In a Surprising Contradiction, Nestlé Official Says GMOs Aren’t Necessary

Though the corporate giant has donated more than $1M to fight GMO labeling, a senior exec says we don’t need modified foods.
Aug 30, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Overhearing someone say genetically modified crops aren’t the solution for feeding a planet ready to burst with 9 billion hungry mouths by 2050 isn’t surprising if it comes from a leader in the organics crowd. But it’s positively jaw-dropping when you hear it coming from a high-ranking corporate executive at Nestlé.

“Genetically modified (GM) food is unnecessary to feed the world and the food industry would reap more benefits from using resources more sustainably and employing other techniques. That’s the view of Hans Jöhr, corporate head of sustainable agriculture at Nestlé and honorary president of SAI Platform, a group of top global food and drink manufacturers working to improve supply chain sustainability,” writes Rod Addy for Food Navigator.

Jöhr wasn’t talking about some of the traditional arguments against genetically modified crops—like emerging superweeds, pest resistance, lack of long-term studies on human health, or necessary increases in pesticide and herbicide use due to resistance issues. Nope. Jöhr is talking about water. It’s an issue that concerns him, and with good reason. Nestlé purchases produce directly from more than 680,000 farmers across the globe.

MORE: California: You Deserve to Know If GMOs Are In Your Food

And, as we mentioned the other day, water availability is emerging as the critical issue in how we’re going to feed a burgeoning planet. Jöhr says if water issues are addressed, the benefits will outweigh anything the genetic modification of crops could offer.

Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment (IonE) at the University of Minnesota and co-author of a study released Wednesday on water management and yield production, agrees with Jöhr that GMOs are not the answer to food security.

“I don't think GMOs have contributed, or will likely contribute much, to food security. Most of the GMO traits are focused on pest and herbicide resistance, which is arguably a good thing, but are not improving yield characteristics all that much (at least compared to conventional breeding, or better yet, marker-assisted breeding). Furthermore, there are other approaches to managing pests and weeds that would be equally (or more) effective, like not planting such large monocultures in the first place,” Foley tells TakePart.

Jöhr also went one step further, and addressed the issue of labeling.

“We [Nestlé] have a very simple way of looking at GM: listen to what the consumer wants. If they don’t want it in products, you don’t put it in them,” Jöhr told Food Navigator.

Except, the funny thing is, no one seemed to have clued Nestlé USA in on that stance.

According to records kept by the California Secretary of State, Nestlé USA made four separate donations to the No on 37 Coalition, fighting against the labeling of GMO ingredients in California. In a seven-week period, the company gave nearly $1.17 million to prevent the measure from passing.

Nestlé USA did not respond to our requests for comment.

Maybe that kind of corporate policy takes a while to trickle down, or perhaps Jöhr was only speaking about countries with existing labeling laws. Nestlé’s official policy on GM ingredients says: Provided their safety is proven, as required for all ingredients, Nestlé will continue to use ingredients derived from genetically modified crops wherever appropriate.

Either way, at least someone at the world’s biggest food and drink company (by revenue) is seriously talking about these issues, and in a public way. It’s a start, and we’ll take that.