Who Do You Trust? The GMO Debate

April 30, 2015

Opposite polls in the food GMO debate were on display in keynote addresses on successive days at the Food Leaders Summit, an inaugural industry event April 27-29 in Chicago.

The GMO lines are deeply drawn, and the debate may be entering a critical phase as proponents and detractors fight for the hearts and minds of the only American consumers who truly matter: the Millennials.

Making the case for genetically modified seeds, herbicides and foods was the director of millennial engagement at the company with the most to win or lose: Monsanto Co. A starkly different take on GMOs was voiced by the founder of one of the nation’s fastest-growing food companies over the last decade: Nutiva Inc.

In his first 10 months on the job, Monsanto’s Vance Crowe represented the St. Louis agrochemical firm at SXSW Eco, an exhibition staged in conjunction with the annual Austin, Texas, alternative music extravaganza. His reception trended toward the chilly, Crowe recalled, but “the first step is just showing up to be a part of the conversation” and present Monsanto’s GMO story. Scientific evidence supports genetically modified organisms, he asserted, and he’s encouraged when Millennial favorites like John Oliver and the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart join the conversation and liken anti-GMO crusaders to climate-change deniers.

The science jury is still out, insisted John W. Roulac, founder and CEO of Nutiva. Most studies conclude GMOs are safe, he conceded, but numerous studies published in peer-reviewed journals reach a different conclusion, and he criticized Monsanto’s own research on the human safety of food produced with GMO products as inadequate 90-day reviews instead of two-year analyses.

The climate-change analogy suggests an up-hill challenge for GMO foods. While 80 percent of scientific opinion accepts their safety, 98 percent of scientists not only accept the validity of climate data, they also agree with the conclusion that human activity is a driving force. Logic and reason will not prevail over the views of trusted commentators and “tribal communications,” as another speaker put it.

Roulac is firmly in the camp of critical commentators who regularly weigh in on the side of ending GMO use, as well as altering current industrial-agriculture practices. “Revolutionizing the way the world eats” is Nutiva’s value proposition, and the firm has tapped a burgeoning market for organic hemp protein shakes, chia seeds and coconut oil (refined with steam, not chemicals). The company has maintained annual growth of 60 percent since 2004, landing it on fastest-growing company lists and pushing sales toward $100 million. Any product promoting healthy eating that is linked to GMOs will face the wrath of irate shoppers, Roulac suggested, citing the case of Kashi cereal. After the Kellogg subsidiary was accused of using a GMO ingredient in 2011, sales crashed from $650 million to $400 million, resulting in a pledge by Kashi to go GMO-free.

Two thirds of the public favors GMO labeling, and almost half support an outright ban. “The train is leaving the station on GMOs,” he said, despite industry efforts to defend the foods. “No matter what GMA (Grocery Manufacturers Association), FDA and Monsanto say, if people don’t want it, it’s gone.”

Clearly, Monsanto doesn’t agree, which is why it created Crowe’s position. Finding ways to tell the GMO story to 78 million Millennials and assuage their concerns is his job. Where that engagement occurs is as important as what is said, and that precludes a dialogue with prominent critics and bloggers like the Food Babe. An invitation to discuss Round-Up herbicide with Dr. Oz was rejected because “that is not going to be a good platform for sharing serious science,” said Crowe.

A weak job market and student-loan debt are forcing young adults to make compromises, but they remain faithful to a desire to work for more than a paycheck and a commitment to being on the right side of any issue, Crowe noted, and that holds promise for Monsanto’s engagement strategy. “Science is not enough,” he said. “You have to capture people’s attention, you have to make them understand.”

Between them, Crowe and Roulac touched on several topics that were repeated throughout the conference program—business transparency, sustainable practices, healthier eating trends, brand protection, etc. But the issue of consumer engagement in the social-media landscape loomed in the background of most of the discussions, and while their messages are polar opposites, Nutiva and Monsanto illustrate food companies’ efforts to engage with individuals and tell their stories.

The conference was sponsored by Food Processing.