Is a Non-GMO Food Industry Possible?

While General Mills may be turning a deaf ear to those of you who want labels on food products that contain genetically modified ingredients, plenty of companies are jumping past the labeling-laws discussion and are actively looking to remove genetically engineered ingredients from their products to meet growing consumer demand.

But according to The New York Times, the race to replace genetically modified ingredients has proved challenging. “Roughly 90 percent or more of four major crops—corn, soybeans, canola and sugar beets—are grown from genetically engineered seeds,” writes Stephanie Strom. “Additionally, the livestock industry is increasing its demand for non-GMO crops to meeting growing demand among consumers for eggs and meats sourced from animals that have never eaten genetically modified feeds.”

Megan Westgate, cofounder of the Non-GMO Project, a third-party certifier, told the Times that approximately 180 companies inquired about certification last October, spurred by California’s Prop 37 ballot initiative, which would have required labeling of food products that contained genetically modified ingredients. The measure was defeated at the polls in November, but nearly two dozen states have taken up the issue since then, including New York, which may now be poised to be the first state in the nation to require labeling, despite efforts by Vermont and Connecticut. Another significant bump in interest came when nearly 300 companies signed up to go through the certification process after Whole Foods announced in March that it will require suppliers to label products that contain genetically engineered ingredients by 2018.

Simply sourcing non-GMO ingredients isn’t as easy as it might seem. Nearly 90 percent of canola is genetically modified, as is 88 percent of corn, 94 percent of soybeans, and 95 percent of U.S.-grown sugar beets. And, says Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, farming infrastructure may also be a hurdle in making an immediate transition.

“There might not be enough non-GMO seed available,” Foley tells TakePart. “And farmers have been investing in equipment that is designed for no-till farming. I can’t see how the corn industry for example, can switch to non-GMO right away. It could happen, but it’s going to take a while.”

Indeed, some food makers worry switching to non-GMO varieties will impact traits like flavor and consistency, not because the ingredients are genetically modified for those traits, but because they would be switching to alternative varieties that may have differences in sugar content, protein, etc.  Others, like Manuel Lopez, owner of El Milagro, a Chicago-based tortilla company that currently uses non-GMO corn, told the Times that he’s worried an increase in demand by other food producers will result in supply issues.  It’s a valid concern. But, says Foley, if demand were loud enough, farmers would be compelled to make the switch back to conventional seeds.

“We grew these things before without GMOs. Making the switch back would come with costs and some disruption, but so be it if that’s what people want,” he says. “If I were the CEO of a food company, I’d assume labeling laws are inevitable, and I’d try and get out ahead of this.”