Non-GMO Project participants say verification is doable

Representatives with companies participating in the Non-GMO Project say the non-GMO verification program is achievable and not that costly, especially if a company already has organic certification. That was a key message at an educational session focusing on the Non-GMO Project held at Natural Products Expo West trade show in Anaheim, California.

The session featured non-GMO perspectives from a farmer, processor, food manufacturer, and retailer.

“This information is important”
Dave Vetter, owner of Grain Place Foods in Marquette, Nebraska, shared his insights as an organic farmer of more than 30 years. Vetter expressed skepticism about the promises of genetically modified foods. “There is talk about increased nutrition (from GM foods), but we are still waiting for that. GM foods haven’t delivered benefits, while organic foods have but this doesn’t make the news.”

Vetter’s 280-acre farm is surrounded by neighbors who grow GM corn, making it difficult for him to produce uncontaminated organic corn. “We tried to reduce contamination by planting later than our neighbors but late planting decreases yield,” Vetter said.

Vetter started testing his field corn for GMOs in 2000. Early qualitative test results showed about half the corn samples were below 0.1% and the other half above 0.1%. More recently, quantitative GMO tests have detected GMO levels of .09 to 0.1%.

Vetter expressed concerns about GMO testing at the farm level. “This will tell farmers that we don’t want to work with you.”

Despite the challenges, Vetter chose to enroll Grain Place Foods in the Non-GMO Project verification program, becoming the first farmer to do so. “We think this information is important, and we are willing to absorb the costs.”

“Lot of work, but very achievable”
Aaron Skyberg, marketing representative with SK Food International, based in Fargo, North Dakota spoke about non-GMO food production from the processor’s perspective. SK Food is a supplier of organic and non-GMO ingredients, and like Grain Place Foods, SK Food participates in the Non-GMO Project.

Skyberg said that SK Food already had a system of identity preservation (IP) in place before enrolling its products in the Non-GMO Project. The IP system encompasses all stages of production from seed selection, planting and growing crops to harvest, storage, and transportation to SK Food’s processing facility in Moorhead, Minnesota. Farmers must harvest a 20-foot buffer of their crop and discard it to ensure it is not GMO contaminated. All equipment including combines for harvesting, storage bins, and trucks for transportation must be cleaned to avoid commingling of GM grains. GMO testing is done at SK Food’s processing facility and at a third-party laboratory to verify non-GMO purity. Every stage of the process must be documented.

“It’s a lot of work; you have to have everything in place. But it’s very achievable,” Skyberg says.

He also emphasized that being certified organic makes the non-GMO verification easier because organic documentation can be used and organic inspections can be combined with non-GMO inspections.

“Process not that difficult; costs not that high”
Richard Ryder, general manager with R.W. Garcia, another Non-GMO Project company, also emphasized the importance of identity preservation. “An IP system is absolutely critical at every stage including planting, growing, harvesting, storage, and transportation.”

R.W. Garcia uses 31 million pounds of corn and two million pounds of soybeans to manufacture its tortilla chips; both crops are most at-risk to GMO contamination. The company processes 10,000 pounds of organic corn.

R.W. Garcia requires DNA-based PCR testing of every lot of corn that enters its facility. Ryder says his company has had to reject six loads of corn in the past year because of GMO contamination. Surprisingly, he says, “The most positive (GMO) tests have come from organic corn.”

R.W. Garcia has good relations with seven or eight suppliers of organic and non-GMO corn, according to Ryder. The company’s quality assurance team visits each supplier to “make sure they are living non-GMO protocols,” Ryder said.

Being certified organic also makes non-GMO verification easier, Ryder said.

Overall Ryder said, “The (Non-GMO) process is not that difficult, and the cost is not that high. We love the Non-GMO Project, and I encourage you to support the Project.”

“Most important issue facing our industry”
Corinne Shindelar, chief executive officer, Independent Natural Food Retailers Association, called GM foods “the most important issue facing our industry” and encouraged non-GMO supporters to “do whatever you need to do to raise awareness of this issue.”

Shindelar said food retailers “are on the front lines with consumers. They have more questions and want to know that food labels are truthful.”

She said non-GMO is a fast-growing trend among food manufacturers, pointing to the 3000 products and 70 brands now enrolled in the Non-GMO Project.

Shindelar said retailers need to educate themselves and their staff about the GM food issue and the value of the Non-GMO Project, and in turn educate consumers.

She also encouraged retailers to ask food manufacturers to participate in the Non-GMO Project. “The more they hear from us, the more serious they will be.”

Shindelar discussed the upcoming “Non-GMO Day” on October 10 of this year to raise awareness of the Non-GMO Project. “We need to get as many retailers involved as possible, and make it as big as Earth Day.”

(Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report, April 2010)

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