Does science even matter anymore?

The day after the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) issued its report on GMO crops, feed and food in May, the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran this front page-headline: "Report may turn the table on GMO food."

The headline on the far more leftist Huffington Post read: "GMOs Ruled Safe To Eat, But They Aren't Solving World Hunger" with the subhead, "New report offers a mixed plate of findings."

The Star Tribune went on to write a remarkably balanced, 30" story on GMOs. The Huffington Post, not so much.

And therein lies the problem. The NAS report, running 407 pages, was based on more than 1,000 published research studies, 80 information-gathering meetings and 700 public comments running thousands of pages.

While the Star Tribune headline offers hope, the NAS study will not end the debate. The comments posted on our own after our story about the NAS report make that pretty clear. Some folks are so anti-GMO, anti- Monsanto, anti-commercial ag, no amount of science will ever convince them.

The GMO Niche

In dairy, some companies are caving into or exploiting (depending on your level of cynicism) GMO-food fears. Here in the U.S., Dannon has announced it will produce GMO-free yogurt by 2018. In Europe, Arla Foods will begin producing a line of GMO-free cheese this year. (If enough GMO-free cheese is produced, Arla says it might even export it to the United States.)

To their credit, both companies said they will work with farmers to reimburse them for the extra cost of producing GMO-free milk. That will be particularly problematic here in the U.S., since most soybean meal, canola meal and beet pulp, a lot of corn and some alfalfa is produced with GMO crops. In Europe, it's less of a problem since the European Union has prohibited the use of most, if not all, GMO seeds. The challenge for its farmers is to find non-GMO soybean meal.

The GMO-free category will likely become a point of market differentiation, similar to organic. But the point is: Consumers will pay more for products that are no more safe, have similar quality, are harder on the environment and have a larger footprint when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, it is product differentiation based on fear and ignorance.

The problem is the GMO-free premiums will evaporate if more and more dairy manufacturers produce GMO-free products and GMO-free milk becomes a commodity. If you don't think that will happen, remember the rBST experience. Most of the premiums dairy manufacturers get for rBST milk is eaten up with separate processing lines and handling costs.

I wish I had an answer to this dilemma. I don't. As we learned in Marketing 101: Consumers are always right—except when they're not.