Testing for GMOs

by Emily Wilson
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Dear editor,

I am interested in getting more information about the near-infrared (NIR) test mentioned in the article "Dealing with GMOs" (see World Grain, March 2000, page 22).

We are in our second year of a program of non-genetically modified soybeans exported to Europe. The soybeans are local Quebec (Canada) beans unloaded by truck at our facility and exported in lots varying from 15,000 tonnes to 27,000 tonnes.

Every truck is tested with the "Trait Quick Test" developed by Strategic Diagnostics Inc., Newark, New Jersey, U.S. As your article mentioned, this type of testing takes between 5 and 20 minutes to perform. Our experience is that after 12 minutes the result is conclusive. However, even 12 minutes slows down our truck unloading operation.

Georges Gagne

Director, Grain Terminal

Montreal Port Authority

Editor's reply: We asked Dr. Charles Hurburgh, professor of agriculture and biosystems engineering at Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa, U.S., to explain the NIR test. He writes:

Recently, I did a survey of firms that were attempting to verify non-GMO status of inbound grain. Your 12 minute time was right on the average time reported for doing the ELISA (immunoassay, like the SDI test), and you are not alone in saying this is not really fast enough. This is especially true as long as the premiums for non-GMO are not large enough to justify major investments and changes in operations.

The NIR method being developed and patented at Iowa State is intended to help this situation especially at the country elevator. The NIR senses structural differences on a fairly large scale; we do not think it will be capable of measuring the difference between, say, 5% GMO and 6% GMO. Its purpose will be to catch the major mistakes — a truck of all GMO grain dumped in the silo of non-GMO because the driver did not really know what he was hauling. This is the largest risk in the system; one truck in a 100,000 workhouse bin adds 1%, which may be the entire tolerance.

The NIR we hope will be a quick (less than a minute) screen to help the dump pit operator who cannot tell by looking the GMO status of the grain he is dumping. The target is completion of at least one or two events by this fall. The test will be a calibration equation(s) to add to the other calibration equations an NIR may have; it will not add any additional time to the NIR test cycle. I am sure you will hear more if this becomes ready for public release.

I fully understand the problem you face, trying to market what is essentially an identity preserved product through a system designed for interchangeable commodities. Please check our Iowa Grain Quality Initiative web site, www.iowagrain.org, for more GMO information from Iowa State University.