Special GMO Report: Meeting the demand

by Emily Wilson
Share This:

Agricultural biotechnology is a fast-changing industry. The repercussions of last fall's discovery of genetically modified Starlink corn in taco shells continue to ripple through all levels of the U.S. food supply chain. Seed companies are now more cautious about selling GM corn varieties that are not approved in export markets, while growers are more cautious about planting them. Grain handlers take extra steps to test and segregate corn. Exporters attempt to re-assure anxious buyers in Japan and Korea. Food processors and manufacturers must monitor both incoming corn shipments and consumer opinion. The government discusses possible new regulations and pressure builds for labeling GM foods. Meanwhile, a niche market for non-GMO grains and products has emerged.

In this special report on genetically modified grains, World Grain looks at GMO test methods, examines the trend to segregate GM grains, and profiles a Brazilian soy crusher attempting to capitalize on the demand for non-GMO soy in Europe.

Some food manufacturers see the controversy over genetically modified (GM) foods as a problem. Others, including one Brazilian soybean processor, view it as an opportunity.

Recognizing the strong demand for non-GMO products in Europe, IMCOPA (Importação, Exportação e Indústria de Óleos Ltda.), a soybean crusher in Araucária, Brazil, decided to certify its entire soy product line as non-GMO.

Brazilian soybean processors like IMCOPA are in a unique position to meet the demand for non-GMO soy. Brazil's government has approved the planting of GM crops, but a court order has temporarily prohibited it.

Meanwhile, the European Union is increasingly looking for non-GMO supplies because of consumer concerns over GM foods. The consumer backlash also has hurt U.S. soybean exports to the E.U., which have dropped from 398 million bushels in 1997-98 to an estimated 221 million bushels in 1999-2000.

Major European retailers such as Carrefour in France and Iceland Foods in the United Kingdom have announced they will remove GMOs from feed used to raise its animals for meat products. The BBC reports that other major British supermarket chains, such as Sainsbury, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, and Asda, also may ban biotech feed. These developments may increase the demand for non-GMO feed from Brazil.

IMCOPA and other Brazilian companies are trying to fill that void. Last February, Carrefour agreed to buy 180,000 tonnes of non-GMO soybeans from Brazil. The beans are crushed, made into feed, and shipped to France. French buyers pay a premium for the soybeans.

Grupo Andre Maggi, a soybean grower and trader in the state of Mato, shipped 800,000 tonnes of non-GMO soybeans to Europe this year. Blairo Maggi, company president, said he has "lines of customers" wanting to buy their certified non-GMO soybeans. According to Hans Kaufmann, a soybean broker in Brazil, a major Brazilian soy oil producer is also considering non-GMO production.

BUYERS WANT PROOF. "Seed-to-shelf" non-GMO certification programs are increasingly viewed as the best means to sell non-GMO products to the E.U. and Japan, another GMO sensitive nation.

"Buyers in these countries increasingly require documentation of an effective internal segregation system," said Jochen Koester, vice president of Cert ID, a non-GMO certification company in the U.K. "They want documented proof that you have taken every step required to eliminate GMOs."

Non-GMO certification encompasses identity preserved (IP) systems in agriculture. As its name implies, IP is a system of growing specific crops, such as food-grade soybeans or high-oil corn, to preserve their identity. Growers must follow strict growing and handling practices, including segregation, inspections, and cleaning of equipment to prevent other varieties from mixing with or contaminating the IP variety.

The key to an IP system is traceability. Each production step is documented, so that products can be traced from the store shelf back to the farmers' fields and every stage in between. Non-GMO certification includes IP practices and adds sampling and GMO testing to ensure that the crop or food product does not contain GMOs.

In the wake of the Starlink GM taco shell contamination controversy in the U.S., many experts — including U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman — have emphasized the importance of IP systems to keep GM crops segregated from conventionally grown varieties.

FIRST TO CERTIFY. IMCOPA, a 30-year-old, family-owned and operated business, decided to certify its entire operation as non-GMO, thus becoming the first Brazilian company to do so.

IMCOPA receives 3,000 tonnes of beans per day and crushes 2,000 tonnes per day. The plant's daily production is 1,500 pounds of soymeal for animal feed, 370 tons of crude oil, 380 tons of refined oil, and 30 tons of lecithin, an ingredient for chocolate and baby foods.
In addition, IMCOPA produces 20,000 cans of its Leve brand refined soy oil each hour.

To certify these products, IMCOPA chose Cert ID, which was jointly developed by Genetic ID, a GMO testing laboratory in Fairfield, Iowa, U.S., and Law Laboratories, Ltd., a lab in the United Kingdom with expertise in regulatory compliance.

"Cert ID is the only program of its kind that integrates top quality GMO testing with the rigorous traceability of an IP system — backed by an ISO compliant certification," said Koester.

IMCOPA began the certification process earlier this year. Genetic ID's certification experts visited its facility, conducted a project assessment, and made recommendations for meeting the certification requirements.

"They already had a good IP system," said John Beeby, Genetic ID certification coordinator. "We made sure they had all the necessary steps in place."

TESTING AT EVERY STAGE. IMCOPA goes to great lengths to preserve the non-GMO identity of its products, from the farm through export of finished products.

"They have implemented a very rigorous certification program," said Augusto Freire, Genetic ID's manager of business development in Brazil. "They take it very seriously, have very high standards, and are extremely well organized."

The program starts in the farmers' fields. IMPCOPA buys beans from 10 grower cooperatives, all in Paraná state.

"Buying beans from one state narrows our area of controls, and allows us to track fields that may be contaminated with GMO beans," said Enrique Traver, general manager. IMCOPA requires the coops to supply non-GMO seeds to its farmers.

Brazil's prohibition against GMO crops has not deterred its farmers from growing them. "Many farmers smuggle Round Up Ready GMO soybeans from Argentina and the United States," Traver said. "Some of our seeds and harvested beans have tested positive for GMOs."

To prevent contamination, four IMCOPA employees travel year-round throughout Paraná visually inspecting farmers' fields. Traver said GM and non-GMO soybeans are distinguishable by sight.

"GM fields are much cleaner because the crops can withstand the herbicide, while the weeds die," he said.

IMCOPA tests extensively for GMOs at every stage of production. In the field, seeds are tested before planting, then beans are tested at harvest. Beans are tested again upon arrival at the coops and before shipping to IMCOPA's plant.

At the plant, IMCOPA tests beans when they arrive and during unloading into silos. Testing is done again on the finished soy meal, oil, and lecithin. IMCOPA ships finished products via rail to the Paranaguá Port where it has two exclusive silos for storage.

IMCOPA requires that all conveyor belts and loaders run empty for 15 minutes prior to its shipments to ensure that no material from previous loadings mixes with IMCOPA's products. Finally, IMCOPA tests products before shipping to Europe per client request.

"If there is any problem, we take responsibility for it," Traver said.

IMCOPA uses portable, immunoassay "strip" tests when a quick, qualitative, "yes or no" result is needed. When beans arrive at the plant, IMCOPA sends samples to Genetic ID's lab in the U.S. for critical quantification of GM content.

Samples from each production lot are also tested by Genetic ID, which uses the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method to detect and quantify GM content. PCR is the most sensitive GMO test because it allows direct analysis of the DNA and can detect GM content to 0.1% and below.

While the E.U. allows a maximum of 1% GM content, IMCOPA's certification is 10 times stricter, allowing a maximum of 0.1%. Many food manufacturers and consumers recognize this threshold as ideal for non-GMO products.

In addition to testing, IMCOPA keeps samples in boxes that are identified with the dates of receiving and production. "This helps with traceability," Traver said. "If we have a problem with a specific lot, we know the lot number and can trace which day the beans came in, which truck they were on, and who supplied them."

When products are shipped overseas, each shipment is accompanied by extensive documentation, including origin of the beans, production lots, GMO analysis report, and the Cert ID non-GMO certificate. IMCOPA's products also feature the Cert ID seal, a "non-GMO seal of approval."

STRONG DEMAND. While in its first year of certification, IMCOPA has buyers for 70% of its non-GMO production, according to Traver. The other 30% is sold on the normal soy product market. IMCOPA sells its non-GMO soy meal through Tradigrain, a large U.S.-based grain trader, to buyers in the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Germany.

IMCOPA recently agreed to supply non-GMO soy meal to Tesco, the largest retail chain in the United Kingdom. Tesco requires its meat suppliers to use only certified non-GMO soy meal in its animal feed. Tesco selected IMCOPA and several other Brazilian soy crushers to supply over 1.35 million tons of non-GMO soy meal. IMCOPA will receive a premium estimated to be between U.S.$8 and U.S.$12 per ton. Koester said major retailers in France have also expressed interest in buying IMCOPA's soy meal.

Freire says IMCOPA is also fostering business in Japan and Korea. The soy oil is sold to buyers in Australia and Japan. European baby food manufacturers and chocolate companies, such as Nestle, buy IMCOPA's non-GMO soy lecithin.

IMCOPA sells its Leve brand refined soy oil to supermarkets and grocery stores in Brazil. Cans of oil feature the Cert ID non-GMO seal and a label that describes the product as "non-transgenic."

Traver said the certification process has been beneficial.

"Certification gave our company the opportunity to gain exposure in international markets," he said. "We've also gained closer relationships with customers who have high standards for non-GMO and for the quality of products they buy. It assures buyers because they know where the product came from and that the quality is superior."