GM push sparks marketing showdown

THE debate over genetically modified food is set to deliver a new weapon to the food marketing arsenal.

While the Government struggles to formulate guidelines for labelling products that include GM foods, concern about safety issues has provided a valuable sweetener for the proponents of organic food.

The supermarket shelves are already stacked with items proclaiming their organic nature, and GM food labelling will provide the opportunity for these same products to assert non-genetically modified status.

Matt Materia is the manager of the Earth Market in Subiaco, an organic food retail outlet and cafe.

Mr Materia claims that, as people become more aware of the concerns surrounding GM food, the demand for organic produce will increase.

“People want to become more aware of what they’re putting into their body,” Mr Materia said.

“Because organic products are free of herbicides and pesticides, people take it for granted that none of our gear includes genetically modified products.”

At this stage only a couple of soy products on supermarket shelves are proclaiming their non-GM status, but Mr Materia is convinced it will become more widespread.

While community understanding continues to develop, interest in GM crops that are resistant to negative environmental effects is still strong.

Just this week the Office for the Gene Technology Regulator has advertised an application for Agriculture WA to undertake a limited controlled release of genetically modified cotton in WA.

The advertisement is calling for public comment on this application, including the risk assessment.

Community concern about GM foods has been magnified by the ongoing scrap over product labelling.

In Australia, organic consumers pay the price of early adoption, but as debate becomes more widespread the proponents of organic products continue to increase in number.

Marketing that assures consumers products don’t include any GM components is likely to capture a valuable segment of the market, which will increase as early adoption gives way to mainstream acceptance.

Genetic modification of food was developed in an effort to improve crops and yields, with genetic modification of plants first undertaken in about 1982.

Dr Tom Zinnen is the biotech outreach specialist from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He works to improve understanding and debate on biotechnology and food and said that gene splicing had given agriculturists access to a massive gene pool.

“In 1971 if you were a breeder of corn you had the corn gene pool and its close relatives,” Dr Zinnen said.

“Since 1972 with the development of gene splicing the gene pool has become an ocean.”

The gene splicing used to develop GM foods is not dissimilar to the way bacteria moves into the genes of plants.

Proponents of this gene technology claim gene splicing follows this naturally occurring process.

“This is often overlooked. People say this is unnatural, but you could say this is an adaptation of something that already exists in nature.”

There are serious concerns, however, that GM crops could get out into the environment and damage the existing ecosystems.

Alongside this are dark fears about how GM foods will affect people in the future.

A tomato that makes you smarter or beer that helps you lose weight sounds too sci-fi to be true, but gene splicing opens up a Pandora’s box.

“There’s both an economic benefit and an economic cost,” Dr Zinnen said.

“It’s called the opportunity cost if we choose to invest resources in other options.

“Essentially it’s a moral question. If we chose not to use gene splicing how do we assess the cost of choosing not to use it.”

So far the research has failed to produce any conclusive findings relating to the risks of GM foods.

It’s the element of uncertainty that organic food producers are capitalising on, but there’s a cost.

With processed foods containing GM products (soy is the most common) becoming more prevalent, organic producers are able to price their GM-free goods at a premium.

In effect, consumers are forced to pay for their choice.

Clearly if safety is one of the issues then the question is, who has the burden of proof and how safe is safe enough?

The definitions of both organic and GM food will be determined not by scientific testing but by agricultural producers.

“We are left in a situation where people say we want labelling and we have a right to know, and that’s where the issues are going to be,” Dr Zinnen said.

“One phrase I use is the idea of wholesome, wholistic and holy.

“Not everyone wants to know that their food is just tasty or natural or safe and the key is we need a system to accommodate that. Most people argue you have a right to know, but that doesn’t mean all the information has to be provided free of charge.”

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