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Consumer skittishness: Education part of expanding soy use

In a twist of irony, many of the very same consumers and small businesses proprietors that helped the soy foods industry get where it is today are the same people who may be skittish of purchasing products made with genetically modified soybeans.

According to Peter Goblitz, president of SoyaTech, an oilseeds research and publishing firm, the soy foods industry has its roots in late 1970s and early 1980s as a lifestyle of a better world through better foods. What at first was a small grassroots movement expanded relatively quickly as hundreds of new regional soy foods companies sprung up in the mid-1980s.

“We saw the development of products like flavored soy milk and tofu hot dogs, and then as the industry developed we saw a connection develop between soy and good health. As the industry has grown, we're seeing soy foods that taste better and come in more convenient packaging. In addition, a number of large, brand-name food companies have entered the markets through their purchases of some of these smaller upstart companies,” Goblitz said at a September United Soybean Board press conference at the 2002 Soy Symposium in Chicago.

And while recent FDA-endorsed health claims have helped further advance the soy foods industry, many consumers remain unaware of both the benefits of consuming soy and the safety of genetically modified soy products.

Linda Gilbert, president of HealthFocus International, a brand and business management firm targeting health and nutrition interests, says, “I think for the most part unless you are talking to a more leading edge consumer, there is very little understanding of what genetically modified means. Most consumers would be very surprised to learn that almost 80 percent of the soybeans raised are transgenic varieties.”

Gilbert stresses the importance of maintaining a continuous dialogue in order for consumers to understand the benefits offered through biotechnology.

Goblitz, an internationally recognized expert of the soy food industry, agrees the benefits of biotechnology haven't been communicated successfully yet to consumers.

“Ultimately it comes down to consumers feeling they have the right to know and want to feel empowered enough to make a choice. The issue of labeling genetically modified products may go away if consumers are given adequate information to make a choice,” he says. “Consumers want the ability to make that choice, even if we understand that the product has no increased risk associated with it. A lot of what happens in the marketplace is reactionary. It isn't necessarily that they are passing judgment on genetically modified products.”

A very small portion of the soybeans grown in the United States are used in soy food products. So, although about 80 percent of the U.S. soybean crop is planted in transgenic varieties, only 10 percent of the total U.S. crop in any year is used for direct human food, and only 1 to 2 percent of the domestic crop is used as a whole bean human food.

Janice Peterson, United Soybean Board domestic marketing chair and Indiana soybean producer, believes if consumers understand that the perceived risks associated with genetically modified soybeans do not exist, the labeling issue will resolve itself.

Goblitz, however, sees labeling as a matter of choice. “Some consumers believe in organic agriculture, and many of these consumers are the same people who founded the soy food start-up companies that jump-started the soy foods industry. What's important is that consumers make these choices with informed knowledge.”

Farmers simply want to be able to produce a product that can be sold for a fair value.

“Today, there is no indication of any negative risk for any soy product, and that message needs to be told,” says Peterson. “Consumers must realize that if all food production was organically grown you would have no more trees and no more parks, because it would take all available soil to produce enough organically grown crops to feed consumers.”


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