c.2013 New York Times News Service
Food companies big and small are struggling to replace genetically modified ingredients with conventional ones.
Pressure is growing to label products made from genetically modified organisms, or “GMO.” In Connecticut, Vermont and Maine, at least one chamber of the state legislature has approved bills that would require the labeling of foods that contain genetically modified ingredients, and similar legislation is pending in more than two dozen other states. This weekend, rallies were held around the globe against producers of genetically altered ingredients, and consumers are threatening to boycott products that are not labeled.
And so, for many businesses, the pressing concern is just what it will take to gain certification as non-GMO?
Lizanne Falsetto knew two years ago that she had to change how her company, thinkThin, made Crunch snack bars. Her largest buyer, Whole Foods Market, wanted more products without genetically engineered ingredients — and her bars had them. Falsetto did not know how difficult it would be to acquire non-GMO ingredients.
ThinkThin spent 18 months just trying to find suppliers. “And then we had to work to achieve the same taste and texture we had with the old ingredients,” Falsetto said. Finally, last month, the company began selling Crunch bars certified as non-GMO.
The Non-GMO Project was until recently the only group offering certification, and demand for its services has soared. Roughly 180 companies inquired about how to gain certification last October, when California tried to require labeling (the initiative was later voted down), according to Megan Westgate, co-founder and executive director of the Non-GMO Project.
Nearly 300 more signed up in March, after Whole Foods announced that all products sold in its stores would have to be labeled to describe genetically engineered contents, and about 300 more inquiries followed in April, she said.
“We have seen an exponential increase in the number of enrollments,” Westgate said.
The shift is evident in prices of nongenetically modified crops, which have been rising as more companies seek them out. Two years ago, a bushel of non-GMO soybeans cost $1 to $1.25 more than a bushel of genetically modified soybeans. Now, that premium is $2. For corn, the premium has jumped from 10 cents to as high as 75 cents.
“We’ve had more calls from food processors wanting to know if we can arrange for non-GMO supplies,” said Lynn Clarkson, founder and president of Clarkson Grain, which sells such conventional grains.
In this country, roughly 90 percent or more of four major crops — corn, soybeans, canola and sugar beets — are grown from genetically engineered seeds, creating a challenge for companies seeking to swap to ingredients sourced from conventional varieties. A portion of the conventional varieties of those crops is exported, and much of the rest of those crops is already spoken for by organic and other companies here.
Additionally, the livestock industry is increasing its demand for non-GMO crops to meet growing demand among consumers for eggs and meats sourced from animals that have never eaten genetically modified feeds.
On Saturday, at least 2 million people in 436 cities in 52 countries rallied in protests against the seed giant Monsanto and genetically modified food, according to the organizers of the “March Against Monsanto.” The company, based in St. Louis, is the largest producer of genetically engineered seeds and the pesticides used to protect them.
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Farmers have long crossbred plants to improve genetics in an effort to increase productivity and resistance to pests and diseases, and decrease the need for water, among other things.
The type of genetic engineering done by Monsanto and its competitors, however, involves inserting genetic materials, sometimes from wholly different plant species and bacteria, directly into the DNA plants like corn or soybeans.
Regulators and some scientists say this poses no threat to human health, but a growing number of consumers are demanding increased information about what is in their food, whether it is gluten or genetically engineered ingredients.
Monsanto said it respected people’s right to express their opinion, but maintained that its seeds improved agriculture “by helping farmers produce more from their land while conserving natural resources such as water and energy.”
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Clarkson said that, so far, there were more of those non-GMO crops than buyers for them, and large companies like Silk and Hain Celestial that have long been users of conventional crops say they are not worried.
“I don’t think you can discount the number of companies that are not in favor of labeling, which is what is driving demand right now,” said Ellen Deutsch, senior vice president and chief growth officer at Hain. “But if demand does grow, we will need to maintain our long-standing relationships with our suppliers.”
Errol Schweizer, a national grocery buyer at Whole Foods, said he was already seeing shortages in organic and conventional seeds, as well as in commodity ingredients sourced from conventional crops.
“Suppliers are going overseas to get what they need,” he said. “We know farmers need to feel secure that there’s a market for what they grow, and I’m saying, please plant these crops, there is a demand.”
Dealers in conventional crops say more farmers will switch to them if the demand is there, but it will take time. Most food-processing companies have an 18-month supply chain for crops like corn and soy, which means that if they begin making a switch today, the earliest they might get certification would be in 2015.
And farmers cannot simply replace genetically engineered seeds with conventional ones, because soil in which genetically modified crops have been grown may not be immediately suitable for conventional crops.
“There’s a transition period required,” said Richard Kamolvathin, senior vice president at Verity Farms, which sells meats, grains and other products derived from conventional crops, as well as natural soil amendments. “You don’t just stop growing GMO seed and then start growing non-GMO seed.”
Nor can companies simply replace, say, corn flour from genetically engineered corn with its non-GMO cousin without wreaking havoc on things like taste, consistency and mouth feel.
Every ingredient in a product must be verified by affidavit, and storage and processing facilities, as well as transportation equipment, must be scrubbed of all traces of genetically modified supplies.
Those requirements may be too high a hurdle for some food processors. Big makers of pivotal ingredients like corn and soy oil, for instance, cannot easily switch back and forth between genetically engineered and conventional sources.
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Even companies that use conventional crops in production have to work hard to get certified. Silk, a large maker of soy and nut “milks,” has used soy beans from plants that are not genetically modified since its founding.
But it took the company some eight months to gather and compile lists of all its ingredients, affidavits from suppliers, test records and other information, then go through independent testing for confirmation, before its products gained non-GMO certification — and it helps underwrite the Non-GMO Project.
“It’s a pretty significant undertaking,” said Craig Shiesley, senior vice president for plant-based beverages at WhiteWave Foods, the parent company of Silk. “We make 100 million gallons of soy milk using 1 million bushels of soy beans, and this affects not only all those bushels of soy beans and other ingredients like vitamins and flavorings, but also all of our manufacturing and distribution.”
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While Whole Foods tries to help suppliers procure non-GMO ingredients, its labeling initiative is causing headaches.
“Whole Foods has come in the back door and inadvertently created something of a crisis,” said Reuven Flamer, the founder of Natural Food Certifiers, which certifies foods as organic or kosher and is now adding non-GMO certification to its list of services. “People who make organic products support non-GMO standards, but they are already paying a premium for their supplies and certification.”
Based on the demand he is seeing for non-GMO certification, Flamer says it is almost certain the supply of conventional seeds and crops, and derivatives of those crops, is going to become an issue.
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That worries Manuel Lopez, whose family owns El Milagro, a tortilla and tortilla products company in Chicago. “We’ve always used non-GMO corn,” he said, “and our concern is about our supply.”
The cost of the corn El Milagro uses is roughly 1.7 times the cost of genetically engineered corn, he said, and the company cannot pass on all the additional cost to customers.
Lopez is hopeful, though. “I believe there are a lot of farmers who want to get away from GMO,” he said. “If they see more demand, I think they will respond.”