Genetically engineered food – what you may not know

Scott Etzel, Sector Manager, Protein, (Seafood), Dairy, Sugar

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, in close proximity to rivers, lakes, and the ocean, my family fished for salmon and trout, so we often enjoyed fresh fish for dinner. With less time for fishing, we now rely on wild-caught salmon from Alaska, along with farm-raised trout, steelhead, and salmon, most coming from the Northwest. And, it seems that I’ll soon be able to add genetically modified (GM) salmon to my menu of fish since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently lifted the ban on the sale of GM salmon in the U.S.

Since you’re probably wondering, I’ll volunteer the answer as to why I’m looking forward to GM salmon. Developed by UK-based AquaBounty Technologies, GM salmon can reach a harvest size of 10−14 lb. in 12 months, while conventionally farmed Atlantic salmon take 18−24 months to grow to similar size. So, availability and economics are my reasons. But, I also recognize that even with the FDA ban lifted, GM salmon farming will still have to prove itself and gain customer acceptance.

GM salmon will now join the ranks of 10 other GM crops available in the U.S. including: alfalfa, apples, canola, corn (field and sweet), cotton, papaya, potatoes, soybeans, squash, and sugar beets. For some of these crops, GM seeds are planted for the majority of the crop’s total planted acreage. For other crops, GM is only available on specific varieties, such as the Arctic apple and specific varieties of Russet Burbank, Ranger Russets, and Atlantic potatoes. An entire library of research has been written on each of these GM crops, so I will not attempt to cover individual crop details. Nor is it my intent to support either the pro or the con of GM commodities, rather I am presenting the facts.

GM salmon is a relative newcomer, but GM or Bt corn, containing a natural insecticide, was first introduced in 1995, and GM soybeans were introduced in 1998. Glyphosate resistant (aka Roundup ready, or RR) alfalfa seed was released in 2005, followed by RR sugar beet seed in 2007, with both achieved via bioengineering. And, while consumers don’t eat the raw agricultural commodities, we do enjoy many foods made from ingredients processed from GM corn, soybeans, and sugar beets. Beef and dairy cattle rations also often include RR alfalfa.

Even though GM foods and the resulting processed ingredients have been scientifically proven to be as nutritional as their conventional counterparts, the concept of “genetically modified” or “bioengineered” is polarizing. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the science and economics behind GM crops, the reality is that foods processed with GM ingredients are likely already in your pantry or on your table. To date, label notices indicating that food items contain GM ingredients has been voluntary, however, this is soon changing, and it’s important for consumers to understand some of the established benefits of GM crops, along with the upcoming labeling regulations for foods containing GM ingredients.

GM crop benefits
Taking the views of safety, sustainability, health, and efficiency, there are some absolute benefits of GM crops as follows:

  • Insect resistance ─ Reduces the need for pesticide applications, and lowers input costs.
  • Disease resistance ─ Plant breeders can enable plants to resist certain diseases to achieve better yields, eliminating soil fumigants and fungicide use.
  • Drought tolerance ─ GM crops have better moisture retention and can better endure drought conditions without the need for additional irrigation.
  • Herbicide tolerance ─ Developed to tolerate specific herbicides, farmers can control weed pressure by applying targeted herbicides only when needed; this enables use of conservation tillage production methods that preserve topsoil, prevent erosion, and reduce carbon emissions.
  • Enhanced nutritional content ─ GM soybeans with an enhanced oil profile, much like olive oil, are longer lasting and trans-fat free.
  • Reduced food waste ─ Genetic engineering has been used to modify potatoes and apples in order to eliminate superficial browning and bruising (potatoes only) when the produce is cut or handled, thus reducing the amount of produce thrown away by producers, processors, retailers, and consumers.
  • Improved manufacturing processes ─ Certain biotech corn varieties enable more efficient biofuels production by improving the process through which cellulose and/or starch is broken down and converted to fuel; this helps reduce the environmental impact of the manufacturing process by decreasing the amount of water, electricity, and natural gas needed to produce biofuel.

Why some percentage of GM crops make sense

In America, many farmers who grow canola, corn, soybean, and sugar beets choose to use genetically modified seeds, and have done so for nearly 20 years. More than 90% of these four crops currently grown in America are grown using GM seeds. And, if this fact seems bothersome due to concerns regarding food safety, it may help to know that it takes an average of 13 years for a GM seed to receive government approval. Although GM crops have only been available for 24 years, GM foods remain safe for human consumption, and the environment2, were the findings of an extensive study released in 2016 by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

Elimination of all GM crops may reduce perceived or real risk of bioengineering within our food supply, on the one hand. On the other hand, elimination adds another set of safety risks since increased fuel, fertilizer, water, and pesticides will be required to produce the same volume of food via traditional farming methods. While sources differ, if all GM crops were eliminated worldwide, an additional 48 million acres would need to be brought into production to produce the same volume of food now grown with GM seeds.3 Global harvested acres have averaged 2.32 billion acres over the last five years.1 Bringing another 45 million acres into production equates to roughly a 2% increase over current levels. 2% may not seem like much, however, without GM seeds, a large amount of the 2.32 billion acres would require more pesticides, fertilizers, water, and other inputs. Even then, total yields may fall below current levels achieved with GM seed. Also, the increase in crop acreage would likely be in Sub Saharan Africa and South America, countries with land that could be brought into production given that Europe and North America have limited amounts of additional land able to be brought into production.

In producing our food, farmers depend on good soil, adequate water, and cooperation from “mother nature”, and also have a vested interest in proper soil conservation and water usage. At the same time, they want to grow crops that will give them the best chance of earning a profit. GM crops have been widely adopted because they allow farmers to conserve resources, reduce tilled acreage, and lower production costs through reduction of chemicals needed to battle yield-reducing weeds, fungus, and pests. Bottom line, GM crops enable farmers to feed more people while increasing their likelihood of making a profit on their annual investment in seed, land, and equipment.

Labeling requirements

Understandably, consumers want to be aware of, and feel good about, the ingredients in their food. With recognition that labeling needed to best address the needs of producers, processers, and the consumer, in 2016, Congress passed a bill directing the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop labeling regulations in effort to prevent a patchwork of differing state laws on GM food labeling.

The law stipulates that labeling will be required on foods when they contain genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant DNA techniques, meaning the genes in the seeds or fish used to grow the crop have been bioengineered. For products manufactured in the U.S., any product that intentionally contains bioengineered ingredients needs to be labeled. If a product inadvertently has at least 5% bioengineered material, it needs a label.

A key point in the law states that GM labeling disclosure is not required if the bioengineered material is not detected in the finished food. As such, if it’s not possible to conclude that the food or ingredient contains modified genetic material, label disclosure is unnecessary. For example, when GM crops are processed, (soybeans are pressed into soybean oil, sugar beets are refined into crystalline sugar, or corn into high fructose corn syrup), the resulting ingredients are unlikely to require the GM labeling disclosure. This is because the conditions of processing effectively degrade or eliminate the DNA that was present in the raw agriculture commodity, making it no longer detectable.

In the interest of consumer transparency, the USDA regulations allow food processors and manufacturers to voluntarily disclose that products contains ingredients from GM derived agricultural commodities even though the modified genetic material isn’t detectable in the finished product. Many food manufacturing firms are already placing GM notices on their product labels even if the presence is below detectable levels. You may have also seen some foods bearing a label statement: “Certified Non-GMO.” Both are voluntary disclosures at this point.

Lastly, the regulation indicates where and how on-package disclosure is required. It must be seen under ordinary shopping conditions, and must be located near other information on the label that features the manufacturer’s name and location. The disclosure can be through text, smartphone-scannable digital links, URLs, a telephone number, text messages, or one of the bioengineering symbols below. Where a digital link is used, it must read “scan here for more food information” next to the link.

Some feel the GM labeling regulations don’t go far enough, others believe them sufficient, while still others want GM labeling to be required even in stances where the presence of bioengineered ingredients is 1% or lower. (It’s interesting to note that in Europe, the GM labeling level is set at 1%.) For now, the USDA has established the thresholds and the compliance deadlines so that manufacturers can begin needed preparations for compliance. Regulations may evolve over time, but if additional changes are proposed, we would expect the USDA to provide additional time to comply, depending upon the significance of the changes.

Labeling compliance deadlines

In short, GM labeling will be required as of January 1, 2020 for large food manufacturers. Small food manufacturers will be granted an extra year to comply with a deadline of January 1, 2021. So, all foods will carry GM labeling come January 1, 2022. And, despite distant deadlines, many food companies are already voluntarily labeling products that contain GM ingredients.

Two different label graphics are shown below, and either is approved for use by the USDA.

GMO Label Graphics

Source: USDA

Summary

Disclosure and labeling details aside, whether you knew it or not, you and your family have likely been consuming GM food or foods made using GM ingredients for a number of years already. Come 2020, it will just become more obvious that the food item contains at least 5% bioengineered material since it will be noted on the label.

For me, having the GM labeling notice will not influence my purchase decisions. But for those who desire full disclosure about what they are buying and eating, I’m glad it will be there for them. Mostly, I’m relieved that the GM labeling regulation has been declared at the national level, precluding food manufacturing firms from dealing with different GM labeling laws in all 50 states, or the number in which they operate. Perhaps “genetically modified” isn’t a significant food safety concern for me since I have a good understanding of the science. From my perspective, it seems that the benefits far outweigh the risks. And, as a frequent seafood consumer, I am looking forward to trying the GM salmon when it becomes available.

  1. Agricultural Economic Insights (https://ageconomists.com/)
  2. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, Medicine, Press Release dated 5-17-2016, http://www8.nationalacademies.org/onpinews/newsitem.aspx?RecordID=23395
  3. GMO Answers, https://gmoanswers.com/meeting-increasing-food-demand-sustainably

Scott EtzelScott Etzel is a Vice President and Sector Analyst within Well Fargo’s Food and Agribusiness Industry Advisory group and is focused on the seafood, dairy, and sugar sectors.

Scott joined Wells Fargo in 1987 as an Agribusiness Consultant with responsibility for lending to California’s fruit, vegetable, nursery, tree nut, wine, and forest product industries. Scott has been with wells fargo for more than 30 years with a 2-year gap from 1994−1996, when he was employed as Director of Environmental Affairs for the Northwest Food Processors Association in Portland, Oregon. Prior to joining the wells fargo, Scott held positions in trade association management and food brokerage representing the fruit and vegetable processing industries.

Scott is a 1976 graduate of Oregon State University and holds a B.S. degree in Food Science and Technology.