For some major food companies, introducing non-GMO products has been a challenge due to insufficient supplies of some ingredients. That may be changing as major grain companies are entering the non-GMO market.
For example, Bunge Milling, the nation’s largest dry corn miller, is introducing a line of Non-GMO Project verified corn products. In April, Bunge produced non-GMO verified corn products at its Crete, Nebraska corn mill and is set to scale up production in the months ahead. Bunge claims it is the first major grain supplier to deliver non-GMO corn ingredients on a large scale.
“Chicken and egg” situation
Some major companies such as General Mills (Cheerios), Post (Grape Nuts), Hershey’s, and others have begun introducing non-GMO products. Wade Ellis, vice president of milling at Bunge North America, says many of his company’s large food manufacturing customers have also expressed interest in developing non-GMO products. The challenge has been the supply of ingredients. While there are many smaller suppliers of non-GMO ingredients, there are few large companies supplying on a large scale.
“It was a ‘chicken and egg’ situation,” Ellis says. “They couldn’t test the market until there was a scalable solution. The supply has to be there to change a brand.”
About a year ago Bunge decided to launch a line of non-GMO corn ingredients, including grits, meals, flour and hominy feed for animals at the company’s milling facility in Crete, Nebraska.
Bunge worked with the Non-GMO Project to get the products verified. Ellis says Bunge wanted the verification to be a long-term plan, not a condensed timeline. “We had to put the pieces together,” he says.
Ellis calls the verification process “very rigorous,” though he says it wasn’t anything Bunge couldn’t handle. The company previously produced identity preserved corn through a program called Centerfield.
Farmers are key to identity preservation program
The biggest challenge was maintaining the non-GMO identity of the corn. “As much as 94 percent of U.S. corn production is GM,” Ellis says. “Keeping that supply chain tight is one of the biggest challenges.”
Even with the predominance of GM corn, Ellis says, “Six percent non-GMO is still a big number from a scalable perspective.”
To achieve Non-GMO Project verification, Bunge implemented a system to maintain the non-GMO identity of corn at all stages of production from the farm through processing. Farmers must take steps to minimize cross pollination from neighboring GMO fields, segregate their grains using on-farm storage, and ensure their production is traceable, among other steps.
“There is a lot of collaboration with growers,” Ellis says. “It’s a fairly detailed process to keep (the non-GMO) identity in scope. The growers are extremely effective at what they do.”
The harvested corn is tested for genetically modified material at Bunge’s Crete facility. It must meet a GMO threshold of less than 0.9 percent for Non-GMO Project verification.
Ellis is pleased with the Non-GMO Project verification. “We partnered well with the Non-GMO Project,” he says.
Bunge’s Danville, Illinois facility is also going through Non-GMO Project verification.
A byproduct of Bunge’s non-GMO processing is a hominy feed that is also Non-GMO Project verified. Bunge plans to sell the feed to egg and broiler chicken producers and dairy farms, thus allowing those producers to make non-GMO claims.
Provides large scale non-GMO supply
Bunge hopes to attract more farmers to the program; there are currently 80 to 100 participating. Higher GM seed costs and low commodity prices are leading farmers to look for cost-saving and higher-income opportunities, which Bunge’s program offers.
“We would look at this year as proof of concept for our growers,” Ellis says. “Anytime you can get a program like this started, the buy-in (from farmers) will grow from there.”
In addition to the corn ingredients, Bunge also supplies Non-GMO Project verified rice, ancient grain products, and expeller-pressed canola and organic soybean oils
It’s still early to gauge the market reaction to Bunge’s non-GMO corn ingredients. The main thing is that non-GMO milled corn ingredients are now available on a large scale.
“There are some early adopters; some companies are partnering right away, some are testing,” Ellis says. “We think the program we have provides scale to anyone who wants to transition (to non-GMO).”