As soon as Cargill announced that an outside group had certified more than a dozen of its ingredients as non-GMO, the agribusiness giant was publicly scourged by some of its closest allies.
The moment should have been a good one for the world’s largest agriculture business. But a backlash came fast and furious online, pitting familiar factions against one another: those for and those against genetically modified foods.
The situation highlights the tricky balance large food companies are trying to strike among competing interests. For a sprawling company like Cargill, it shows the challenge of appeasing its customers without alienating its suppliers.
Critics were particular vexed by Cargill’s choice of third-party certifier: the Non-GMO Project, which opposes genetic modification in food production. Since Minnetonka-based Cargill is one of the world’s largest producers of genetically modified foods, many of its suppliers, as well as some in the science community, felt betrayed.
“The Non-GMO Project regularly uses attacks on family farmers to promote its verification process. It is disappointing that Cargill thought it was acceptable to work with Non-GMO Project and support that messaging,” wrote Amanda Zaluckyj, an attorney and self-described “ag-vocate” whose family farms in Michigan, in an e-mail.
She was one of many critics who voiced outrage on social media over Cargill’s partnership.
In response, Randy Giroux, Cargill’s vice president of food safety, said, “Like many other companies, Cargill’s affiliation with the Non-GMO Project is strictly limited to its rigorous verification process. Since there is no federal standard for non-GMO products in the U.S., companies like ours use private standards that the market recognizes. This is the most requested third-party certification among our food and beverage customers.”
The federal government did pass a law in July requiring all food manufacturers to label products — either with a word, picture or QR code — that contain GMOs. The law provides a definition for bioengineered foods that some groups, including the Food and Drug Administration, have said may be too narrow. This leaves third-party verifiers as the most sought-after standard.
“We can understand why this feels threatening — there is a big paradigm shift happening. The largest food companies in the world are looking for non-GMO ingredients and it is changing the supply chain. However, we see this as a positive shift,” said Megan Westgate, executive director of the Non-GMO Project, in an e-mail. “The Non-GMO Project is partnering with other large companies, not just Cargill, in efforts to grow the supply chain for non-GMO ingredients.”
With the law set to go into effect in summer 2018, Cargill’s customers, like large packaged-foods companies, are looking for ways to incorporate more non-GMO products into their lineup to appeal to a certain shopper segment.
The company’s “KnownOrigins identity preservation process” is a promise Cargill gives to its buyers so that they can make non-GMO claims on their packages.
Traceability is increasingly important to shoppers, said Darren Seifer, a food and beverage industry analyst with NPD Group, who recently completed a study on consumers and GMOs.
“Research continues to tell us that consumers like to know what happened to their food before it ended up on the shelf. So divulging things like GMOs and laying out what the benefits are of their use, you are at least entering the dialogue. But if you hide it, it looks like you are being deceptive,” he said.
While Cargill may be accused of supporting an organization that is trying to change its supply chain and activities, the company has never been shy about its support of farmers and GMO technology.
“We fully recognize that GMO technology is essential and indispensable to sustainably feed the world’s rapidly expanding population,” Giroux said in an e-mail. “We have thousands of scientists and agronomists working to enable new biotech crops. We are unshaken in our belief in the safety of GMOs and are wholly committed to our GMO partners.”
Last year, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine published a report that said the consensus among scientific experts is that genetically modified foods are safe. Because of this, the pro-GMO faction often labels the non-GMO faction as “anti-science.”
But a survey published in December by the Pew Research Center found that many Americans are skeptical as to whether or not scientists fully know the health effects of GMOs. Just 19 percent of Americans believe scientists understand the health effects of genetically modified foods “very well” while more than one-third of Americans say scientists do not understand the health effects “at all” or “not too well.”
These perceptions affect consumer behavior, which has led to the growing demand for non-GMO foods. In the last three years, the amount of meals or snacks that include a food item with a non-GMO label jumped from 1 percent to 11 percent, Seifer said, “that’s a pretty large increase.”
But many people still don’t know what to think, said Cary Funk, associate director of research on science and society at Pew. “A large portion doesn’t really have a strong view and they might make a choice in either direction once they become more informed.”
This is an opportunity for food companies and others, said Seifer of NPD Group.
“If the pro-GMO groups are able to band together perhaps it’s possible we might see a slowdown in the non-GMO world,” he added, “But current trajectories aren’t showing that. All signs are pointing to an increase of non-GMO over time.”