About 13 months ago Cargill sent out a tweet that unintentionally offended, and profoundly offended, thousands of North American farmers.
“We work closely with the #NonGMO Project & hope to have even more Cargill ingredients verified in the near future.”
The tweet, released March 2017, quickly became a public relations debacle. Hundreds of farmers hammered the private company for working “closely” with the Non-GMO Project.
“Oh no you didn’t! @Cargill – explain the hypocrisy! I’m shocked and appalled. Sad. Mad. Ticked off,” tweeted Cherilyn Nagel, who farms near Mossbank, Sask.
— Cargill (@Cargill) March 17, 2017
Other farmers were similarly enraged because the Non-GMO Project campaigns against modern agriculture.
The Non-GMO Project is a non-profit that verifies foods as not genetically modified and issues a non-GMO label.
But it isn’t neutral about GM foods.
“A growing body of evidence connects GMOs with health problems (and) environmental damage,” its website claims.
As well, the organization says there is “no scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs.”
There’s one problem with those statements: they’re false:
• In May 2016 the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a 500-page report on GM crops. A group of 20 experts reviewed 900 papers, listened to 80 presentations and concluded that GM crops are safe.
• The World Health Organization has said: “No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.”
Other scientific bodies, like the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), have similar positions.
Returning to Cargill and the angry farmers, most producers in North America grow GM crops and a sizable percentage of them sell grains and oilseeds to Cargill.
Following its original tweet, Cargill said something less reported but more interesting.
Cargill clarified its position, saying it agrees with the science showing that GMOs are safe.
In the same sentence Cargill said it also believes that consumers deserve choices.
“Cargill has adopted a “yes and yes” approach – we believe in the science and its benefits, and we understand that both science and consumer values drive decision making.”
The nuanced position didn’t appease the online crowd.
“Sort of like selling ammo to both sides in a civil war,” tweeted Lawrence McLachlan, a farmer from Ontario.
Cargill, despite the criticism, hasn’t backed away from the Non-GMO Project.
Cargill states on its website that it has the “broadest portfolio” of non-GM ingredients and a number of them are Non-GMO Project certified.
The Cargill controversy is now old news and possibly forgotten, but not by other players in the food industry.
For other agri-companies the lesson learned is that it’s possible to pull off this sort of duplicity.
It’s possible to embrace science and non-science and get away with it.
It’s possible to sell into a higher value market, boost the bottom line and withstand the pushback from farmers.
Bunge now has a Non-GMO Project verified vegetable oil, labelled as Whole Harvest. The veggie oil comes from non-GM canola grown in Canada and non-GM soybeans from the U.S.
Cibus, a U.S. plant-breeding firm, is now selling a herbicide tolerant variety of canola in Canada that isn’t genetically modified.
It hopes to tap into the market for non-GM canola oil, as its canola will be grown for a Bunge crushing plant in Harrowby, Man.
Those companies can now sell into the non-GM space, while also claiming to support science and modern agriculture because Cargill has proven that the “yes and yes” strategy can work.
There may be a lesson here for farmers.
Writing angry tweets may feel good but they rarely change corporate behaviour, unless its tens of thousands of tweets from suburban consumers in places like New York, Chicago or Toronto.
If farmers really want to get the attention of a grain company, they’ll need a more focused and co-ordinated campaign – perhaps collectively refusing to sell grain to a company that works with the Non-GMO Project.
If growers are unwilling to take collective action on these sorts of issues there is another option – learn from Cargill.
The company’s assessment might be correct.
The new food market could be a “yes and yes” scenario where science and consumers are both right.