GMO’s have been a part of the bioeconomy for nearly 30 years, and though they might be on a slow path to shaking the unfounded bad rep they got in the 90’s, the effect of that bad rep is still very much felt to this day. GMO’s, or GM-foods, are crops that have been genetically modified, often by the introduction of genes making the crop more resilient or more nutritious. GMOs first entered the bioeconomy in 1992 with the flavr savr tomato, which had been modified to stay fresh longer. The next GM-crop on food shelves was a herbicide-resistant soybean in 1996, and many more have followed since. Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) like Green Peace and Friends of the Earth quickly started being very vocal about their opposition to GMOs, boycotting stores that sold them, petitioning for stricter regulation and labelling-laws, and in 1999 an unofficial moratorium, a ban, was adopted on GMOs in all of Europe. Why NGO’s were so fiercely against GMO’s, and why they have remained so, even decades later after they have been proven scientifically to be safe to consume, could be the main subject of a post all of its own. But rather than asking why this unfounded negative opinion arose, let’s ask how it affects biotechnology and the bioeconomy today.
Safe crops are rejected for no good reason
One clear example of the effect of public opinion on the marketing of GM-crops is examples where a crop has been deemed safe by government standard, but still has been kept off the market based solely on public dislike of the product.
One such example is Monsanto’s GM-corn, which was approved for commercialization and culture by the French government in 1998. Monsanto in particular can’t exactly boast a very good reputation among any consumers, and backlash against their products may be due justa s much to fact that it is a Monsanto-product, as to the fact that it is a GMO-product. Monsanto could be marketing strawberry-scented kittens and they’d still have a hard time getting them to market. True enought, after pressure from Greenpeace, the approval of the GM-corn in France was reversed, and the crop was banne, solely based on public opinion and not on any scientific grounds. Interestingly, France overturned this ban in 2016, admitting that the ban was not made on any scientific grounds. This was however no victory for Monsanto, since France banned growth of any GM-crops in 2015.
Another example is the pest-resistant brinjal, a type of eggplant, developed by Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company. This eggplant was deemed safe by a Genetic Engineering Approval Committee in India, yet was banned because the public did not want it to be allowed to be cultured in India. Thus Maharashtra’s seeds were kept from the GM-market based solely on public opinion.
Distributers refuse to carry GMO-products – again, for no good reason
A more downstream aspect of how public opinion effects the market for GM-products is their direct effect on the products carried by grocery stores. AquaBounty Technolgies have developed a GM-salmon, which grows nearly twice as fast as traditionally farmed salmon, and hence needs less feed, and produces a carbon-footprint 25-times smaller. These are arguably good qualities, and yet, consumers are not impressed. Two major grocery-stores in the US announced that they would not be selling GM-salmon even if it was deemed safe. This was following a general lack of public support for the product; the FDA received nearly 2 million letters petitioning against the approval of the GM-salmon. So even in cases where GM-products make it passed strict regulation and legislation, they can still be kept out of the market based on whether the public support that product or not.
The EU is falling behind in the GM-bioeconomy
The de facto ban on GMO’s in Europe from 1999 to 2004 set Europe back in comparison to the rest of the world, as far as adopting, developing and farming GM-crops. Furthermore, this ban led to development of much stricter, slower and more complicated legislation for the approval new GM-crops in the EU compared to the rest of the world. The majority of GMOs produced in the world today (40%) is grown in the USA, followed by Brazil, Argentina, India, and Canada, and there is only one single GM-crop approved for agriculture in the EU. But though the EU won’t grow GMOs, they do still import them. This means that though the EU are consuming GM-products, they are not earning any of the profits or reaping the benefits of these crops. Many GM-crops need less pesticide, making them safer for both farmers and the environment, many GM-crops give higher yields, leading to bigger profits for farmers. But the EU have excluded themselves from this, refusing themselves any piece of the GM-pie, much due to the GM-ban, based not on any scientifically valid concerned, but based solely on negative public opinion.
Furthermore, many biotechnology companies are moving their offices and sites out of the EU, to get away from these tight regulations, moving the jobs and the scientific competence out of Europe. Twenty years ago, 30% of agricultural biotechnological research was conducted in Europe, and to date it is down to less than 10%. The publics mistrust of GMOs is pushing GMO companies out of the EU, which some NGOs may be very happy about, but this also pushes intellectual capital and job opportunities out of the EU.
Anti-GMO companies are making their own labels
Companies not using GM-produce in their products have on the other hand found a way to benefit from the GM-labelling laws and general attitude towards GMOs. The American organisation “the Non-GMO project”, offers testing and labelling of products with less than 0.9% of GMO content, labelling them “Non-GMO project verified”. SunOpta in Minnesota who sell raw materials and food products have been deemed 100% GMO free by the United States Department of Agriculture, looking to appeal to the anti-GMO climate of the bioeconomy. Several other companies, for instance, Ben & Jerrys, are strongly distancing themselves from GMOs to stay in line with their image as organic, environmentally friendly companies, appealing to consumers who seek to avoid GM-foods. So the public opinions effect on the bioeconomy can be detrimental to some companies, and beneficial to others.