food companies to tell consumers what they want to know, and to make the arguments – in full transparency – for the benefits of GMOs.

If GMO ingredients, and biotech foods more generally, really do deliver advantages and can be shown to do so, they could become an asset, rather than a handicap, for food products.

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