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Non-GM preference "based on fear"

Research may prove genetically modified organisms are safe to eat, but the swelling trend toward non-GM foods shows that many skeptical shoppers don't care.

Data show that customers want non-GM foods, and companies will continue to face pressure to introduce non-GM products to meet demand.

A report out on Tuesday that took two years to compile concluded that genetically modified crops do not adversely affect human health. A committee convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine reviewed more than 900 studies and 20 years worth of data. Despite its thoroughness, it's not likely to drastically alter consumer opinion, says Darren Seifer, food and beverage industry analyst at NPD Group.

The reason: At the crux of the debate over GM is the fact that it’s one largely “based on fear, not logic,” Seifer says. And the stakes are high when people feel like they don’t know what they’re eating.

"Consumers are looking for purity in their food," Seifer says. "Particularly for those that try to find that authenticity in their food, (the report) is not going to phase them."

Non-GM advocates reiterated that thought. A Los Angeles-based online subscription company that exclusively sells non-GM food to about 250,000 customers around the country says the report is only the latest in a string — with many conflicting when it comes to their findings.

"We feel like it's too early to know if it's safe," says Gunnar Lovelace, co-CEO of Thrive Market. "We are taking a huge risk in inserting GMOs into the food stream at the rate we are."

The report found that genetically engineered crops have not caused increases in cancer, obesity, autism or a number of other health risks.

Concern over GMO ingredients has grown in recent years, swept along by local ballot measures that proposed requirements for labeling foods with GMOs. Increasingly, the phrase GMO became part of the question about what’s considered safe, healthy and natural food. Sales of foods labeled as non-GMO have gone from $12.9 billion in 2012 to $21.2 billion in the year ended April 30, according to Nielsen.

And yet, most people don’t understand what genetically modified organisms are. In a survey NPD conducted in 2013, when asked to describe in their own words what GMO means based on what they'd heard or read, the most common response NPD got was, “I don’t know.”

Non-GMO products make up a very small portion of the overall food supply. An analysis last month of products in grocery store aisles by data company Label Insight found that non-GMO labels were most prevalent in categories such as diet and nutrition, where just 1.2% of products had the label, and snacks, cookies and candy, where 1.1% of products were labeled non-GM.

But demand is brewing, and major food companies are rushing to cater to this fledgling customer segment. Earlier this month, Hershey launched a non-GMO version of its chocolate syrup, emphasizing that the pared down sauce was made from just five ingredients people “recognize, know and trust.” Nestle last month updated some of its Dreyer’s and Haagen-Dazs ice cream flavors to be non-GMO.

Del Monte committed to getting rid of GM in its fruit cups and vegetables this year, which it told USA TODAY "is not a statement about the science around this issue, but a direct response and commitment towards meeting the evolving preferences of many consumers."

The report is unlikely to have much effect on the businesses that supply farmers or the farmers themselves because they've been strong advocates of the technology all along, says Chad Hart, a professor of agricultural economics at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.

Since the mid-1990s, U.S. commodity crop farmers growing feed corn, soybeans, cotton, canola and sugar beets switched almost entirely to genetically modified varieties because of the cost savings, so for them the report simply supports what they’ve long believed.

Still, the issue will keep cropping up, because new GM traits and crops are always in the pipeline and each new food type will require close study.

"I don’t think this is the last word," Hart says. "I don’t think there is a last word."

Source: USA TODAY



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