Citing consumer discomfort with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), Hershey has begun to transition its sugar sourcing away from GMO sugar beets, and toward non-GMO sugarcane.
“More than three-quarters of the sugar we are using today is cane sugar – and as we get into 2016, our expectation is to be at or near 100 percent,” Hershey communications director Jeff Beckman said.
The decision to stop buying sugar from sugar beets was made in February 2015, along with several other large policy changes. The company made it clear that the reason for the decision was not a philosophic opposition to GMOs, but rather a recognition that consumers are increasingly choosing GMO-free products.
The company did not announce any plans to change the labels of its products, and intends to declare just “sugar” on its ingredients lists.
Disaster for GMO sugar beet industry?
Hershey’s quiet policy change has made big waves in the sugar beet industry, which supplies more than half of U.S. sugar. Nearly 100 percent of sugar beets planted are now genetically modified.
Hershey is a giant in the candy industry – it sold $7.4 billion worth of 80 separate candy brands worldwide in 2014 – and thus a major customer for sugar beet growers. The company’s announcement sparked worried discussions at two separate sugar beet cooperative shareholder meetings in 2015. At the meeting of the Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative in Wahpeton, N.D., co-op president and CEO Kurt Wickstrom, called anti-GMO activist groups a major threat to the industry.
David Berg, president and CEO of the largest sugar beet cooperative in the United States, American Crystal Sugar, struck a similar note, calling the anti-GMO movement one of the biggest challenges for the industry.
GMO sugar beets have only been grown in the United States since 2005; though they were first approved by the USDA in 1999, candy companies initially refused to purchase GMO sugar for fear of consumer backlash. Now history seems to be repeating itself, but the sugar beet industry has planted itself into a corner; there is no feasible way for them to go non-GMO without taking massive financial losses. It’s now almost impossible to find non-GMO seed, and would take years to build up a new supply.
“The supply of seed that is not genetically modified is extremely outdated and just not a viable option at all for raising sugar beets today,” Berg said.
Companies are feeling the pressure
Hershey’s decision takes place in a larger context of more and more food giants turning away from GMOs, even as the U.S. fights over the culture of GMO labeling.
The candy giant made its decision following a pressure campaign by a coalition called GMO Inside. The same group successfully pressured General Mills into making Cheerios GMO-free, by sourcing only sugarcane and by dropping corn starch as an ingredient. GMO Inside is now urging General Mills to make the same move with Honey Nut Cheerios, which contain nine times as much sugar as the original flavor.
Another recent anti-GMO move came from Campbell’s soup, which in January announced that it will soon be the first U.S. company to label GMO ingredients in its products. The company also announced its support for federal mandatory labeling of GMO ingredients.
Vermont recently passed a state law requiring labeling of GMOs, and the industry is fighting back hard. In July, the House passed H.R. 1599, popularly known as the Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act, to ban any labeling of foods as GMO-free – even by voluntary third-party labeling efforts! The USDA is jumping on the anti-labeling bandwagon, planning a voluntary “labeling” measure in which companies pay the USDA to certify their products GMO free, and GMO peddlers continue to pay nothing.