Do you want (GMO) fries with that?

 

imgresIt’s a business cliche–the customer is always right–but unlike most cliches, this one is untrue.

I realized that years ago when I was talking with a top executive at Southwest Airlines. Southwest chooses its employees carefully. They are recruited, in large part, for their good character and values, as well as their friendly personalities and desire to serve. So when an airline passenger tangles with a Southwest gate agent or flight attendant, the assumption at headquarters is that the customer is probably wrong. Those customers who are particularly unpleasant or argumentative when dealing with Southwest are politely told that they will never be permitted to fly on the airline again.

I raise this because on the subject of genetically-engineered potatoes, McDonald’s, in all likelihood, will soon find itself caught in an awkward place–between the worries of some of its customers about GMOs and the desires of an important supplier to improve the health of the potato and reduce food waste. That is the topic of today’s column for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how it begins:

“Do you want fries with that?” Not if they’re made from genetically engineered potatoes, say activists who oppose GMOs.

The advocacy group Food & Water Watch is asking McDonald’s, the world’s biggest buyer of potatoes, not to source a genetically engineered spud that was developed by its biggest supplier, the J.R. Simplot Co.

“This potato is anything but healthy,” writes Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food and Water Watch, in a letter (PDF) to Don Thompson, McDonald’s CEO. Altering the plant’s genes, she writes, could unintentionally affect other characteristics of the potato, “with potentially unforeseen consequences for human health”. The letter has been signed by 102,000 people.

Other NGOs, including Friends of the Earth and the Center for Food Safety, also oppose genetically engineered food. The Consumers Unionwants that food labeled. All of them argue that US government regulation of genetically modified crops is inadequate.

This is a problem for McDonald’s – and for anyone who believes that genetic engineering has the potential to increase crop yields, help solve environmental problems or deliver healthier foods.

The interesting thing about the new potato varieties developed by the J.R. Simplot Co., an Idaho-based potato processing giant, is that they are engineered to deliver consumer and environmental benefits, as my story goes on to explain. They are designed to lower levels of acrylamide, a potential carcinogen. And they reduce black spots from bruising, which means fewer potatoes have to be thrown away. Unlike some other GMO crops, which primarily benefitted farmers (not that there’s anything wrong with that), these will benefit people who choose to eat the fries at Mickey D’s.

The GMO debate is complicated, although rarely is it presented that way. See, for example, this page on the Organic Consumer Assn. website, blasting Monsanto with ridiculous headlines like “Monsanto’s GE Seeds Pushing US Agriculture into Bankruptcy.” That will come as a surprise to USDA, which says that the US agriculture sector will enjoy record high income of  $120 billion this year. But I digress. Few people truly understand the science of biotechnology. I certainly don’t. So if we take sides, we do so based mostly based on the opinions of others who we trust. As my story says, the debate

gets emotional very quickly and often comes down to questions of trust. Here the anti-GMO forces have an advantage. They can position themselves as consumer advocates – public interest groups, if you will. By comparison, the companies that favor GMOs are seen as self-interested and lacking credibility. Government regulators also, generally, don’t inspire trust.

No wonder anti-GMO sentiments seem be growing. It’s easy for NGOs to stir up fear, and the record of government regulators–whether we’re talking about USDA, the FDA or the SEC–doesn’t inspire confidence. We should approach new GMO crops with humility and caution, particularly when considering their environmental impact. Like any technology, genetic engineering comes with risks as well as benefits.

But let’s not forget that Americans eat genetically engineered food every day, with no adverse health effects that can be attributed to GMO foods. There’s a broad consensus among mainstream scientists that the GMO crops now on the market are safe to eat.

Consumers may be fearful of GMOs, but that doesn’t make them right.