With the debate over Prop 37 heating up, a new class action lawsuit over ‘all-natural’ claims on products containing GMOs filed every week, and Monsanto in the firing line following a damaging study on GM maize, more and more manufacturers are exploring how to avoid GMOs.
But given that 94% of all soy, 90% of sugar beet and canola and 88% of corn in the US is grown using GM seeds, is securing non-GM alternatives going to break the bank?
Not necessarily, says Anne Brown, senior manager of the food ingredients marketing group at Scoular, which claims to be the number one identity preserved non-GMO grain supplier in North America.
In some cases, it might even save you money, she says. “It just depends on the ingredients you’re looking for.”
Buying non-GM soy protein isolates from China will probably save you money
As for whether non-GMO corn, soy, sugar and other products are readily available, the answer is yes, given that many regions of the world - notably the EU - do not want to buy genetically engineered products and have strict labeling laws in place to which food manufacturers must adhere, she says.
As for the price, it all depends on the ingredients in question.
If you’re seeking out non-GMO soy products, she says, there are several identity preserved channels in the US, although for soy protein isolate, you are much better off sourcing from Asia.
“You can get a very competitive price if you source non-GMO soy protein isolate from China, in fact we can offer people savings [vs GM soy]. While not everyone wants to source from China, they meet European standards for identity preservation and they consistently come up clean in PCR tests.”
The price of specialty non-GMO products such as erythritol is also very competitive, she says.
But sourcing non-GMO sweeteners is much more expensive
However, the big challenge is for US companies looking for non-GMO corn-based sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup or dextrose, which cost “substantially more”, she admits.
The is chiefly because the US corn supply chain is huge, highly efficient, and completely geared up for handling genetically-engineered crops, she says, making it very difficult for non-GMO sweeteners to compete on price.
“The sweeteners are much more challenging, and non-GMO varieties typically come from Asia or Europe.”
One option is to sidestep the GMO issue by switching from maize to wheat, or soya to sunflower, she says. But every product must be looked at on a case-by-case basis and this may not always be practical or any more cost effective than using new non-GMO corn or soy-based ingredients, she says.
Everyone is talking about Prop 37
So what kind of demand is Scoular seeing for its non-GMO ingredients in the US market?
While demand has been steadily growing in recent years, there has been a sudden surge in interest in the past few months as the Nov 6 deadline for the vote on California’s controversial Proposition 37 GMO labeling initiative gets closer, says Brown.
This - along with a flurry of class action lawsuits filed against firms that label products containing GMO ingredients as ‘all-natural - has served to focus minds, she says.
“Everyone is talking about prop 37 now. Enquiries have been pouring in in recent weeks.”
Why identity preservation is more important than testing
But what guarantees do firms buying non-GMO ingredients have that they do not contain GMOs?
Tests on finished products - which might seem to be the obvious approach - are in fact only one part of the picture, she says.
With a product like vitamin E tocopherols, she observes, PCR tests on the final product will not reveal whether or not it derives from GM soy or not, while tests on HFCS that was from 100% GM maize will most likely come out negative because there is no GM material left in the final product.
"Tests will also detect GMOs in products that are not from a GM source owing to cross contamination, which is why labeling schemes typically have a threshold for the adventitious presence of GMOs as ‘GM-free’ is just not realistic.
“What really matters [if you want to avoid GMOs - and prove that you have done so] is identity preservation throughout the supply chain.”