Grain suppliers express concerns about The Non-GMO Project

US organic and non-GMO grain suppliers say an initiative to verify the non-GMO status of organic and natural foods is worthwhile, but express concerns about GMO thresholds, costs, GMO testing, and impacts on organic farmers.

Many suppliers of organic and non-GMO grains support The Non-GMO Project, but are concerned about the details. “Non-GMO verification is certainly doable and practical,” says Rick Brandenburger, president, Richland Organics, Breckenridge, MN. “The key is ‘what defines Non-GMO’?”

The Non-GMO Project is an industry initiative that aims to verify the non-GMO status of natural and organic foods. The project has gained momentum in recent months with several food manufacturers committing to non-GMO product verification and receiving the backing of Whole Foods Market and United Natural Foods.

GMO threshold: 0.1% is difficult
Perhaps the biggest “devil in the details” of The Non-GMO Project is setting an allowable threshold for genetically modified material in organic and natural foods. Zero GMO is the ideal, and preferred by consumers, but in a country that grows more than 100 million acres of GM crops that is not possible. At a meeting to discuss The Non-GMO Project last March at Natural Products Expo West, thresholds of 0.1% and 0.5% were discussed. But most grain suppliers believe a higher threshold is needed.

“We are all for targeted levels of GMOs, but we have grave concerns that the tolerance be set at a level that is workable at the grower and seed levels and all through the distribution chain,” says Kate Leavitt, director, international sales and marketing, SunOpta Grains and Foods Group, Hope, MN.

“Farmers are very capable of growing and delivering non-GMO soybeans at a detection level at 1.0%,” says Paul Lang, president, Natural Products, Grinnell, IA.

But when farmers are asked to deliver soybeans at 0.1%, Lang says, there are more positive GMO tests, leading to rejection of as much as 50% of the grain.

“I think both 0.1% and 0.5% are too strict and don’t make a meaningful difference to consumers, but make a huge difference to suppliers,” says Leavitt.

“I can’t meet 0.1%,” says Lynn Clarkson, president, Clarkson Grain, Cerro Gordo, IL.

Clarkson believes that a 0.1% standard will make it more difficult for farmers to produce organic grains and increase their risks, such as rejected grain loads due to GMO contamination and lost premiums.

A tighter tolerance will put greater pressure on an already strained organic supply chain. “We need more organic farmers, but we can’t keep increasing the risks and hope to attract them,” says Clarkson.

0.9% is reasonable
Clarkson believes 0.9%, which is Europe’s standard for labeling foods as GMO, is a reasonable standard. “We could attain 0.9% right now,” he says. “That would also give our farmers the opportunity to market their products to the EU.”

The EU recently ruled that organic foods can contain up to 0.9% GMO and still be labeled organic, a move that was criticized by many European environmental groups.

Lang says a standard lower than 0.9% to 1% will result in rejected loads of organic soybeans, lost premiums for farmers, higher costs for processors, and higher priced non-GMO verified foods for consumers.

Likewise, Leavitt says, “Any level established for soybean related products less than 0.9% would be untenable.”

Like Clarkson, both Leavitt and Lang believe 0.9% is an achievable threshold that won’t add cost.

While several suppliers believe 0.9% is an achievable GMO threshold for soybeans, Brandenburger says a 1% threshold can be achieved with corn. “Due to the nature of potential of pollen contaminating corn, a 99.9% purity is impossible, 99.5% is iffy, and 99.0% is realistic,” he says. However, Leavitt believes the threshold should be even higher for corn.

Discussions of GMO thresholds have focused on raw grains only, but what about finished food products? “Looking at the threshold in processed food, covering all GMO products, it will be difficult to set anything less than 1%,” says Ed Zimmer, sales manager, US Soy.

Aim to set realistic thresholds
Megan Thompson, executive director of The Non-GMO Project, emphasizes that the project aims to set thresholds that are realistic for growers and suppliers while still being meaningful to consumers. “We’re looking at setting different thresholds for major, minor, and micro ingredients as well as for different types of products, allowing for more flexibility based on what is currently available,” she says.

GMO testing questions
There are also questions about GMO testing in The Non-GMO Project. “The amount of testing required will be necessary but unfortunate,” says Lang.

“Wise people need to decide the frequency of the testing.”

Lang is also concerned that just one lab will conduct the testing, which Thompson says is not true. “The actual testing required can be done by any lab that is accredited to ISO17025 and has a history of competent performance,” says Thompson.

Robert Sinner, owner and partner, SB&B, Casselton, ND, says different GMO tests present challenges. “Strip tests can’t quantify GMO levels. For that a (PCR) DNA test is needed. The problem is that you need to wait three or four days (for the test result), which presents logistical challenges because grain storage facilities have difficulty with that type of a delay.”

Other challenges: “Ethanol tsunami”
Sinner also wonders about costs. “How are the costs going to be handled for non-GMO verification?”

Jennifer Tesch, marketing manager, SK Foods International, Fargo, ND, asks, “With those ingredients where GMO varieties are not available, how can you prove they are non-GMO?”

Greg Lickteig, group manager, The Scoular Company, Omaha, NE, doubts the need for The Non-GMO Project. “Having some type of system to back up the claim is good, but I would rather that industry use the organic certification process and modify those rules rather than create another verification system,” he says.

Lickteig is concerned that another verification system would further splinter an already small organic market.

Then there is the “ethanol tsunami” as Clarkson describes it. More conventional and GMO corn is being grown to produce ethanol, and farmers are earning more money to grow it. This is reducing acres for non-GMO and organic corn and soybeans. “Farmers are already less inclined to grow non-GMO/IP crops (because of the biofuel demand), and if the industry imposes even more strict requirements the availability of these non-GMO acres will decrease further,” says Leavitt.

Dialogue with all players needed
To solve the challenges facing The Non-GMO Project, grain suppliers say that cooperation among all industry players is critical. “I think this project is good but it will need dialogue between processors and suppliers about reasonable parameters for it to be successful,” says Sinner.

Thompson says that has been the aim of the project from the beginning. “The Project’s board of directors and technical advisory board, which represent a wide spectrum of the industry, are engaged in an ongoing, collaborative process to keep the Non-GMO Project Standard based on practical, achievable requirements.”  

Initial standard by Expo East
The Non-GMO Project aims to have all elements of the non-GMO verification program in place by Natural Product Expo East, held in Baltimore, MD, September 26-29. “This means having an initial Standard that reflects feedback from the technical advisory board and has been approved by the board of directors, and having our online questionnaire and database ready for public use,” says Thompson. A Non-GMO Project logo is being developed that verified companies will be able to display on their products by early 2008.

For more information about The Non-GMO Project, contact Megan Thompson at

© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report September 2007.