Unravelling GMOs: What is GMO and Why Is It In Your Food?

Depending on who you talk to, the very mention of GMO will raise an eyebrow or invite a confused face. It’s no surprise; genetically modified organisms or GMOs have gained a certain level of notoriety in the foodservice industry, and have in turn become a constant subject of debate. But what is GMO in food anyway and why does it elicit such a reaction?

A GMO can be a plant, animal, or microorganism whose genetic makeup has been altered at the genetic level by the introduction of foreign genes through genetic engineering. This is done to facilitate crossbreeding with the goal to improve flavor consistency, yield, and resilience to disease and pest. Simply put, GMOs are not natural. 

The most common genetically engineered plants in the United States are cotton, corn, and soybeans. These are the main sources of ingredients and food items widely used in foodservice businesses from bread to soda to soup and sugars. Other genetically engineered plants available commercially include alfalfa, canola,  Hawaiian papaya, potatoes, and summer squash.

Is GMO-free food organic?

What is GMO and Why Is It In Your Food

In order to better understand what GMO is in food, we should also tackle the subject of organic food. Organic food inherently avoids the use of genetic engineering during production, so it is safe to say that it is GMO-free. There are strict monitoring practices in place in order to make sure that no contamination takes place and no conventional pesticides are used in the organic crops. However, it is important to stress that not all GMO-free food is organic because even though there’s no genetic engineering involved, there is a chance that synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and antibiotics have been used at some point in the production process.

GMO-free vs. Non-GMO

When checking food labels, you may notice “GMO-free” or “non-GMO”. Depending on who you ask, these terms may or may not be interchangeable, so it’s easy to see how it can invite confusion. 

Cross contamination at any stage between the farm and the end consumer can introduce GMOs to a product, especially non-organic products. And when it does, we start to see that the “non-GMO” label may be more applicable to non-organic products while “GMO-free” is always in reference to organic products. Either way, there has to be a standard in place that dictates the use of universal terminologies to eliminate the confusion.

If you also spotted a label that says “Non-GMO Project,'' it is a way to let you know that the product is free of GMO as per a comprehensive third-party verification process. Non-GMO Project is a nonprofit organization that promotes less use of GMO in the retail and natural products industry. It has racked up over $26 billion in annual sales and boasts over 50,000 Verified products for more than 3,000 brands.

What do customers really think of GMOs?

GMOs have been a consistent presence in food supply despite consistent opposition on the grounds of its negative impact on food safety, efficacy, and soil health. The very ability of GMOs to resist herbicide effects and leave no essential micronutrients for animals to absorb is one of the primary arguments against its use. The absence of GMOs with great survival against drought has also presented a challenge in the wider and more gracious acceptance of genetic engineering. 

The foodservice industry has remained rather divided with regards to GMO implementation. From the customer’s perspective, however, it is more straightforward. The non-GMO market’s significant jump from $348.8 million in 2010 to a mind-numbing $26 billion in 2018 should tell you where the people stand. 

Multiple surveys and research show that customers exhibit an increasing level of distrust and unease towards GMOs, which they express through their dining choices. A 2018 Hartman survey discovered that 46% of Americans avoid GMOs, which is a far cry from the 15% it has been in 2007.

The majority of people cite health as a reason for ditching GMOs. Many also reject it to oppose corporate control and unsustainable farming while others identify environmental damage and animal welfare as primary reasons for keeping GMOs at bay. Despite the disparity in reasoning, it does indicate a sign of a higher level of awareness, insight, and understanding of GMOs than ever before. 

While health concerns remain a force behind the GMO disdain, the FDA has assured that no health issues can be derived from GMOs. This hasn’t dampened the negativity surrounding genetic engineering in food though.

Customers are urging foodservice operators and everyone at the forefront to shed more light on GMO and an objective view of GMOs in the spirit of caution. At the very least, customers are calling for greater labeling transparency for GMO contents in food products and why they use them in order to make informed decisions about what they eat. While this may seem like it can work against you when traces of GMOs in your menu are revealed, you will be surprised at how diners are willing to make it worth your while. 

According to a 2017 study by Dogan Gursoy at Washington State University’s Carson College of Business, 75% of restaurant customers are willing to pay up to 13% for non-GMO food options. 

How non-GMOs can make you more profitable

Most customers would rather err on the side of caution. Without a more convincing explanation as to why we are better off with GMOs than without them, people would rather not risk venturing into the unknown this time. 

The challenge now becomes about creating a GMO-free menu. Is it possible? A couple of big names have taken a crack at it. Chipotle and Whole Foods Market have shed GMOs off their offerings. One of the former’s first steps is buying “naturally” raised pork, where there are more ethical practices and better conditions for the animals. 

You can start slowly by sourcing your ingredients from organic farmers who grow crops and raise livestock naturally. You can introduce signature items made from these ingredients that can be charged a higher price. However, if you’re going to make the transition, you will see better results in serving a choice of non-GMO menu items so as to maintain a loyal customer base. 

But can you handle a sweeping change? This is a rather loaded question that requires careful analysis of factors and considerations unique to your type of operation. The first step is determining the scope and the costs of switching to GMO-free ingredients. If it seems like a tall order that’s because it is, but it is a necessary change, and lucky for you, it’s one that you can take time for.

Are you ready to go GMO-free?

GMOs remain inescapable with 60 to 70% of food consumed in America having gone through some degree of genetic engineering. It looks like crop production practices will have to catch up first before any large-scale changes can be implemented. The supply chain is definitely feeling the pressure as the demand grows.

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