The future of non-GMO

Karly O'Brien
September 11, 2013
Written by
Consumers have been shaking up the food industry by expressing their perceptions of genetically modified organisms (GMO), and all this interest has businesses wondering whether or not to go non-GMO. For bakeries, it is a good time to start thinking about how this will affect the bakery industry, and whether the trend may be here to stay. 

GMO is defined as an organism whose genetic material has been altered or enhanced by genetic engineering. Corn, for example, is sometimes modified with DNA from bacteria that is resistant to the pesticides that deter bugs and animals from eating the product.

The term non-GMO is used to describe an organism that contains only its own naturally occurring DNA, and is grown without being altered or enhanced.

The implementation of enhancing or altering an organism was legalized in Canada in 2001 to make it easier to grow crops. The result is that food became larger, there were fewer bugs eating the product and crops were resistant to pesticide use. According to the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), genetically modified corn is one of four genetically modified crops grown in Canada: canola, soy, and white sugar beet are the others. Neither Statistics Canada nor government officials track how
much of it is grown in Canada; however, CBAN estimates that 89 per cent of corn, 92 per cent of soy and white beet sugar, and 96 per cent of canola is genetically engineered.

Sylvain Charlebois, food policy and distribution professor at the University of Guelph, says there are no rational reasons to worry about potential adverse health effects caused by GMOs.

“It’s been in our food supply for about 10 years, and there’s been no signs of it affecting us in any way harmful,” he says.

As soon as people recognize that there are no studies that can scientifically prove GMOs are harmful to humans, “they will finally realize that this whole non-GMO movement is a bit irrational,” he states.

There is fear that mixing two foreign DNAs together may have some negative impacts, and many consumers don’t believe there has been enough information or long-term studies about GMOs to support using them in the food supply.

According to a survey conducted in 2012 by the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association, 76 per cent of Canadians feel that the government hasn’t given them enough information on genetically engineered foods, while another nine per cent say they hadn’t even heard of genetically engineered foods. Genetically engineered organism (GEO) is the correct scientific term for organisms that are altered genetically. This term is interchangeable with GMO.

In Washington, the Non-GMO Project is playing a large role in raising awareness of GMOs in North America. This non-profit organization became official in 2005. From there, it began working on a verification process for an entire company, a product, and/or an individual ingredient to confirm that it is non-GMO (previously companies made unverified claims about having non-GMO ingredients and products). The third-party administrator that conducts the investigation is the FoodChain Advisors.

Caroline Kinsman, communications manager for The Non-GMO Project, says response from Canadian businesses has been slightly slower than in America, but the support in both regions is growing exponentially.

 Charlebois says he’s not surprised by the public’s opposition to genetically modified foods, but doesn’t believe it will stick.

“The consumer reactions are well deserved, and predictable,” says the professor, who also teaches economics. “The Frankenfood movement you’re seeing is what happens when you don’t take the time to properly inform the public on a very fundamental issue.”

Charlebois agrees with mandatory labelling for genetically modified and non-genetically modified foods.

“I am in favour of mandatory labelling at least for the short term because consumers want to know what they are buying, and this will help demystify what genetically engineered organisms are,” he says.

The professor adds that going non-GMO translates into higher food prices for businesses on board, and wonders, when customers see those prices, are they going to fork out the cash? “The answer is probably not: most consumers are driven by price and convenience when buying food.”

Business perspective
The 17-year-old family-owned Ozery’s Pita Break is Non-GMO Project verified because it believes in the movement to be conscious of where food originates.

“I see that people want to know what is in their food, and they want more transparency,” says Guy Ozery, president of the Vaughan, Ont.-based restaurant, who works with his brother, Alon Ozery, the founder. The business also sells to the U.S. under Ozery’s Bakery. “It’s a smart business move to become verified since non-GMO is what people are demanding.”

He adds that this decision was also a result of business practices involving GMOs that he doesn’t agree with, such as American multinational agricultural biotechnology company Monsanto patenting GMO seeds that farmers have to re-buy every year to grow crops.

SK Food was one of the first companies to become Non-GMO Project Verified in 2009; however, the company says that it has always sold non-GMO foods throughout its 23 years of operation.

 “We’ve found that as more people read the information that is out there, and as more information becomes available, people are gearing for non-GMO because they don’t like what they are finding out about GMOs,” states Tara Froemming, the marketing co-ordinator for SK Food International, located in North Dakota. “I also don’t think that they have had full proof that GMOs are safe, and OK to consume.”

According to the Non-GMO Project, sales of its verified retailers, restaurants and ingredients have surged 66 per cent since 2011, reaching $2.4 billion. Last October, the non-profit organization also reported that more than 6,000 North American products carry its verification seal.

Greg Laviolette, owner of the Green Café and Market in Sarnia, Ont., opened his partial bakery and partial supermarket business in January of this year as a result of seeing the niches that he could cater to. His business is also a supporter of the Non-GMO Project.

“Business is thriving,” he says. “We get so many customers who are concerned about what they eat, so I don’t believe this is some sort of fad, I don’t think it’s going anywhere. It’s a little expensive to buy, and therefore to sell, but the prices seem like they are coming down as it becomes a larger industry over time.”

Struggles
Some bakeries are finding it difficult to get suppliers and growers on board, and also to compete with GMO pricing.

“The market is still not as big as GMO, and that’s a struggle, especially with prices,” Laviolette admits. “It’s also hard to find distributors that you can trust, and that take precautions, especially since some of these guys are doing GMO and non-GMO, so then you worry about potential cross-contamination.” 

He also says that because of the difficulty in staying non-GMO, suppliers and distributors usually sell for more; thus, finding a good price point for consumers is a challenge.

For SK Food, some growers are willing to be non-GMO, but there are only a few on board so far.

“I mean, we do have our network of growers and we contract them for a specific production,” states Froemming. “However, we are always looking for more growers to come on board and take up the challenge of producing non-GMO-grade food that we could sell, and non-GMO crops, because of course it takes a lot of extra effort, and more care to do that kind of production. It’s a challenge that we work with, and it’s a great hurdle to find those growers, and to work with them to produce these crops.” She goes on to say that the company would like to see the market grow in the future and have a wider variety of suppliers available.

Around the world
The United States still accepts the growth and import of genetically engineered foods, and does not demand it be labelled. In 2012, California had a chance to vote on Proposition 37, which would mandate that food within the state would have to be labeled GMO, but it did not pass. Major retailers such as Whole Foods and Target are making non-GMO more available, with Whole Foods enforcing mandatory labelling in its Canadian and U.S. locations and Target launching its own brand, Simply Balanced that contains virtually no GMOs. In South American countries, such as Brazil and Paraguay, there are restrictions on GMO foods. Here’s a look at how the eastern population is handling GMOs.

Africa: Algeria and Egypt have laws restricting food with genetically modified organisms. In Algeria, planting and distributing GMO is illegal. In Egypt, genetically modified foods must be approved before they can be distributed.

Asia: Sri Lanka, Thailand, China, Japan and the Philippines all have laws limiting genetically engineered foods. Sri Lanka and Thailand had bans on imported GMOs as early as 2001, while the rest of the countries have had more recent bans.

Europe: Norway, Austria, Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, Greece, France, Luxembourg and Portugal have put GMO restrictions in place. France made an important step in the non-GMO movement by specifically defining exactly what “GMO-free” means when it comes to food labelling. Ireland has banned all growing and cultivating of GMOs and the European Union – a governing coalition of European countries – has considered a Europe-wide banning of GMOs.

The Middle East: Saudi Arabia has banned the growing of GMOs and the importing of GMO wheat.

Overall, it seems that the consumer is demanding more non-GMO products, and as larger retailers join the movement, it is becoming more difficult to ignore.

“People are more sophisticated these days with multiple channels of information to access,” says Ozery. “I don’t think this trend is going anywhere, and it is here to stay because there are always going to be those that can’t live without non-GMO as an option.”

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