|Photo: Creative Commons|
Two years ago, it was clear that a deep scepticism towards the food industry and its use of technology had taken root.
In polls, 61% of US consumers were aware of the existence of GM food, and half of them said they would avoid it because it "doesn't sound like something I should eat". In parallel with this, the threat of GM labelling was looming ever closer. Labelling is knowledge, and knowledge is power. The prospect of the people (their customers) having the clout to decide what and how farmers were going to farm was a terrifying prospect for the GM-indoctrinated industry, and in the State of California alone $44 million was spent to defeat a GM labelling bill.
Gradually, the name of the food game shifted from cheap and cheerful to healthy, environmentally friendly and socially progressive.
'Non-GMO' became one of the fastest-growing labelling trends, and a steady trickle of big brand names announced their intention to go GM free.
GM enemy number one became the anti-biotech chatter from "people behind a keyboard trying to stir up trouble" on the ever-expanding social media forum.
Big Biotech and its supporters, of course, rallied to whitewash the image of GMOs in cyberspace. Big Food recruited mommy bloggers (for a fee) to be 'taught' about food and farming. Monsanto funded a series of PR videos featuring "an authoritative and journalistic forum" delivering "diverse viewpoints" in a "spirited conversation" between (paid) respected NGOs, celebrities, and Monsanto experts. In conjunction with biotech companies, the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) launched a website - www.GMOanswers.com - to provide the 'right' answers to GM questions.
Finally facing up to the reality that no number of PR stunts were going to counter the lack of GM-specific regulations and the voluntary producer-led 'approval' system which were fuelling consumer concerns, the AFBF started working towards strengthening FDA oversight.
And in 2016?
US fields are saturated with the few GM traits which have worked, and the promised infinity of GM wonder-crops hasn't materialised.
Non-GM seed demand is rising at 5-10% per year despite limited availability, and has become the new growth market.
US beet growers who were confident when they moved wholesale into GM that there was no "specific place where we're under any constraints where we can't sell our sugar", has found Big Candy now rejecting their produce because customers want non-GM despite the premium price.
Monsanto's profits and profit-projection for 2016 are down. It has shed 12% of its workforce, and a shares buy-back was used to prop up its share value (diverting funds away from R&D). Tellingly, the Company has been looking to acquire the pesticide portfolios of its competitors and at the time of writing was under threat of a take-over by chemical giant, Bayer. All clear signs, it seems, that the most revenue is still to be had from old-fashioned agri-chemicals, while high-tech seeds just aren't delivering.
Another biotech giant, BASF, has been more up-front about the GM reality. It is restructuring its research portfolio "to concentrate on projects with highest business and technical realization potential". It will "discontinue projects with extremely high technical challenges, which would require significant time and financial investment". The Company is halving its biotech work-force, streamlining or pulling out of its major GM projects, and closing test sites in Hawaii, India and Puerto Rico. Note that this new move doesn't try to blame public opposition, over-stringent EU regulations, or those pesky greens (not even the bloggers) as in the past. It's a straightforward admission that development of GM crops is too difficult, too expensive and too slow to be profitable.
Westminster has failed to grasp the reality of GM crops. Give it a wake-up call: if Monsanto and BASF can't get GM to work, British genetic engineers aren't going to either. Also, if sugar-addicted America is spurning GM sugar, there's little hope for anything else GM. All the PR tricks in the world aren't going to cover up the failure
- Annie Gasparo, The GMO fight ripples down the food chain, Wall Street Journal 7.08.14
- Anna Lappé, Big Food uses mommy bloggers to shape public opinion, Aljazeera America, 1.08.14
- Wanted: Celebrity Chef to Promote Monsanto, Organic Consumers Association, Organic Bytes 7.08.14
- Hamilton Nolan, Here's how Condé Nast and Mo Rocca are making propaganda for Monsanto, http://Gawker.com, 5.08.14
- David Bennett, The battle over biotech food labeling heating up, Delta Farm Press, 4.08.14
- Genetically modified crop cultivation plateaus in US, Nikkei Asian review, 12.03.16
- Tom Philpott, Monsanto's stock is tanking. Is the company's own excitement about GMOs backfiring? Mother Jones, 9.10.15
- BASF to refocus plant biotechnology research, www.basf.com, 25.02.16
- Major pullout from GM by BASF, GM Watch comment 27.02.16