Sugar beet scientist says companies should show pride in using GMOs
DANA POINT, Calif. — When food companies comply with the new federal law requiring disclosure of genetically modified ingredients in food, they should put statements on their websites that they are “proud” to be using genetically modified organisms because they make food more sustainable, the chief scientist for the Western Sugar Cooperative said Feb. 27.
Consumers’ negative feelings about genetically modified organisms are “softly held,” so if they hear a positive message that use of genetically modified seed leads to less herbicide use and other environmental benefits, they are more likely to accept the technology and the product, Rebecca Larson, vice president and chief scientist for Western Sugar, a Denver-based organization of 865 sugar beet growers in Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana, told the International Sweetener Colloquium, a gathering of sugar buyers, during a panel discussion on sustainability.
The Agriculture Department has not yet implemented the law that Congress passed in 2016, but Larson said a provision in that law that probably will allow companies to disclose the ingredients on a website rather than on the product label will give them the space to discuss genetic modification with consumers.
The disclosure on the website “can say we use GMOs and are proud of it,” Larson said.
Larson praised Campbell’s Soup Co. for publicly acknowledging that it uses genetically modified ingredients and putting a statement on its website about being transparent about the use of GMOs.
Almost all sugar beet growers now use genetically modified seed, but some sweetener users, including Ghirardelli and Hershey’s, have switched to cane sugar to please consumers who have rejected GMOs. There is no genetically modified cane sugar, although researchers have been experimenting with it.
Beet growers have noted that the sugar from genetically modified beet seed does not contain any signs of genetic modification, but that fact has not impressed a lot of sugar buyers.
Larson acknowledged that “consumers tend to care more about what is not in their food than what is in their food” and said she is not surprised that consumers have a lot of “misconceptions” when “there are more people held in the U.S. corrections system than there are producing food.”
The fastest growing brand in the U.S. is the NONGMO Project, which certifies that food has no GMOs in it, she said. The newest form of certification is glyphosate free, meaning that the food is free of the herbicide that can be sprayed on crops from genetically modified seed to kill weeds without damaging the crop, she added.
“The best thing for the environment is to increase yield per acre,” Larson said. “Sugar sourced from U.S. sugar beets is the most sustainable source of sugar today.”
Western Sugar Cooperative has a system for recording farmers’ use of water and other inputs, although only 20 percent of the acreage is covered.
Farmers and the food industry should fight against activists that want to discourage the use of GMOs, she said.
“Every Tom, Dick and Harry wants to tell you how to grow your crops,” Larson said, equating that development to someone coming into an office worker’s cubicle and saying, “You should not have a Herman Miller Aeron chair” but a metal stool produced in a high-school shop class.
Larson said she agrees with the viewpoint that leading with a scientific argument may mean that farmers will “lose with science.”
“My credibility as a mom is so much greater than my credibility as a scientist,” Larson said.
But she added, “Farmers are the second most trusted source of information, second only to physicians.” ❖