Amazing. Marvelous. Wonderful. Fun. Those are four words that cannot be used to describe the last few weeks for McDonald's (NYSE:MCD), which has been criticized for having one of the least-compensated workforces in the country and recently announced a fall in same-store sales. If you thought it couldn't get any worse, you were wrong. The company is also being sucked into the vortex of bickering and conspiracy theories that has, unfortunately, become the debate over genetically engineered food products.
McDonald's isn't as despised as Monsanto (NYSE:MON) for its business practices (not yet anyway), but now it, too, can have the same anti-GMO furor directed its way for its pending decision to utilize a genetically engineered potato for its french fries. While the GMO debate has been shown to boil down to a mistrust of science (link opens PDF) and generally pits consumer emotion against complex and misunderstood biotechnologies, there are major health and environmental benefits to using the new potatoes. That alone will be enough to sway McDonald's -- the world's largest potato buyer -- to utilize the new spuds. Here's why.
Resistance is futile
Biotech crops have been commercially grown since 1996 and now include varieties of most major agricultural crops. The potato may not be as widespread as corn, but that didn't stop Monsanto from trying its hand at engineering spuds in the past. Unfortunately, the first generation GMO potato caved to consumer pressure. As noted author and business and sustainability speaker Marc Gunther succinctly summarized in a recent article for The Guardian:
As it happens, this isn't the first time a biotech company has tried to improve the lowly potato. In 1998, Monsanto introduced NewLeaf potatoes, which were engineered to repel a pest called the Colorado potato beetle. Several years later, Monsanto withdrew from the potato business after anti-GMO activists persuaded McDonald's and Frito-Lay to tell their suppliers not to grow NewLeaf potatoes.
A lot has happened in the past decade. McDonald's largest potato supplier, Simplot, has developed and tested a next-generation spud called Innate, which is undergoing regulatory review -- as do all GMO foods -- from the United States Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency. It's going to be much more difficult for a consumer movement to kill the Innate potato, however. Why?
The next-generation spuds offer reduced black spots from bruising, which make them more presentable, and therefore more marketable, to consumers. That will reduce food waste and add value to the end of the supply chain for grocers and fast-food franchises. Innate potatoes have also been engineered to produce less asparagine, a protein that combines with sugars at high temperatures (during frying, for example) to create potentially carcinogenic acrylamide.
Think about that. GMO critics advocating on behalf of consumer health and attempting to bury Innate potatoes for fear of phantom health risks associated with engineered foods are simultaneously denying consumers important health benefits. Does anyone else find that disturbing?
Foolish bottom line
While the debate over GMO foods and ingredients isn't going away anytime soon, McDonald's will have an awfully tough time turning down the two major advantages offered by Innate potatoes (assuming Simplot gets the necessary regulatory nods for marketing). Agricultural biotechnology has progressed too far in the last two decades for next-generation crops, which can be even more beneficial for the health of our planet and consumers than current crops, to be run out of the marketplace by emotion. If Innate potatoes are just as safe as "traditional" potatoes -- as current studies have demonstrated -- then why should McDonald's or consumers say no?
Fool contributor Maxx Chatsko has no position in any stocks mentioned. Check out his personal portfolio, his CAPS page, or follow him on Twitter @BlacknGoldFool to keep up with his writing on biopharmaceuticals, industrial biotech, and the bioeconomy.
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