Small market shifts foreseen
“The manufacturers' fear of GMO labeling is just a fear—there is no true data showing that American dietary supplement consumers will make a purchase decision based solely on that one label claim. A large number of customers will shrug. A few will pass if they see the ubiquitous “May be produced with genetic engineering.” said Alan Lewis, head of government affairs and investor relations for the Colorado-based chain Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage. The company pursues a model that basically splits the store between organic food and dietary supplements.
“It’s important to apply the question product by product. Non-GMO soy lecithin is a hugely successful product. GMO soy lecithin is an additive in almost everything, but in relatively small amounts, and there is a lot of shrugging it off by normally persnickety consumers,” Lewis told NutraIngredients-USA.
“Some market share may shift, but the savvy company will have brands in both categories,” Lewis said. Indeed, this already seems to be happening; dietary supplement manufacturing giant NBTY announced in August of last year that it is introducing a line of GMO-free supplements called Nature’s Origin. The line also features a gluten-free and irradiation-free positioning.
Momentum building for labeling
Momentum has been building on the state labeling initiatives, which so far have succeeded only in Vermont, which passed a provisional measure. There is building pressure for a national law on the issue, too. Advocates say that the issue is one of the consumer’s right to know what is in their food. Opponents, which include some of the large agribusiness companies that own rights to the technology and that sell the chemical adjuncts that help the crops work in the field, counter that there are no known safety risks for the technology and labeling of foods and supplements containing the ingredients would be needlessly expensive and complicated without providing any health or safety benefits for consumers.
For Lewis, who has worked with Vitamin Cottage right through its period of rapid growth and its conversion into a public company, the consumer’s right to know is a trump card in that argument. After all, he said, synthetic fibers in clothing are labeled because the market demands it. Why are food or supplement products different?
“The only standard a substance must meet to require labeling is the consumer's desire to know. That’s federal law. That’s common sense. The only reason we are debating GMO labeling at all is because consumers don’t like genetically engineered food and the biotech industry fears—correctly—that on the whole they will avoid it,” he said.
How safe is safe?
Proponents of the technology have argued that there is no evidence that adverse health effects arise from its use. Monsanto, which sells many of the commonly used varieties of GM seeds, says, “we place the highest priority on the safety of our products and conduct rigorous and comprehensive testing on each. In fact, seeds with GM traits have been tested more than any other crops in the history of agriculture—with no credible evidence of harm to humans or animals.”
Lewis said a key issue is the relative youth of the technology. After all, cereal grains and other commonly grown crops have been cultivated over a period of many centuries and new things are still being learned in the process.
“The science of genetics is still very young. Many of the key discoverers of the science are still on the job. Epigenetics—how genetic traits are activated by external factors and how artificial mutations are passed to future generations—is still in its infancy. We simply don’t know what the results of this experiment will be,” Lewis said.
“There is no better technology to stack beneficial traits than traditional breeding programs. By every measure they produce more resilient plants without collateral genetic damage. Biotech likes to dismiss these techniques as hopelessly outdated. On the contrary, using state of art tools and the newest genetic science, selective breeding programs always outperform artificial mutation,” he said.
Lewis said that with the huge amount of money at stake, the developers of genetic modification technology tend to become isolated from other concerns, something which happens in other market sectors, too.
“As happens in every profession, GMO developers are surrounded by an echo chamber of their peers saying how wonderful this all is. If they hear any criticism at all, they take it as a threat to their livelihood and their identity. So great, these folks have reached a consensus that all artificially mutated organisms are bio-equivalent and safe. How could they possibly know that?” he said.
Risk of obfuscating the issue
Loren Israelsen, president of the United Natural Products Association, has said the Non-GMO Project Verified seal is the fastest growing brand in the natural products business. After its start in 2005, the organization now offers certifications on thousands of products. One question that swirls around the whole effort, though, is whether it confuses consumers about where genetic modification technology is being applied. Corn, soy, papaya, yes; but chamomile tea? And curcumin? Could this be akin to reassuring tourists about the low avalanche risk in Mexico? It’s a valid criticism of the present blanket approach, Lewis said.
“Alas, a large number of Non GMO Project Verified products fall into this category. Oatmeal and peanut butter should not be labeled non GMO. Not only is it false assurance, it also legitimizes old school chemical agriculture. It can turn into fake organic,” Lewis said.
Lewis and Israelsen will take part in an online forum hosted by NutraIngredients-USA on the topic of “Going Non GMO in Supplements.” To register for the forum, which is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 26 at 11 am Eastern, click HERE.