Policy consultant addresses GMO issues

Ray Mueller
 Randy Green

EGG HARBOR – What does non-GMO (genetically modified organism) marketing tell consumers about the rest of the food supply? How does non-GMO food promotion affect organic farmers?

Those are two questions that principal partner Randy Green of Watson Green LLC, a food and agriculture policy development firm based in Washington, DC, urged members of the Wisconsin Dairy Products Association to consider in a presentation at the group's 2017 dairy symposium.

Green was a Congressional agriculture committee staffer for two legislators and served as a deputy U.S. Secretary of Agriculture before entering the private sector in 1999 to represent dairy and other agriculture and food sector clients. He formed Watson Green LLC with Lisa Watson in 2013.

Fad or fact?

At the dairy symposium, Green was one of three speakers on a panel with the topic of whether non-GMO milk and other non-GMO foods are “a game changer or a passing fad.” Without answering that question directly, he observed that food suppliers are continually engaged in finding ways to give consumers what they want.

Whatever decisions are made on that point stem from the fact that in 15.7 percent of the new products introduced in 2015 claimed a non-GMO identity compared to 2.8 percent making a similar claim in 2012, Green noted. He suspects that the current percentage is even higher.

More recent numbers put the sales of non-GMO foods at $21 billion in 2016, Green continued. He noted, however, that the nation's food sales (not including beverages) totaled about $680 billion for the year.

Consumer perceptions

Green cited a recent national survey which showed the public image of GMO foods is suffering in general although a relatively small percentage of consumers are intensively interested in non-GMO foods.

The greatest portion of agreement among consumers is that 80 to 90 percent of them would like to know about the sources of the ingredients in their foods, he observed.

In that survey, consumers were asked to rank 14 entities on their trustworthiness as a source of information about foods, Green reported. The result was that food companies stood at the bottom of the list for trustworthiness, he noted.

Sustainability dilemma

Support of the quest for sustainability also proved to be fairly strong in the survey, Green indicated. On that point, however, he perceives “an irony” because in many cases non-GMO food production practices will not result in sustainability.

Green argued that non-GMO production methods generally do not serve to reduce pesticide use, to promote bio-diversity, or to reduce the loss of farm numbers. “There's a lack of understanding by consumers,” he commented.

Conflicting views

While 88 percent of scientists do not see a fundamental problem with GMO practices, only 37 percent of adults hold a similar view, Green noted. Among consumers, about 25 percent look for non-GMO indications on a food label for reasons such as health, food safety, and protection of the environment, he said.

Green acknowledged the possibility of pesticide drift from GMO to non-GMO plants and of resistance by weeds and insects to GMO practices. He stated that GMO crops provide higher yields and that the decisions by scientists that GMO foods are safe should be accepted.

What is certain under the federal National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard law is that disclosure will not be required for milk, meat, and eggs from animals that eat GMO feeds, Green pointed out. Beyond that, he said there are lots of uncertainties, in part because both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration have not been addressing the topic of genetically engineered feeds from a perspective of public disclosure.

Private approaches

Amid the uncertainties, the private market is left to handle the situation, Green observed. One possibility is a transition to non-GMO food sources but that must be done from a background of having bioengineered traits in 94 percent of the soybeans and 92 percent of the corn grown in the United States today, he pointed out.

Such a transition from GMO production, Green believes, would result in soil damage such as increased compaction, higher fuel use, greater use of insecticides, and lower yields.

Green can be contacted by e-mail to rgreen@watsongreenllc.com.