When Cheerios and Grape Nuts announced (within weeks of each other) that their original cereals would be GMO-free, we couldn’t help but get a little giddy—like this was the watershed moment we’d been waiting for. We’d wake up the next day and suddenly every major food brand would be shilling out non-GMO options. Monsanto would look at new revenue options like cleaning up our soil and water instead of polluting it, or starting a reality TV show. (“Dancing with Pesticides?”) But there are challenges in sourcing non-GMO ingredients. Big challenges. And while Cheerios and Grape Nuts have pulled it off, there may not be any other brands following in their shoes for some time.
“The hurdles are so high that the growing ‘GMO-free’ trend could result in a price spike for consumers,” reports Reuters. “Eighteen years after GMO crops were introduced to help farmers fight weeds and bugs, they are so pervasive in the supply chain that securing large and reliable supplies of non-GMO ingredients is nearly impossible in some cases.”
In Cheerios‘ case, “the effort capped more than a year spent tracking down ingredients that have undergone no genetic modification,” explains Reuters. “Cheerios is primarily made with oats, for which there are no GMO varieties. But even securing small amounts of non-GMO corn and sugar used to sweeten the cereal was a challenge, officials said.”
Cheerios says it spent millions of dollars on new equipment and in creating non-GMO facilities and transport to keep GMOs from contaminating non-GMO ingredients. “General Mills is not raising prices for its non-GMO Cheerios right now,” says Reuters, mainly because the company “sees labeling the cereal as free of ingredients that many consumers associate with health or environmental risks as helping gain market share.” Other brands may not have that luxury, or the parent company (General Mills) marketing budget to make going non-GMO as easy or affordable—particularly when main ingredients will need replaced.
“We did it because we think consumers may embrace it,” Tom Forsythe, General Mills’ global communication executive told Reuters. “But it is a sizeable investment. And it wasn’t as easy as people think. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to do the same with our other products.” And the brand hasn’t made any changes to the other Cheerios flavors as a result.
“U.S. food companies are rushing to offer consumers thousands of products free of genetically modified ingredients but are finding the effort costly and cumbersome in a landscape dominated by the controversial biotech crops,” notes Reuters. But no federally mandated labeling requirements on GMO ingredients makes sourcing a task, one many manufacturers aren’t up to yet. Third-party verification like the Non-GMO Project can help manufacturers along, but that doesn’t help produce more non-GMO crops.
And with the clock ticking down until Whole Foods Market’s 2018 deadline for labeling all GMO ingredients in products sold in its stores, manufacturers know the consequence: labeling GMOs will lead to drops in sales. Whole Foods recently booted Chobani Greek yogurt from its shelves after a GMO Inside campaign exposed the company’s use of milk from cows fed GMO grains. While Whole Foods didn’t cite the campaign directly, it said it was phasing out the brand to make room for smaller-scale organic Greek yogurt operations.
More than 90 percent of corn and soy grown in the U.S. is now genetically modified. These crops are not only in more than 80 percent of processed foods, they’re also the staple grains fed to livestock. “This means the pipelines for harvesting, storing, transporting, mixing and purchasing the commodities are awash in the biotech supplies,” explains Reuters.
And it’s not as simple as farmers just planting more non-GMO seeds. In such a GMO dominated landscape, crop drift contamination—of conventional and organic crops—can make gaining non-GMO verified status difficult. And expensive. According to Reuters, “Chipotle officials have already said they are planning to pass along the higher costs they are seeing when switching from GMO soy oil to non-GMO sunflower and rice bran oil by midyear.”
“Non-GMO corn, a key ingredient in many packaged foods, is especially scarce because virtually all corn in the United States likely has at least some slight contamination,” notes Reuters. “The difficulty of supplying large quantities of non-GMO commodities is such an urgent problem that in December three dozen representatives of grain and food groups formed the ‘Non-GMO Working Group’ to try to expand the non-GMO commodity supply chain.” Let’s hope they succeed. Until then, buying organic or products with the Non-GMO Project verification are really our only protection against GMOs.
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Image: Ryan Bayne