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Public Affairs

Emotion and the Web Will Win the GMO Debate

On November 5th, voters in Washington State will decide the fate of yet another ballot initiative aimed at forcing food manufacturers to label products that contain biotech ingredients.
Undeterred by the defeat of comparable legislation in California last year (Proposition 37), and emboldened by recent legislative victories in Connecticut and Maine, activists and the organic foods industry are continuing their fight against scientific advancements that are making the world’s food supply safer and more abundant than ever before. To date, 26 states have considered similar laws. On all but two occasions, voters and lawmakers have rightly concluded that GMO labeling is really nothing more than a solution in search of a problem.
But as those outliers in New England demonstrated last summer, momentum is building for labeling despite a mountain of scientific and anecdotal evidence to the contrary.
Forget that more than 70 percent of the products on grocery shelves already contain GMOs. Forget that biotechnology protects crops against disease, insects, and drought. Forget that hundreds of validated scientific studies since the 1970s have concluded that GMOs pose no danger and have no impact on nutritional value. And forget that the countries dealing with the highest rates of starvation are those without access to foods enhanced via bio-technology.
Companies that avoid biotech ingredients are free to market and label their products as such, and consumers are free to make purchasing decisions based on that information. That’s how a sensible food safety system is supposed to operate when there is no threat to public health.
Nevertheless, recent data shows that 93 percent of Americans now favor federal labeling regulations and 57 percent say they would be less likely to buy products labeled as genetically modified.
Why? Because activists understand that logic and science are no match for fear where risk communications are concerned – and they use it masterfully in nearly all of their communications. At the same time, it’s the activists who control of the online narrative at a time when 59 percent of Americans say they follow nutritional advice they glean from the Internet.
Combined, the top 10 GMO opposition groups (such as Green America and Food Democracy Now) boast more than one million Twitter followers, 2 million Facebook likes, and 77,000 YouTube subscribers. Those figures don’t bode well for the two leading voices in support of GMOs, The Grocery Manufacturers’ Association and Council for Biotechnology Information, who together maintain just more than 6,000 Twitter followers, 3,000 Facebook likes, and 110 YouTube subscribers.
It’s the same story on the optimization front, as a Google search for the term “GMOs” returns a litany of critical commentary and not one site controlled by a company making food with GMO ingredients.
Such an uneven online playing field meant that GMO manufacturers had to outspend activists four-to-one on TV advertising to defeat California’s Prop 37 last year ($46 million to $9 million). In the end, all that investment bought was a slim victory (51 percent to 48 percent) that was not repeated in Connecticut or Maine and may not come to pass in Washington either, despite similar expenditures.
To stem the rising tide of GMO opposition, companies must retake the digital high-ground via content, SEO, and social media engagement strategies that will put their benefit messages about abundance, safety and economic security front and center on the most influential channels.
Absent such steps, Connecticut and Maine will no longer be outliers; they’ll be bellwethers of the new regulatory reality.

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