The issue of non-bioengineered ingredients and what rules should be in place regarding labeling of such products led to lively discussion at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 92nd annual Agricultural Outlook Forum held Feb. 26 at the Crystal Gateway Marriott hotel in Arlington.

In a Plenary Panel moderated by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, comments ran the gamut, but the underlying conclusion was universal: the issue is complex.

“As a food company, we supply both non-G.M.O. and G.M.O. because that’s what the consumer wants,” said Ilene Gordon, chief executive officer of Ingredion. “In Indianapolis we have a facility that uses 100% non-G.M.O. corn. We pay a higher price, and we pass that on in the form of higher prices. … There is no science that non-G.M.O. is better than G.M.O., but the consumer perceives that it may be a healthier ingredient, so we as a food company want to provide what the consumer wants. That would be an example where governments and universities we can work together on ‘is there science here, and what is the consumer looking for?’”

Shifting the discussion to labeling, Pam Johnson, farmer and former president of the National Corn Growers Association, opinioned, “Just like farmers want choices, we respect the choices of consumers, also.”

Ms. Johnson said farmers’ concern is with every state potentially having their own label, instead of a federal label. She said the challenge is establishing a label that is meaningful.

“A big concern of ours is that sometimes when something is labeled it almost has a perception of a skull and cross bones,” she said. “If it’s non-G.M.O. there is no material difference or health between G.M.O.s and non-G.M.O.s. It’s a preference of people. It’s our concern that if we put a label on there it isn’t a marketing tool to say that, ‘mine is better than yours.’ We’ve all gone through the whole non-gluten-free (movement), which we know the only people who have to worry about that are the few per cent that have celiac disease and for the rest it’s just a choice. So, it is a deep concern of ours, and we want this done right. We don’t want to take the model the European Union has handed down and proposes not just for themselves but also influences developing countries around the world that specifically as a marketing tool say that genetically engineered/genetically modified is not healthy. Especially now as we get into those new breeding techniques and gene editing and be able to explain to the consumer why this is so important in food and animal production and agriculture just as it is in health.”

Ms. Johnson said it goes back to having a conversation and answering questions about the consumer concerns regarding these new breeding techniques and genetic engineering.

“I embrace all kinds of agricultural, but we cannot solve real world problems on my farm and others around the world without science and innovation, and that includes technology, new traits and crop protection,” she said.

Through her work with Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture, Pamela Hess, executive director of the center, said it’s not the health impact of G.M.O.s that people have raised concerns about, but rather the potential environmental impact. As a result, she finds the whole issue of labeling G.M.O.s “terribly complex.”

“I understand the market concerns of having a label, in that Americans tend to be pretty quick and simple in the decisions they’re making when they’re shopping and want something easy, and this is a very complicated issue,” she said. “I’m interested in the fact that Campbell has decided to label G.M.O.s and that they’ve decided it’s not going to have an impact on their market. I’m interested in that. So I don’t know that labeling will necessarily scare people off, but I understand what the market concerns are.”

Putting a bow on the conversation was Mr. Vilsack, who admitted that no part of the agricultural industry has done a good job of educating about G.M.O.s.

“The challenge here is to create a process that respects people’s right to find out information that is important to them, but to do it in a way that doesn’t send a false impression about the safety of the product,” he said. “You also have to recognize that this is not the first and last time we’re going to have this conversation about a production method or about some aspect of how food is produced that consumers may be interested in knowing. So as you establish whatever it is you are going to do to respond to this challenge, it has to be flexible enough that it can be added and subtracted as the science advances and as questions arise among consumers.

“That’s why I’ve suggested that this needs to be a 21st century conversation, but for many it’s kind of stuck in the 20th century. Right now, Congress is recognizing the notion that 50 states, or for that matter, hundreds of different companies deciding this on their own, will create confusion in the market and may add significant costs not necessarily related to making the food healthier or better, or responding to taste, or any other aspect or attribute.”

Mr. Vilsack said Congress is looking at ways to educate consumers, including 1-800 numbers to talk to real people about what’s in a product, web sites with information and even smartphone applications. Even with these possibilities, he cautioned it’s going to take a while for whatever process to be accepted.

“Candidly, I think the industry represented on this table … none of us has done a particular good job up to now of informing people about the safety of this,” he said. “My view of this is that Congress needs to act, and they need to act quickly, and they need to give time. And then I think the real $64,000 question is, at the end of that time period, whatever it is … how high does the acceptance and awareness of consumers have to be before we don’t even talk about something that goes on a package? Or, how low does the acceptance and awareness have to be before we have to acknowledge that something indeed needs to go on the package so those consumers who are generally interested have access? That’s the $64,000 question. And honestly, it’s a tough question to answer.”