Bunge non-GMO corn
Bunge is poised to bring scale to Non-GMO Project verified corn product production. Photo credit: Brian Green
ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI, U.S. — For major consumer packaged food manufacturers considering transitioning to non-bioengineered for part or all of their product lines, the availability of non-genetically modified ingredients often stands as the largest hurdle to overcome. For makers of snacks and other foods that are corn-based, Bunge Milling is poised to bring down that hurdle.

Culminating an initiative with roots dating back four years, Bunge last month produced a run of Non-GMO Project verified milled corn products at its Crete, Nebraska, U.S., corn mill and is set to scale up production in the months ahead.

The pending implementation of Vermont’s mandatory labeling bill for foods containing bioengineered ingredients and the inability of U.S. Congress to establish a national standard for labeling has heightened interest that had been intensifying in recent years.

Even before the Vermont referendum was passed into law, Bunge and its customers had been exploring the introduction on a wide scale of corn grits, meals and flour milled from non-bioengineered corn.

Bunge non-GMO corn
Wade Ellis, vice-president of milling for Bunge North America. 
“At a macro level, every food company was interested, but understandably no one was willing to make a commitment without a sustainable supply,” said Wade Ellis, vice-president of milling, Bunge North America, St. Louis, Missouri, U.S. “There are a couple smaller players in the space. But there was no option for a large food manufacturer to scale up a program. Representatives of major brands are clearly interested in non-GMO corn products, but that couldn’t happen unless we initiated some type of program.”

The commitment necessary from a milling company to launch the non-GMO program is considerable, said Brian Anderson, vice-president of innovation and marketing.

“It isn’t a situation where you can just open a spigot for non-GMO corn,” he said.

Anderson expanded on this “chicken-egg” scenario between food company interest and the necessary commitment from milling companies.

“We had a strong ask from several customers about how to enter this space more than two years ago,” he said. “They were looking for a rock solid plan for how it would work so they could evaluate it internally. We needed to put the good plan together through a growing cycle — how we will maintain identity preserved supply separate from our conventional corn. How we will work with farmers.”

Ellis said customer discussions grew more serious in 2014 and 2015.

“About a year ago, we put ourselves on a path to provide a scalable solution to the food industry in our space for a non-GMO solution,” he said. “We did our first scalable run two weeks ago, and finished product will reach the market in the next two weeks.”

Anderson credited the Vermont measure and associated publicity with nudging Bunge and its customers toward a commitment to launching the effort.

“For some time, non-GMO products have enjoyed growing demand and have become a larger niche,” he said. “It’s different now because of media, Internet, blogs, websites, there has been faster growth in the non-GMO space. Labeling laws have only heightened interest. There is a greater sense of awareness of products containing bioengineered ingredients. Food companies are asking ‘Is there a risk to the brand?’ ‘Do we have an alternative?’ There is no solution to these questions unless the milling industry provides it. As companies begin to label, it is critical that we provide a non-GMO option.”

Still, Ellis acknowledges that gauging where customer and consumer interest is headed is difficult.

 “Will consumer demand be 10 times greater a year from now? We don’t know,” He said.

To ensure Bunge will be offering milled corn products that may be labeled as non-GMO, Bunge has certified its operation and products will be operating within Non-GMO Project verified standards. An initiative dating back to 2007, products approved under the standard first appeared on supermarket shelves in 2010. At present, the Non-GMO Project (the non-profit organization incorporated in charge of establishing and overseeing the standard) said 35,000 products spanning 2,500 brands with annual sales totaling $16 billion currently are Non-GMO Project verified.

To gain certification, the maximum threshold is 0.9% of bioengineered content in human food, ingredients, supplements and other products that are either ingested or used directly on the skin.

Participants are required to demonstrate compliance “by ensuring that each batch of High-Risk Input used has tested below the relevant Action Threshold  prior to its use in verified product,” the standards read. “High-Risk” inputs are those, like corn, grown using agricultural biotechnology on a large scale in North America and around the world.

The 37-page standards are updated annually and include requirements for traceability, segregation and inspections.
Bunge non-GMO corn
Even before the Vermont referendum was passed into law, Bunge had been exploring the introduction on a wide scale of products milled from non-bioengineered corn. Photo credit: Brian Green

“We will test for compliance at the plant,” Ellis said. “From then on the process must be strictly monitored and tested. We have a clear identity preservation plan with growers putting corn into ground this spring.”

For many uses of corn, including feed and wet milling, the kernel size and starch hardness are not of significant importance. For dry corn mills, which seek to produce a balanced mix of products, including grits, meal and flour, the value of corn quality may be significant. To date, Bunge has enlisted more than 150 growers cultivating 250,000 acres near the company’s mills who participate in the Centerfield initiative.

As a result of Centerfield, Bunge’s supply chain looks completely different from the past, Ellis said.

“Ten years ago, nearly all of our corn was sourced from grain elevators,” he said. “Today, 80% comes directly from growers. It is working well, and it is easier to deploy into non-GMO using that same system, that choice group of growers.”

Ellis said yields for non-GMO corn varieties lag bioengineered corn yields modestly. Because growers can be paid a premium, the economics of Bunge’s new program support growing non-GMO corn, he said.

While bioengineered varieties of corn account for a large majority of U.S. corn production (the crop was 13,601 million bushels in 2015) and have for many years, between 6% and 7% of production remains non-biotech, Ellis said, accounting for several hundred million bushels.

Most of this production has been used in the past for shipment to certain export markets such as Japan and South Korea that prefer non-bioengineered commodities. With the price of corn falling from $7 a bushel to lower than $4, certain growers have begun to consider the cultivation of non-bioengineered because of the lower cost of seed.

While users of dry corn milled products, such as Kellogg Co. and Frito-Lay North America, Inc., are among the largest food companies in the world, the volume of corn actually used by the food industry remains relatively modest. In 2014-15, only 200.5 million bushels of corn (equating to 1.5% of the 2014 crop) were used for cereal and other food products, less than half the 477.7 million bus used for high-fructose corn syrup and a small fraction of the 5.123 billion bushels used for ethanol or the 5.324 billion bushels used for feed.

“In any event, there is enough production of non-GMO corn for us to manage the volume we need,” Ellis said. “We have gone to a number of growers to participate. For now, we are seeking a larger number of growers to produce non-GMO corn on fewer acres in order to prove the process can be successful and to allow escalation over time as needed. We were selective with our partners but also engaged as many growers as possible to ensure success.”