Saturday, January 04, 2014

Connecting the dots...

The Cheerios announcement is the subject of intense debate right now as farmers try to figure out what it means. Frankly, I think it may signal game over for at least labeling, but I don't think our hysterical predictions of what that will mean are likely.

But more interesting to me is the juxtaposition of two public trends. First, GMO's.
With this move, General Mills is "testing" the market on a brand that is relatively easy to rid of GMOs, says Harry Balzer, chief food industry analyst for the NPD Group, a global market research firm. After all, Cheerios' main ingredient, oats, cannot be genetically modified. Heightened consumer awareness of GMOs, which has been building during the past decade, is what is driving the decision, he says. Ten years ago, 43 percent of US consumers were aware of genetically modified food; today, 55 percent are, according to an NPD Group study released in December. NPD also reports that 20 percent of US consumers are “very” or “extremely” concerned about genetically modified food; in 2002, that concern was shared among just 10 percent of consumers.The General Mills decision stems from a “movement driven by consumers, rather than driven by companies," Mr. Balzer says. "Marketers will surely follow wherever consumers go.” As more food manufacturers and grocery chains push for GMO-free products, the potential exists for higher costs for the consumer, he says.Moreover, GMO technology requires “fewer pesticides, less water, and keep(s) production costs down,” the Grocery Manufacturers Association says. Thus, it “helps reduce the price of crops used for food, such as corn, soybeans and sugar beats,” by 15 percent to 30 percent.Eliminating GMO ingredients from the American diet is largely impossible, most experts say, because processed foods are such a dominant part of it. As General Mills and other food suppliers unveil GMO-free versions of popular brands, they will likely create a niche market for those consumers who want a choice. This will be especially true of products ingested by children, such as cereal and baby food.“The way to sell any food product is to have several different versions. That’s probably where we’re going to be in a few years,” Mr. Albala says. “This is a specialty market.” [More]
Note the way consumer polls are moving on this issue even as farmers and Monsanto, et al. apply a full-court press.

Now consider this nugget of what the popular mind is thinking.

One possibility is that respondents who identified as Republican and believed in evolution in 2009 are no longer identifying as Republicans. Fewer scientists, for example, are reportedly identifying with the GOP, and the overall trend is for fewer Americans to call themselves Republicans. But both Gallup and separate polling from Pew found approximately the same party ID in 2009 and 2013.Another is that the rise of "intelligent design" education has helped to swing younger Americans against evolution. Yet the age breakdown remains similar in 2009 and 2013, with respondents ages 18 to 29 most likely to believe in evolution.What does that leave? Maybe the gap represents an emotional response by Republicans to being out of power. Among others, Chris Mooney has argued that beliefs on politically contentious topics are often more rooted in opposition to perceived attacks than anything else—an instance of "motivated reasoning." Given that Democrats have controlled the White House and Senate since 2009, this could be backlash to the political climate, though it will be hard to tell until Republicans control Washington again.Of course, motivated reasoning might help explain why many Democrats also believe in evolution. [More]
Some pundits argue there is an indication of tribalism going on here.
So what happened after 2009 that might be driving Republican views? The answer is obvious, of course: the election of a Democratic presidentWait — is the theory of evolution somehow related to Obama administration policy? Not that I’m aware of, but that’s not the point. The point, instead, is that Republicans are being driven to identify in all ways with their tribe — and the tribal belief system is dominated by anti-science fundamentalists. For some time now it has been impossible to be a good Republicans while believing in the reality of climate change; now it’s impossible to be a good Republican while believing in evolution....And look, this has to be about tribalism. All the evidence, from the failure of inflation and interest rates to rise despite huge increases in the monetary base and large deficits, to the clear correlation between austerity and economic downturns, has pointed in a Keynesian direction; but Keynes-hatred (and hatred of other economists whose names begin with K) has become a tribal marker, part of what you have to say to be a good Republican. [More]

Such ideas are worth pondering, but I would add two more points.
  1. Americans have decided science (or even rational thought) is not necessarily the last word for any policy debate. As such farmers are free to argue against global warming if it looks like it may interfere with current practices. Likewise, other special interests use the same selectivity in respecting science. Sound science is science that agrees with my ideology, so to speak.
  2. Ag and agribusiness has framed this debate as digital: either 1 or 0, no shades of compromise. This is proving to be a much riskier gamble than any of us imagined. In fact, I think the odds are now we could lose.  And losing means losing big, because we won't offer anything halfway to meet critics. Meanwhile, I have heard or seen nothing about any Plan B.
I still believe we could have negotiated some kind of labeling and eliminated much of the possible damage. But even if we see this type of Big Food action snowball, my guess is we'll dig in and rally around the same seed companies we are outraged at for trapping us into no-choice high prices by cartel action and decreasing non-GMO seed production.

In other words, we may not only lose this battle for consumer acceptance, we may actually make its consequences worse.  The sun will come up no matter which way this battle is decided, but it could be a testing time for corn/soy producers and our value chain. We may have also exhausted considerable political capital that won't be there for crop insurance, TMDL regs, animal welfare public relations, etc. Bungling this controversy will have collateral damage.

I would watch the stock price of Monsanto for a hint of a disruptive event coming down the road.


Greg Johnson said...

GMO labeling. I heard your comment on re-thinking your stance on labeling. I just think they (those who want labeling) are going about it wrong. They want all GMO food labeled. I feel all NON-GMO food should be labeled, as Cheerios has done. Then only 7% of food needs labeling, not 93%. And they could charge a premium for it, as Organic does. If mandated labeling is initiated, almost all foods will simply come with the label, "May contain GMO". Why not just label non-gmo, and set yourself up for premium price. Also less cost than labeling the majority of foods.
Just an idea.
Greg Johnson

Anonymous said...

Boy, what a turn around. Back in the mid 70's as I began teaching, the movement hated by conservatives was "I'm OK, you are OK." Quit grading right and wrong answers. Let everyone have share their opinion that 2 + 2 is whatever you want it to be. Now the conservatives embrace the idea of believing whatever they think is right because they want it that way. Remember Bush and WMD's?