Although more than 60 countries require disclosure of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on product labels—including all countries in the EU—the US currently does not. There is no US requirement to disclose the use of an ingredient with DNA that might have been altered in a “non-natural way,” which is the working definition on GMOs. However, in the absence of federal labeling standards, a number of states have proposed myriad GMO labeling schemes.
The November 2014, elections were a setback for supporters of GMO labeling, as ballot initiatives in two states fell short. Colorado saw a “no” vote triumph by a surprising 65% to 35% margin, while Oregon’s GMO labeling initiative also failed, although just barely.
Oregon’s Measure 92 lost by just 800 votes, among over 1.5 million votes cast—a slim margin that triggered an automatic recount that led to some drama, but no change in the outcome. The Oregon vote was noteworthy for another reason: It was the most expensive ballot measure in the state’s history, seeing nearly $30 million spent to lobby voters.
On the “no” side were companies such as Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer, collectively spending around $21 million to oppose Measure 92. Proponents spent roughly $9 million seeking a “yes” vote. The Oregon “Right to Know” campaign had support from an extensive list of supporters, including Hain-Celestial, Whole Foods Market and Slow Food USA. However, this was not enough to get the measure through.
To date, three states in the US have passed laws that require labels to disclose the presence of GMOs: Vermont, Connecticut and Maine. But of the three, only the Vermont law is truly free-standing. The Connecticut and Maine laws both have trigger provisions that require other states to pass GMO labeling laws before either state’s law kicks in.
For Connecticut, the GMO law requires one or more states in the Northeast “with a (combined) population exceeding 20 million” to pass a similar law before the Connecticut law can go into effect. Vermont’s law has no such restrictions and was passed by the Vermont legislature in May 2014. It requires GMO labeling by 2016.
Still, nothing is easy when it comes to the law. Four industry groups, including the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Snack Foods Association and the International Dairy Foods Association, sued Vermont after the state’s GMO law was passed. At issue is whether or not it violates the US Constitution’s commerce clause that upholds the free flow of goods across state lines and gives the US Congress any final call in such a matter.
Congress may indeed make that final determination call sometime this year. US Representative Mike Pompeo, a Republican from Kansas, introduced a bill called the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014” (HR 4432) early last year. It supposedly would settle the entire GMO labeling question. The bill proposes giving the FDA sole authority to establish a federal labeling standard for foods with genetically modified ingredients, preempting any state or local labeling requirements.
The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014 spent most of 2014 in the Subcommittee on Health until surfacing in a December 10, 2014, hearing that affirmed the safety of GMOs. Expectations are that the bill, slated to soon be re-introduced, will be voted on by the US House of Representatives sometime this year, according to spokesperson for Rep. Pompeo.
Voice of the People
Rules aside, consumers already have strong views when it comes to GMO labeling. According to a telephone survey of 1,004 adults conducted in May 2014, by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, a super-majority of consumers believe that genetically modified food should be labeled.
Not only did 92% of American consumers say they believe GMOs should be labeled before they can be sold, but an identical percentage indicated GMOs should be required to meet “mandatory government standards for long term safety.”
This could be good news for voluntary labeling schemes, such as the Non-GMO Project, which currently is investigating expansion to restaurant-made products. But, as clear-cut as these survey results are, they also point to a layer of confusion within the current state of GMO labeling.
One of the most confusing aspects is that the majority of Americans believe “natural” and “organic” claims mean that a product also is free of GMOs. Specifically, according to the Consumer Reports survey, 64% of American consumers incorrectly think “natural” on a product label means that a product has no GMOs. And 75% of US consumers believe that “organic” on a label for a packaged or processed food means that it has no GMOs.
Opinions on labeling do not necessarily correlate with high levels of consumer interest. The Consumer Reports survey found greater concern over supporting local farmers, protecting the environment from pesticides and providing better living conditions for farm animals than for avoiding genetically engineered or modified ingredients.
The survey results may further indicate that consumers are not aware of a correlation between GMOs and decreased use of chemical pesticides. A November 2014 study titled “Meta-Analysis of the Impacts of Genetically Modified Crops,” published in the journal PLOS ONE, documented a 37% reduction in pesticide usage globally thanks to genetic modification. The study, conducted by agricultural economists at the University of Göttingen, Germany, also determined a 22% increase in crop yields, thanks to GMOs.
Think Global, Worry Local
Concern over genetic modification varies by country, and global consumers are generally less concerned than Americans. Just 13% of consumers in 24 countries in “Datamonitor Consumer’s 2013 Global Survey” gave “determining whether or not a product is genetically modified” a “highest priority” ranking. This put genetic modification behind issues such as the flavor of a food or drink (41% “highest priority”), nutrition information (35% “highest priority”) and “price versus comparable options” (27% “highest priority”).
Yet global consumers did point to a potentially serious perceived GMO issue: Global consumers were more than twice as likely to believe that genetic modification makes a food less nutritious than makes it more nutritious.
This view is more pronounced at extreme ends of the scale, with consumers four times as likely to see GMO foods as “significantly less nutritious” (16% response) than “significantly more nutritious” (4% response), per Datamonitor Consumer’s 2013 global survey. The inference here is that functional health claims and GMO ingredients could be incompatible on some level.
These negative perceptions might be caused in part by GMOs failing the “what’s in it for me” test. Earlier-generation GMOs clearly benefited farmers but seemed to offer little to consumers. That paradigm could be changing, as the new generation of GMOs introduce more measurable reasons for consumers to buy into the technology. This “GMO 2.0” concept of tangible consumer benefits could finally “connect” with American consumers.
An early test case for GMO 2.0 is a new genetically modified potato from J.R. Simplot Co. Simplot’s new Innate potatoes have DNA that has been altered to have lower levels of asparagine, an amino acid that reacts with sugars during cooking to form acrylamide, a chemical compound that is believed to have the potential to increase the risk of certain cancers, according to animal studies. Innate potatoes can reduce acrylamide levels by up to 90% over non-GMO potatoes.
The potato also is engineered to resist black spot bruise, a major botanical affliction resulting in millions of pounds of spoiled potatoes each year. Simplot believes that Innate potatoes could cut down as much as 400 million pounds of potato waste every year in US retail and foodservice channels alone. Innate potatoes also brown less easily after being cut, another game-changer that could spur the development of new, pre-cut potato products.
Innate is a more conservative spin on genetic modification. Instead of utilizing genes from other plants or animals, Innate only contains genes from wild and cultivated potatoes. Four of Innate potatoes’ own genes were altered to suppress the production of certain enzymes. The brand name Innate was chosen to reflect this more nuanced form of genetic engineering. (See “GMO or Non-GMO? That is the question,” http://bit.ly/1nbZas0.)
Innate is targeting both the fresh potato (including supermarkets) and dehydrated potato markets. Cracking either market will take time, even with the USDA approval Innate earned in November 2014. To date, only 400 acres of Innate potatoes have been planted, and those are for test purposes. This is nowhere near enough for commercial foodservice operations. However, Innate potatoes still are expected to launch in “limited test markets” this year.
Apples to Oranges
Potatoes aren’t the only crop moving in the GMO 2.0 direction. Apples could be the next great leap forward in genetic modification, with Summerland, BC, Canada-based Okanagan Specialty Fruits leading the way. Okanagan is the creator of the world’s first non-browning apple. Dubbed the Arctic apple, this fruit uses a special sequencing of apple genes to silence genes that produce polyphenol oxidase (PPO), so that the apple does not brown when cut or bitten into. This oxidative browning occurs with regular apples whenever an apple cell is fractured through biting, cutting or bruising.
The Arctic apple could produce a shift on the same order as the change baby-cut carrots made to the carrot market years ago.
“The real trait benefit for the Arctic apple is for the foodservice market” says Neal Carter, president of Okanagan. “There is little use of apples in foodservice—only about 2% of apples harvested in North America go toward fresh-cut use. The Arctic apple can completely change that.”
According to Carter, Arctic apples do not need an expensive antioxidant treatment to extend shelflife. A drawback to such treatments is that some have the potential to introduce off-flavors, factors that have limited the market potential of fresh cut apples.
Okanagan recently received “deregulated status” for Arctic apples in the US and Canada. While the apples have endured not one, but two, USDA comment periods in the US (2012 and 2014), the road was long. This new status of approval means that Okanagan can sell Arctic trees to commercial growers. That’s just the start.
Since the average apple grower replaces 5% or less of their overall acreage each year, it could take years before Arctic apples see widespread commercial adoption. Plus, newly planted trees take three to four years to yield a commercial crop.
True commercial penetration “could take 10 years,” says Carter. “It is really a generational thing” he adds, pointing to the current popularity of the Honeycrisp apple. Although widely perceived to be “new” by consumers, it has been around in the trade for more than three decades.
A Fish Story
The third, and perhaps most controversial, new development in genetic engineering comes from the aquaculture field. Maynard, Mass.-based AquaBounty Technologies hopes to introduce AquAdvantage salmon. AquAdvantage is an Atlantic salmon genetically modified to include a gene from the Chinook salmon that enables it to grow to market size in roughly half the usual time—about two years vs. three years. This is accomplished without drugs or antibiotics, a particular concern in current aquaculture practices.
AquAdvantage salmon grow year-round, not seasonally as wild salmon do. AquaBounty believes that its salmon has the potential to make a significant impact on the American Atlantic salmon market.
However, AquaBounty’s AquAdvantage salmon has been in “regulatory purgatory” almost since its creation back in 1989. The approval process for AquAdvantage officially began in September 1995, and the fish remains under review by the FDA through a New Animal Drug Application (NADA).
“AquaAdvantage salmon has been exhaustively studied, making it arguably the most studied fish or food in history,” says Dave Conley, a director at AquaBounty. Controversy revolves around concerns that AquAdvantage salmon could breed with wild salmon. That is not expected to be an issue, as AquAdvantage salmon are sterile, all-female salmon produced exclusively in a land-based production system.
For a fish that has stirred up the passions of the most environmentally aware consumers, it is somewhat ironic that AquaAdvantage salmon has significant environmental benefits. Because of its inland tank-based farming system, AquaAdvantage salmon can be raised closer to population centers than wild salmon. That means a reduced environmental footprint, with faster transportation times and lower costs.
Moreover, as Conley points out, “farming Aqua-Advanage salmon will alleviate fishing pressures on domestic wild salmon fisheries, while reducing our reliance on imports.” Alongside other marine environmental experts, AquaBounty estimates 85% of the world’s fish stocks are “overexploited, depleted or endangered.”
Labeling specifics for AquaBounty will be laid out after FDA approval is obtained, though the company says that it supports “voluntary branding” that identifies the “environmentally friendly benefits” of its salmon. However, even if approval comes soon, there is no guarantee consumers will be feasting on AquaAdvantage salmon anytime in 2015. AquaBounty maintains it will take some time after regulatory approval is granted to produce fish in sufficient quantity to satisfy market demand.
Ask Your Supplier
Product launches containing non-GMO ingredients saw an increase of more than 40% in 2012 and, according to HealthFocus International, 31% of US shoppers say non-GMO on the label is “extremely” or “very” important. That’s up from 18% a
decade ago. Here are seven key questions to ask a supplier when it comes to
sourcing non-GMO ingredients.
- Can non-GMO ingredients be tracked back to the seed, the grower and the field?
- If the corn is “identity preserved,” what property is being “identity preserved?”
- How is non-GMO corn segregated from any GMO corn?
- What programs are in place to guarantee non-GMO status?
- How is the non-GMO supply chain control quality with contract partners?
- Does an independent third party certify the non-GMO products?
- What are the standards used for certification, and do they match those of the
- Non-GMO Project?
Source: Ingredion Inc., 2015 (www.ingredion.com)