By Annie Gasparro
Two years ago, Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Inc. launched a plan to remove genetically modified ingredients from its ice cream in response to growing consumer rejection of these products and to meet its own environmental goals.
Before the end of the year, almost 12 months later than originally scheduled, the company plans to complete a first phase involving some products such as cookie dough and liquid caramel.
The only thing left to convert is the milk that makes up the ice cream itself.
That could take five to 10 more years due to the complexities of sourcing milk deemed free of GMO material.
"There are many more factors than people realize," says Rob Michalak, Ben & Jerry’s director of social mission. Two decades after the first genetically engineered seeds were sold commercially in the United States, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) - the crops of those seeds - are common in the American diet, used to make the ingredients of about 80% of packaged food, according to industry estimates. Now the campaign has intensified, led by consumer and environmental advocacy groups like Green America, and is leading a small but growing number of large food companies to sidestep GMOs.
In addition to Ben & Jerry’s, which is a subsidiary of Unilever PLC, this year General Mills Inc. began selling its Cheerios cereal in its original non-GMO flavor. Smart Balance, from Boulder Brands Inc., removed GMOs from its line of margarines and other spreads. Meanwhile, Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. will sell non-GMO corn tortillas.
The "non-GMO" label is one of the fastest growing trends in food packaging in the US, and sales of those items rose 28% in 2013 to about $ 3 billion, according to market research firm Nielsen. In a survey of nearly 1,200 American consumers conducted for The Wall Street Journal, Nielsen found that 61% had heard of GMOs and nearly half of those people said they avoided eating them. The main reason was because "it doesn't sound like something you should eat."
The vigorous backlash against GMOs reflects the deep skepticism that has taken hold among many US consumers towards the food industry and, in particular, its use of technology. Other ingredients like artificial sweeteners have received similar criticism. The web and social media have allowed consumers' suspicions on such issues to become powerful movements that are forcing companies to respond.
Critics of GMOs - which combine genes from different organisms to make some crops more durable - claim that there have not been enough independent studies on the long-term health and environmental consequences of what they call "Frankenfood."
They cite a handful of studies outside the US that found toxic effects in animals fed GM crops and note that 64 countries, including those in the European Union and China, require that GMO products be identified on their label.
For its part, the food industry maintains that these studies are inconclusive and that none have shown a connection that is harmful to humans.
Its supporters also indicate that the GMO crops used in the US were approved by the authorities, who do not require a special label for them. Furthermore, although the EU requires special labels in its member countries, it has approved many GMO foods as safe for consumption. Beyond debate, the fate of companies like General Mills and Ben & Jerry’s moving away from GMOs will offer guidance for others considering it. So far, the process has proven costly, complex, and politically complicated.
In Ben & Jerry’s case, the extra cost of the non-GMO ingredients was between 5% and 20%, reflecting how deeply ingrained that technology is in the food chain.
The company plans to absorb costs and not pass them on to customers. However, the pioneers are also encouraging farmers and ingredient manufacturers to increase the supply of non-GMO items. Clearly, the stakes are high for firms like Monsanto Co. and DuPont Co., which sell GM seeds to give crops traits like the ability to repel insects and resist pesticides. Today, more than 90% of the corn, canola, soybeans, and sugar beets in the US are genetically modified.
Most of the fruits and vegetables eaten directly by Americans are non-GMO, but the crops are used to produce common ingredients like corn syrup and more than half of the sugar consumed in the US, in addition to sugar. I think it eats most of the cattle.
A Monsanto spokeswoman said the company was confident in the safety of its seeds because of a "large amount of rigorous testing" conducted by the company and independent researchers. DuPont said the technology was endorsed by "regulatory agencies and scientific organizations around the world."
According to its supporters, the switch to GMOs has led to larger crops and lower food costs. When a major brand announces plans to phase out GMOs, it generates more debate. Supporters criticized General Mills for the change it made to the Cheerios, saying it fueled misconceptions about the technology. Anti-GMO groups started asking him to stop using GMOs in other cereals as well. The company indicated that changing the ingredients of its other cereals would be too difficult, but that the products with GMOs are safe.
He explained that he offered the non-GMO variety to give consumers more choice. Ben & Jerry's, the fifth largest ice cream brand in the US in terms of sales, says that it does not consider GMOs to be harmful to humans, but that it has always positioned itself as a brand that takes care of the environment and is socially progressive.
In their relationship with farmers, companies face a dilemma. Food producers hesitate to commit to quitting GMOs until they are sure they can find enough sources of non-GMO crops.
However, farmers are reluctant to switch seeds without being sure that they will have a guaranteed demand for non-GMO crops at a higher price. Ben & Jerry’s contends that it cannot quantify what it spent in total. The extra costs included changes in the transport of products from more distant regions, the design of new labels, marketing and legal reviews.
The number of large companies that announced plans to phase out GMOs is still small. Large groups in the sector, such as the Association of Food Producers, point out that the trend has no basis, but they recognize that it is growing.
They continue to lobby against GMO labels and promote the benefits of technology. Still, executives note that many of those companies are asking suppliers to develop non-GMO options so they can be ready if label requirements are extended.
Wall street journal