by Alistair Nicholas
November 1st, 2012

Next week, voters in California will decide on Proposition 37, a law to put “Genetically modified organism” (GMO) labels on all applicable processed foods sold in the state. For instance, that bag of chips on your desk may read: “Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering.”

Traditionally in the US, California and New York are bellwether states for food issues across the country and around the world. Unlike Vegas, what happens there rarely stays there.

Earlier this year, for instance, California banned a formulation of caramel colouring due to high levels of a naturally occurring compound called 4MEI (studies alleged it was carcinogenic, though they were heavily contested). Weeks later, food and beverage companies ducked the issue when their caramel supplier announced a new formula for caramel that adhered to California’s regulation.

“Just in California?” consumers asked.

“Well, no.”

This caused a storm the world throughout. And by 2013, almost every caramel-colored soda on the market will use this modified ingredient in the US. Thanks (or no-thanks) to the Golden State.

From soda bans to caramel colouring, what California and New York often decide with respect to their food and drinks sends shockwaves around the country and world.

So how would a labeling law on GMOs, one of the first of its kind in the US and no-doubt the largest topic in food policy circles, affect China?

If America is the field of dreams for genetically modified grains, China is its worst nightmare.

“Burn every last trace of it,” regulators seem to say. “Stop it at the borders. Stop it in the fields.”

Ruling bodies take pride in a hardline approach to rejecting GMOs, which it sees as an adherence to a higher standard of food and the preservation of ‘The Chinese Way’.

So you can imagine the surprise in China with news that consternation has grown in the US towards that country’s ubiquitous ways of farming.

China is indeed at the foot of a crossroads regarding this topic. The country has recently dealt with a number of issues that have provoked government attention, such as a strain of genetically modified rice that produces more Vitamin-A than spinach.

Furthermore, a “silent turf war” has been waged between the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) and Ministry of Health (MOH) over the issue of allowing GM crops for direct human consumption.

The MOA is favorable to GM crops and has been allowed to conduct some limited experiments, such as GM rice growing in southern China under strictly controlled conditions.

If legislation like that proposed in California gains traction throughout the US, it may likely embolden the government adversaries of GM crops to harden their stance, making the environment here even less forgiving.

Any debates that may have been brewing towards leniency on GMOs may also soften.

In the past, companies in China have been able to lob public debates about GM grain onto the US. They would point to the vast majority of Americans that consume and accept GMOs in every day life. But without that luxury, or with a new talking point, strategies will be needed here for companies to communicate their positions to both the government and to consumers. The goal will need to be focused on demonstrating that, even while they may be pushing for GMs in this and other markets, they are adhering to cultural (and regulatory) guidelines and are respectful of the lay of the land.

Regardless of the outcome of California’s ballot, as this topic enters the ethos in the US, it will generate attention in the East.

For that alone, there is a strong argument for companies here to refresh internal dialogues and be ready to communicate their stance to Chinese consumers.

Alistair Nicholas is executive vice-president, Asia Pacific, at Weber Shandwick

To receive our updates: