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Published June 03, 2013, 11:54 AM

The push for nonGMO

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.

By: Stephanie Strom, 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.

Recently, 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 nonGMO?

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 nonGMO 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 says. Finally, the company in April began selling Crunch bars certified as nonGMO.

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 says.

“We have seen an exponential increase in the number of enrollments,” Westgate says.

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 nonGMO 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 nonGMO supplies,” says Lynn Clarkson, founder and president of Clarkson Grain, which sells such conventional grains.

In the U.S., 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 nonGMO crops to meet growing demand among consumers for eggs and meats sourced from animals that have never eaten genetically modified feeds.

In protest

On May 25, 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.

Farmers have long crossbred plants to improve genetics 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 of 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 says it respects people’s right to express their opinion, but maintains that its seeds improved agriculture “by helping farmers produce more from their land while conserving natural resources such as water and energy.”

Clarkson says that, so far, there were more of those nonGMO 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,” says 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, says 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 says. “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,” says 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 nonGMO seed.”

Nor can companies simply replace, say, corn flour from genetically engineered corn with its nonGMO 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.

Label pains

While Whole Foods tries to help suppliers procure nonGMO ingredients, its labeling initiative is causing headaches.

“Whole Foods has come in the back door and inadvertently created something of a crisis,” says Reuven Flamer, the founder of Natural Food Certifiers, which certifies foods as organic or kosher and is now adding nonGMO certification to its list of services. “People who make organic products support nonGMO standards, but they are already paying a premium for their supplies and certification.”

Based on the demand he is seeing for nonGMO 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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