Dealing with GMOs

by Stormy Wylie
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With no foreseeable end in sight to the worldwide controversy over genetically modified food, companies in the United States that store and handle grain should immediately begin planning how they will segregate and test GM grain, said speakers at the annual conference of the Grain Elevator and Processing Society, held Feb. 26-29 in Kansas City, Missouri, U.S.

"This issue is not going to go away," said Charles R. Hurburgh Jr., professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering at Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa, U.S.

Genetically modified food is a social and political issue, not a scientific one, Dr. Hurburgh said. There has been no documented evidence that genetically enhanced food — including grains such as corn and soybeans — poses any health risks to consumers, he said. But, "Arguing science in that (social) forum is not going to take us too far," he told a packed conference room of GEAPS members. "We will not resolve this issue by simply repeating that GMOs are safe."

With about 40% of the U.S. corn crop and more than half the soybean crop planted with genetically modified seed, the issue is looming large for U.S. grain handlers.

Up to now, the primary segment of the U.S. grain industry concerned with the GMO issue has been exporters, as concerns over genetically modified food have mainly been with European and Asian consumers. In November last year, the E.U. and Japanese food industries announced they were switching to non-GMO ingredients. An international biosafety protocol in January recognized the E.U.'s "precautionary principle," that a cargo can be rejected on the basis of perceived risk.

However, the recent decision by such U.S. food companies as Frito-Lay and Gerber to not accept genetically modified grain products suggests there are growing concerns with U.S. consumers as well. As a result, country elevators also will have to begin dealing with the GMO issue, Dr. Hurburgh said.

Dr. Hurburgh urged U.S. grain elevators to develop a written plan and begin evaluating their facilities now for potential segregation and testing of GMOs. He cautioned grain handlers to begin reading commodity grain contracts more carefully as the language changes and contracts become more complex.

A decision to operate a non-GMO program also should be discussed fully with each producer, Dr. Hurburgh said, and grain companies should be ready to help producers with recordkeeping, management decisions and testing. Liability, terms and individual practices need to be established. "Make sure the producer understands that they have ‘carry forward' liability if the grain is not accepted down the line," he said.

Above all, communicate regularly and expect last-minute crises. "Things are going to change and we are going to have to depend on one another," Dr. Hurburgh said.

GMO TESTING. Labeling requirements implemented by the E.U., Japan and other foreign markets may necessitate widespread testing for GMOs in the U.S., Dr. Hurburgh said. At present, there are no standardized tests for GMOs in the United States, although some testing is being done by unofficial labs to satisfy import/export contracts. No standardized tests exist between the U.S. and Europe, Japan and other nations with labeling requirements.

The Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is working on standardizing GMO testing technology in the U.S., said Steven N. Tanner, director of GIPSA's technical services division in Kansas City. "A lot of people in the industry have asked us for help," he said.

GIPSA's role in the GMO issue is to "facilitate the fair and orderly marketing of grain, whether biotech, traditional or value-enhanced, and not to approve, release or take a position on the advantages or disadvantages of biotech crops," he said.

GIPSA may eventually offer testing through an official inspection system and may approve private laboratories to provide third-party testing, Mr. Tanner said. At present, the agency is establishing a reference laboratory in Kansas City to analyze biotechnology-derived grain and validate the accuracy of commercial testing methods. Facility renovation and staffing of the laboratory should be completed by May and the lab is expected to be furnished and equipped by June, with analytical method validation beginning in September.

To be credible, GIPSA's reference lab will have to be highly dependent on biotech companies for reference samples, genetic sequences and information on analytical techniques developed or used, Mr. Tanner said. "We are getting a positive response from the life science companies," he said.

Current testing options include the DNA method, a polymerase chain reaction for DNA, and the protein method, an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay that screens for traits only. The DNA test is more precise but takes three to five days to complete and costs about U.S.$300 per sample while the protein method takes five to 20 minutes and costs from U.S.$3 to $10 per sample.

A near-infrared (NIR) test that takes one to two minutes and costs from U.S.$2 to $4 per sample is currently under development.

However, testing laboratories in different countries often come up with different results, Mr. Tanner said. He recounted a recent example in which a reputable testing company in the U.S. examined a grain shipment for export that tested negative for GMOs, but tested positive in 13 of 26 tests taken in the country it was destined for.

Another hurdle for U.S. grain handlers is the varying levels of GMOs accepted by different countries. The European Union has set a 1% tolerance for GMOs while Japan will accept up to 5%.

Resolving the issue of standardized testing is going to take time, Mr. Tanner said. "We're going to need a lot of work getting and gaining acceptance based on scientific credibility," he said.

FOOD INDUSTRY PERSPECTIVE. A coordinated effort from "all players" in the food chain — farmers, grain handlers, food processors and consumers —is needed to address the GMO issue, said Sue Harlander, vice-president of biotech development and agricultural research at The Pillsbury Co., Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S.

"What we're facing here is a communication issue," Ms. Harlander said. "The benefits (of genetically enhanced food) have not been clearly articulated to consumers."

Consumers have heard only about the risks of GMOs, she said. The food and grain industry needs credible spokespeople, such as farmers, scientists, doctors and dietitians, to speak about the benefits.

"The public wants to hear from the scientists and have confidence in them," Ms. Harlander said. She advocated establishing a toll-free telephone number on biotech food.

So far, farmers have benefited most from the "input" traits of genetically enhanced grain, she said. Corn and soybean seed has been genetically altered to resist weeds, disease or pests, diminishing the need for pesticides, improving yields, lowering fuel costs and reducing soil erosion. Ms. Harlander said she feared that concerns over GMOs would stop ongoing research on "output" traits.

"The really exciting technology is in the pipeline, three to five years from now," she said.

Life science companies are developing ways to elevate Vitamin A levels in rice and enhance taste by altering the plant's genes. Biotech-enhanced wheat, which is expected to be ready by 2001, may be altered to prevent bread from going stale too soon.

Some studies have suggested that certain wheat starches can be manipulated to combat disease such as cholera. Australian scientists are studying a measles gene in rice that would produce an oral vaccine for young children (see story on Page 12).

Ms. Harlander, who began working in biotechnology in 1975 and helped develop the U.S. regulatory framework for the oversight of genetically modified crops, said GMOs have gone through rigorous food and environmental safety testing. "Personally, I have a lot of confidence in the systems developed by the U.S.D.A., the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration," she said.

The F.D.A. already requires labeling on GMOs if the plant's composition has been altered significantly, if an allergen has been introduced or if the nutritional composition has changed. Out of 47 approved genetically modified products, none require labeling, she said.

One problem for consumers regarding GMOs has been perception. The phrase "genetically modified food" has negative connotations, Ms. Harlander said. "I like ‘a product of food biotechnology.' "

No matter how it is worded, the issue of GMOs is one big headache for U.S. food processors like Pillsbury, which is the U.S.'s largest flour user. Most processed food contains ingredients such as hydrogenated oil, corn meal or high-fructose corn syrup, made from corn, or soybean oil or lecithin, which is made from soybeans.

Ms. Harlander suggested that food companies have a written policy statement on biotechnology, an internal
plan for educating employees and on-going monitoring of consumer responses. Pillsbury has received a few calls regarding the GMO issue, she said, but she estimated that about 75% were from Greenpeace or some other activist group.

"What we've learned from our consumer research is that consumers want additional labeling only if the product has changed significantly and that they are not willing to pay more for labels," Ms. Harlander said. "Consumers are overloaded with information and overwhelmed by choice. They want less choice, not more."