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Proof Points

What companies are missing in the outcry against GM crops

<p>With concern rising particularly in China and India, how should companies involved move forward?</p>

A protest against genetically-modified (GM) foods took place in 250 cities around the world late last month. Two million people took part, according to organizers. In light of the March Against Monsanto, as the event was dubbed, and the undeniable pressure the global food system faces to meet the needs of a projected 9 billion people by 2050, it is timely to revisit GlobeScan’s international public opinion research on concerns about GM crops.

How strongly does the public feel about this issue? We have tracked the perceived seriousness of GM crops in numerous countries for a decade. The most recent data from early 2013 show that 46 percent of people across 10 countries (China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, Turkey, the U.K. and the U.S.) say that GM crops pose a “very serious” issue. On the surface, this is a considerable number and clearly enough to mobilize a movement.

But context matters. We asked the same people how serious they think a range of seven other issues are -- all related to ecosystems, water and the atmosphere (more to come in future editions of Proof Points). Concern about GM crops ranks decisively last. This is not to diminish the gravity of the issue. The debate about GM foods -- and it is a debate about benefits, risks and the power of corporations -- while seemingly quiet in recent years, may be about to get a lot louder.

It is instructive, then, to look at trends within the countries expected to command the globalized economy. Overall concern levels across the nations we consistently have polled have risen a modest five percentage points since 2003. But in India, the number of consumers now describing GM crops as a very serious issue is up 13 points to 47 percent since 2011. In China, the same measure is up five points to 40 percent. When we combine those who call GM crops a “somewhat serious” issue with those who describe it as “very serious,” the rise in concern is much starker in both countries.

The fact that China and India are home to roughly 2.5 billion people and are major drivers of the global food system on both the demand and supply side is why this is important now. If, as proponents maintain, GM technology will help meet the nutrition and health needs of a growing global population, much hangs in the balance. And if GM foods pose a risk to biodiversity and human health, one avenue of global development may become closed. Consumer and producer sentiment in India and China is likely to influence the trajectory of agricultural biotech.

What, then, are companies with vast investments in R&D and IP to do to manage their futures? For clues, it is worth asking why, with numerous other producers of GM technology prospering, Monsanto became the brand of the recently mobilized protest. Transparency and trust may be the missing ingredients.

With the U.S. Senate’s rejection of a bill to make labelling foods with GM content mandatory and with the worldwide public generally distrusting of large corporations and their instinct to protect their IP, companies cannot assume that consumers will buy into their offers simply because they have reached the store shelves via opaque regulatory pathways.

In a May 28 column for the South China Daily Post, Alex Lo commented that “some of the anger against GM has to do with the fight against corporate greed, and the fear GM technology and patents may be dominated by a few bio-tech giants like Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta.” A May 29 post in the New Indian Express cited concerns from a local Greenpeace spokesperson about “the lack of transparency in the testing methods followed by Monsanto.”

And what of food manufacturers and their retailers? They are first in the line of fire, facing growing concerns about product ingredients (not just GM ones), demand for transparency, resurgent civil society activism and consumer avoidance. Complicating strategic decision-making is that issues other than GM content are of greater concern to consumers. Deep engagement with NGOs and consumers will be vital as a result.

It seems that the same challenges and imperatives faced by companies persist from when GM issues first penetrated the public discourse at the turn of the millennium. Given the visceral reactions to GMOs that a growing number of citizens display, the future could go either way. We’ll continue to monitor the social license of GMOs and track progress to provide the best advice to our clients on how to manage this issue. 

Image by by sadeog via Flickr

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