Fingers in GM and non-GM pie can make for messy situation

The increasing polarization between proponents of genetically modified food and non-GMOs is unhealthy for agriculture.

This is no more evident than what happened recently when agribusiness giant Cargill announced on Twitter that it was partnering with the Non-GMO Project, a strident anti-GMO organization, to verify 13 ingredients in its growing line of non-GM products.

Cargill, whose business is heavily tilted toward GM ingredients, was the target of criticism from farmers, suppliers, bloggers and even Monsanto’s chief technology officer, Robb Fraley, who asked in a tweet why Cargill is working with an “anti-science” group.

Robert Saik, chief executive officer of Agri-Trend and an unabashed supporter of GMOs, tweeted that an Ontario farmer “pulled all their $500,000 business away” from Cargill over the decision to partner with the Non-GMO Project.

And Shannon Rumbaugh, web editor with the High Plains Journal, argued that “by putting the Non-GMO Project Verified mark on its products, Cargill gives tacit approval of everything that mark signifies, and it legitimizes the organization’s anti-science claims and misinformation.”

Cargill explained in a news release that it is explicit about its support for GMOs, acknowledging the controversy, saying the Non-GMO project — whose Twitter home page features a photo of a child holding a paper that says, “I will not eat GMOs” — is the “most-requested third-party certification among our food and beverage customers.”

“We firmly believe GMOs are proven safe and provide numerous benefits and that biotechnology plays a critical role in feeding a growing global population,” the release said.

Cargill is adamant that its use of the Non-GMO Project for verification is not an endorsement of the group, but its suppliers and farmers say paying the NGP for its services provides financial support to a group that rejects science.

But Cargill is not alone. Bloomberg reports that major agricultural firms Bunge and Viterra have also tapped the Non-GMO Project for verification.

We watched a similar scenario play out last year when the Vancouver-based Earls restaurant chain announced it would source much of its beef in the U.S. because the meat was certified as humane by a U.S. firm, leaving Canadian ranchers angry over the implication that their beef — which is among the best and most humanely produced in the world — was a lesser product.

Earls eventually backed off and worked with Canadian beef producers to address the issue.

Cargill and other GMO producers who enter the non-GM market must be ardent and vocal in their support for GM products.

Cary Funk, associate director of research on science and society at the Pew Research Centre, recently told the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune that “a large portion (of the public) doesn’t really have a strong view (on GMOs) and they might make a choice in either direction once they become more informed.”

Last year, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine published a report that found “no substantiated evidence that foods from (GM) crops were less safe than foods from non-GE crops.”

Yet demand for non-GM products is growing.

The path ahead for Cargill, Bunge, Viterra and others who have their feet in both markets is to provide consistent, high-profile support for the science behind GMOs. It will take time, but much of the public’s mind is still receptive to that message.

Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod, D’Arce McMillan and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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