In the midst of a rising storm of protests from European and Japanese consumers over potential health and environmental effects of genetically modified foods, the largest grain company in the United States said it will begin segregating bio-engineered grain from traditionally bred grain.
Archer Daniels Midland Co., based in Decatur, Illinois, in late August faxed a statement regarding GMOs (genetically modified organisms) to its grain suppliers.
"While ADM remains supportive of the science and safety of both biotech development and traditional plant breeding methods to improve crops and benefit consumers, ADM's processing business is driven by consumers' desire to have choices," the company said in the statement.
"Some of our customers are requesting and making their purchases based upon the genetic origin of the crops used to manufacture their products. If we are unable to satisfy their requests, they do have alternative sources for their ingredients.
"We encourage you as our supplier to segregate non-genetically enhanced crops to preserve their identity."
The company's announcement marks a reversal from its previous position that it would be unable to segregate GMOs.
"Based on recent experiences of small-scale grain programs and the recent development of new testing methods, we feel confident we can now expand this capability," ADM said.
ADM said it would bid a premium for soybeans derived from traditional breeding programs but does not currently have premium bids for corn. The company said it has in place a number of protocols for segregation, delivery and processing that "center on establishing responsibility at every step." In addition, it noted the availability of tests that detect the presence of genetically enhanced material in soybeans.
"The current test for corn is not sufficiently rapid at the processing level," ADM said.
The use of crops that have been genetically altered to resist pests or herbicides has skyrocketed in the United States in recent years. More than 30 genetically modified crops have been approved for use in the United States, and it is estimated that 35% of this year's U.S. corn crop and 55% of soybeans derive from genetically modified seeds.
Bio-enhanced corn is widely used in breakfast cereals and taco shells as well as in corn syrup, which is used as a sweetener in soft drinks, baked goods and candies. Genetically modified soybeans are used in cooking oil, candies and margarine.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said that GM agricultural products are "as safe as other foods in the grocery store."
In Europe, however, a flood of consumer protests has centered on concerns about the health and environmental effects of genetically modified crops and foods. European food makers and supermarkets have increasingly demanded segregation and labeling of GM food.
Novartis, the maker of Gerber baby food, announced it was dropping suppliers that use genetic engineering in corn and soybean products. Groupe Danone, which includes biscuit baking among its major food operations, also is banning the use of GM ingredients in food products being sold in Europe. Danone is Europe's third-largest food company, after Nestle and Unilever, both of which previously announced a prohibition on ingredients containing GMO's.
Japanese food makers also are concerned about consumer backlash over GMOs. Hironori Kijima, director-general of the Japan Tofu Association, said his company plans to switch to non-GM soybeans. "We want to avoid the GM label as it could hurt the image of our products," he said.
Nippon Flour Mills Co. Ltd., Japan's second-largest flour miller, said it also is considering shifting to non-GM corn in its production of corn grits and may replace corn starch with wheat starch in its flour products.
Under its food safety guidelines, Japan has approved 22 varieties of GM crops for import and sale, including soybeans, corn, rapeseed, potatoes, cotton and tomatoes. However, labeling requirements on GM food will go into effect in April 2001, "to allow consumers to make an informed choice," the government announced recently.
Of the 2.45 million tonnes of soybeans Japan imported in the first half of 1999, 86% was imported from the U.S. In the same period, Japan imported 9.13 million tonnes of corn, of which 96% came from the U.S.
Richard E. Rominger, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, said that the resistance to GMOs in Japan and the E.U. represents the biggest trade threat faced by the United States in recent years.
But many experts believe genetically engineered crops are invaluable in the struggle to feed a world population that is growing by 80 million people each year. With the world population expected to top 8 billion by the year 2025, there is concern that food production may not be able to keep up with the demand, according to a new report from Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
ADM expressed confidence in the outlook for biotechnology and its impact on grain production. "Because improved hybrids will mean more food and better food, it is clear that biotechnology is important to the future of ADM and the world's expanding population," ADM said.
Cargill, Inc., the second-largest U.S. grain company, has not adopted a segregation policy.
"We are not at this point asking our suppliers to segregate genetically enhanced from conventional grains on a sweeping basis," said Lori Johnson, a Cargill public affairs official. "We, like ADM, believe that this technology is safe. It is probably the most intensely scrutinized food product in the history of the world. At the same time, we are working one-on-one with customers interested in conventionally bred grain, to satisfy their needs."
Lynn Jensen, president-elect of the U.S. National Corn Growers Association and chairman of the N.C.G.A. Biotech Task Force, suggested that those attacking the safety of GMOs lack credibility. "This is not a food safety issue, but a tactic that activist organizations are using against this technology," he said. "Long-term, we believe that informed customers will benefit from genetically enhanced technologies."
ADM said that while the company is confident of the safety of biotech development, in the end "we must produce products that our customers will purchase."