The old fashioned method of modifying plants and animals by mating one member of a species with another to produce offspring with more desirable traits is no longer the standard paradigm. Genetic manipulation is the dominant method of acquiring such traits and, for many plants now, the rule rather than the exception.
Although traditional cross-breeding has given us an enormous variety of foods, many of which our ancestors would barely recognize, the genie was let out of the bottle when we learned where that variety came from. Genetics revealed to us the units that determined traits and how to read the alphabet the units spelled out … and eventually how to swap those genes around to make them perform for us.
That alphabet known as the genome (the set of instructions for building the proteins that determine the characteristic traits of all plants and animals) consists of four “letters” strung together in endless combinations. Traditional cross-breeding allowed us to change the combinations of letters within the limits defined by the rules of mating. Very simply put, the organisms in question must be able to interbreed.
With the successful laboratory-based manipulation of genes independent of their hosts, those limits have been shattered -- for better or worse.
Creating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) circumvents the slow and imprecise method of breeding. By transferring sections of DNA — genes — directly from one organism to another, geneticists select as narrowly as possible only the desired traits. Species restrictions don’t matter because the genetic subunits that determine physical traits are the same throughout nature. This frees scientists to select and import genetic traits from virtually any species using highly sophisticated techniques.
One result is the Atlantic salmon developed by AquaBounty Technologies. Mix in genes from a faster-growing Pacific Chinook salmon and some from an eel and, voila, you get a premium fish that grows to market size in 16-18 months rather than three years.
This results in problems both physical and political. Physically, adverse reactions, from allergies to full-blown anaphylactic shock, occur when a type of foreign molecule — usually a protein — triggers an adverse physical reaction. By creating new organisms, the risk is that one also is creating new antigens that can trigger previously unknown physical reactions.
Politically, along with the introduction of GMOs comes the inevitable baggage of proprietary processes and patented life forms.
Yes or no, GMO?
Scientific advance always brings growing pains, but GMOs have opened a Pandora’s Box of complex and controversial topics that includes economic, political, biological and even moral issues, none of which shows any sign of abating.
The potential benefits and challenges surrounding GMOs were summed up in November of last year in a review in the Journal of Food Science and Technology, “Genetically modified foods: safety, risks and public concerns.” Authors Amarinder Bawa and Kandangath Anilakumar wrote, “Technologies for genetically modifying foods offer dramatic promise for meeting areas of challenge for the 21st century. Like all new technologies they pose some risk, both known and unknown. Controversies in public concern surrounding GM foods and crops commonly focus on human and environmental safety, labeling and consumer choice, intellectual property rights, ethics, food security, poverty reduction and environmental conservation.”
GMOs already have produced notable benefits. Insulin for diabetics was once derived and purified from cows and pigs killed for food. This process was expensive and carried with it the dangers of allergic reactions. Today, the human gene for insulin can be grown in GM bacteria that become factories for human insulin.
Of course the bacteria are held in a controlled environment. Plants growing in a field present a different story, one of potential contamination of non-GMO and organic (presumed to be non-GMO) crops.
Many in the public are mistrustful of GMOs, worried about the potential safety for humans and for the environment. Others look at food economics and politics and see a powerful process controlled and guided by only a few sources.
The USDA recently fielded comments on the coexistence of GMO and non-GMO crops from farmers across 17 states, primarily in the Midwest. Food & Water Watch, in partnership with the Organic Farmers’ Agency for Relationship Marketing (OFARM), released survey results that appeared to confirm what organic farmers have been contending for some time: The risks of GMO contamination have burdened organic and non-GMO farmers with extra work, longer hours and financial insecurity.
Just how extensive is the public concern? A New York Times poll conducted in July 2013 estimated support for mandatory labeling of GM foods as high as 93 percent. However, two recent ballot initiatives to force mandatory labeling of GMO foods, one held in California in November 2012 and one in Washington state the following November, were narrowly defeated. Similar referenda are being discussed in a number of other states.
According to a recent study on GMO awareness and concern among consumers released by NPD Group, about half of U.S. consumers “express some level of concern” about GMOs, although many are uncertain how to describe them. One-third of primary grocery shoppers are willing to pay more for non-GMO foods — a figure that rises to half of consumers who shop at specialty stores.
The public right to know the origin of food seems like a simple and obvious proposition. However, labeling GMOs has become complex. In March 2013, Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market, announced that by 2018 all products in its U.S. and Canadian stores must be labeled to indicate whether they contain GMOs. Whole Foods Market is a strong supporter of government-mandated labeling of GMO ingredients which would “enable shoppers, retailers and manufacturers to make purchasing decisions that reflect their beliefs."
Also responding to customer demands, Aldi GmbH’s Trader Joe’s chain, Monrovia, Calif., declared that products under the Trader Joe label are sourced from non-GMO ingredients. However, the company stops short of requiring a non-GMO label for all products it sells. The company explains in communications this is “because there are no clear guidelines from the U.S. governmental agencies covering food and beverage labeling.”
Sensing the public mood, many manufacturers are not waiting for guidelines. General Mills Inc., Minneapolis, reformulated original formula Cheerios with non-GMO ingredients. Oats and wheat have always been non-GMO ingredients, so the reformulation required only finding non-GMO sources of sugar and starch. The company does not have plans to follow with other non-GMO products at this time.
Post Foods LLC, St. Louis, announced its iconic Grape Nuts are now sourced with non-GMO ingredients. But it is also noted the new formulas for both cereals are lower in certain vitamins — riboflavin for Cheerios and riboflavin, vitamin A and vitamin D for Grape Nuts.
“Our transition to non-GMO buttery spreads has been in process for several months,” says Stephen Hughes, CEO for Boulder Brands, Paramus, N.J., which makes Glutino, Earth Balance, Level, Evol, Smart Balance and Udi’s Gluten Free. “Consumers are expressing a very strong desire for more transparency about what’s in the foods they’re eating and serving their families. We’re taking this important step to meet that need. We know that, just as important as what is in those foods, is what you take out.
“Making the necessary changes to our ingredient supply chain and manufacturing processes requires a several months-long transition," he continues. "We plan to transition our entire Smart Balance product portfolio to non-GMO, but this is the start of a journey for us. Our peanut butter is already non-GMO. We know it will take some time, but our goal is to work closely with industry leading partners to identify the required resources and assess the conversion of our entire Smart Balance product line to non-GMO.”
Hughes notes that the Earth Balance line always has been made with non-GMO ingredients. Both Udi’s Granola Clusters and Granola Bars along with 15 Glutino products have been verified by the Non-GMO Project.
The Non-GMO Project
“Because we want to be as transparent and accurate as possible for consumers, our seal is not a GMO-free claim, as that is scientifically indefensible,” says Isabel VanDerslice, outreach coordinator for the Non-GMO Project, Bellingham, Wash. The Non-GMO Project is “North America’s only independent verification for products made according to best practices for GMO avoidance.” Its “Non-GMO Project Verified” label indicates the product has met the organization’s standard for GMO avoidance.
That Non-GMO Project Verified standard is consistent with laws in the EU, where any product containing more than 0.9 percent GMO must be labeled. “More than 14,000 products are Non-GMO Project Verified, and about 500 more are added every month,” adds VanDerslice. “The length of the process can vary based on a number of factors, such as number of facilities or complexity of the product. An average product can take 3-6 months to complete the process from start to finish.”
Another supporter of the Non-GMO Project is WhiteWave Foods Inc. Broomfield, Colo. The maker of dairy substitute beverages and organic dairy products began as a small tofu company. WhiteWave uses only non-GMO ingredients for all its products. This is somewhat difficult sourcing since the vast majority of soybeans are genetically modified.
But many ingredient providers are recognizing the need and so pushing forward with non-GMO offerings. For example, Briess Malt & Ingredients Inc., Chilton, Wis., offers a portfolio of non-GMO natural sweeteners and specialty grain ingredients, all derived from North American sources. Starch giant Ingredion Inc., Westchester, Ill., notes in its corporate communications that it and its affiliated companies “produce non-GMO and other identity-preserved products derived from corn, oats, stevia, and tapioca/yucca/manioc roots.”
TIC Gums Inc., White Marsh, Md., is expanding its line of non-GMO ingredients. The company promotes ingredients classed as “Non-GMO” or “NGMO” if they meet the 0.9 percent criteria. Suppliers of raw ingredients to TIC Gums must certify that their ingredients also meet the 0.9 percent rule "or there are no known commercial sources of the products’ raw ingredient constituents derived from genetically modified organisms.” Examples include gum acacia and guar gum.
Some companies are taking the non-GMO commitment beyond the ingredients of their products. Oakland, Calif.-based Numi Tea Co.’s commitment to non-GMO verification is promoted as “complete.” Numi claims it is the first company to have its tea bags — not merely the tea ingredients — verified by the Non-GMO Project. Tea bags are submerged in hot water before consumption, so, the composition of the bags themselves is important to Numi. The bags are compostable and made from Manila hemp cellulose. They are oxygen whitened and even the tag is made from 100 percent recycled material and soy-based inks.
In January of this year, Whole Earth Sweetener Co., Chicago, announced the launch of a new PureVia stevia sweetener produced with non-GMO ingredients. It’s billed as “the first global brand of all-natural sweetener to promote this choice in the U.S.” The reformulation affects both regular PureVia and the PureVia Turbinado Raw Cane Sugar & Stevia Blend. The non-GMO dextrose used is derived from cassava root rather than from corn.
At present, opinions regarding genetically modified organisms seem entrenched. Whether or not the government comes down with a ruling on labeling in the near future, a form of labeling already is happening, in the form of the Non-GMO Project. That means, for the foreseeable future, there will be an expanding market for non-GMO foods.