Genetically engineered (GE) crops can now be considered a necessity, moving beyond the years of political point scoring on both sides of the debate. Their incorporation into agriculture is an essential component in meeting the needs of a growing world population with a growing appetite to match. However, gaining wide acceptance for GE crops consumption continues to pose challenges. To promote them globally now requires something a little different – blissful ignorance.
Firstly, some context. GE crops means more food (+22%), less pesticide use (-37%), and increased profits for farmers in the developing world (+68%).It’s as safe as any conventional crop. If applied through the correct frameworks it will undoubtedly benefit the developing world – and everyone else with it. Genetically engineered crops are now essential to the multi-fold initiative needed between engineered, organic and conventional farming to address future food security. Right now we are only increasing food yields at about 1% per year, far under the 2.4% we’ll need to meet the estimated required doubling of food production by 2050.
The issue of food packaging classifications for genetically engineered crops has re-emerged with the recent signing of a GE labelling bill in the United States . The bill makes it a legal requirement to declare if a product is from a modified source. This follows suit with earlier European regulation. The current movement to label products ‘genetically engineered’ or conversely ‘Non-GE’, is seen as the best strategy to marginalise modified crops in the market by those which oppose it. The very act of branding a product ‘free from’ something implies that it is undesirable. This belief, or mere suspicion, can trump scientific research in consumer choices with ease. Labelled GE food on supermarket shelves will suffer from two ‘non-characteristics of trust’: GE labelled goods must both be seen as a satisfactory substitute for a ‘conventional’ option, and recognised as safe by the consumer. While people should be able to – even encouraged – to find out how their food is grown, their purchasing should not be inherently influenced by whether it is engineered genetically or not.
To overcome the void between the stated safety of GE crops, and the fear of the unknown, calls for a solution potentially be deemed regressive in an era that places an impetus on greater food transparency – just don’t mention it. Since the mid-1990’s there has been rising GE consumption in America, many of whom were blissfully unaware of their intakes modified start to life. This lack of GE or GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) branding, and the associated stigma, has allowed a situation to prosper today where 94% of 2016’s U.S soybean crop is modified for herbicide-resistance. The influence of this acceptance stretches far beyond the boundaries of the U.S.A. The policies of developed worlds’ governments directly impacts upon the likelihood of developing nations taking up GE crops that will dramatically increase their yields and food security. The inability to export genetically engineered crops to GE-sceptical developed nations, with regulation on labelling and traceability, will further discourage the poorer nations of the world from adopting something that can make a positive impact upon their food security.
A Fine Balance.
It is important at this point to address the limitations and counter-arguments to actively removing GE-labelling requirements. Clearly, intentionally leaving out information for consumers could break an ever tenuous trust between scientists’ validation and the public’s risk perception. While incorporation of GE food into the diets of unwitting Americans has up until this point been at worst tolerated, when the same was attempted in Europe and Japan it was seen as an underhand tactic and roundly rejected. If people believe they have been consulted, they are more accepting of labelling/non-labelling decisions taken by organisations. It is not so much a question of scientific fact, or even one of an intended outcome in terms of labelling – but more people’s perceptions on what is done being fair.
It is this point of fairness that takes us back to the argument. Should companies fear that an association with GE produce tainting their brand image derail the opportunity for Kenyan banana plantation farmers to produce disease free bananas, using the same amount of land, to better earn a way out of poverty?. We have the ability to demonise or normalise genetic engineering, and a small label reading ‘GMO-Free’ can do damage that a myriad of academic journals and scientific studies can’t repair. Our consumption cannot merely be seen as a cost-benefit ratio up to the present day, but a step towards anticipating natures’ next move. We as people will inherently undervalue the risk of intangible future events, which in this case is the looming global food shortage.
But is it already too late? Does the broadening publicity of debate on genetic engineering, combined with tightening regulation on labelling, mean it is too late for the unwitting incorporation of GE products into our diet? Not so. There may yet be a compromise that satisfies both pro and anti-GE movements. The U.S Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standards Bill referred to before could provide the answer. This states that it requires ‘that the form of a food disclosure under this section be a text, symbol, or electronic or digital link’. It is the latter of these options that could provide the key.
Quick Response (QR) codes enable information to be concisely attached to a label –
accessed via a smartphone. This allows the targeting of those with a strong preference for non-GE food, the ability to derive information on a products traceability, while simultaneously protecting those with a greater indifference to GE consumption from explicit GE labelling which could otherwise irrationally dissuade them from eating a product. Embracing this method can allow us to finally move on from the back-and-forth of GE / GMO crops in our food chain. Providing consumer choice and information, without explicitly having to say anything on a packaged GE product. Finally paving the way to greater global food security – without most of us even knowing.