Although only 7 percent of the corn grown in the United States does not have at least one genetically modified organism trait, a much higher percentage of the consumers who buy products with an ingredient obtained from corn would prefer it came from non-GMO corn instead.
That imbalance was pointed out during a recent webinar on procuring non-GMO food ingredients. The presenters were Andrew Utterback, a field agent for Ingredion Inc. (formerly Corn Products International) and Steve French, a managing partner for the Natural Markets Institute, a Harleysville, PA–based consumer research firm.
Ingredion, which has customers in more than 100 countries, uses its production plant in Indianapolis exclusively for non-GMO production, Utterback said. The company makes sweeteners, starches and nutritional ingredients that are used by 60 sectors in the food, beverage and pharmaceutical industries.
NMI's survey of 3,000 consumers in 2013 found one-third of them indicated they would not buy certain products if they knew they had an ingredient with a GMO trait, while 69 percent would be less likely to buy them, French reported.
Having that information on product labels is a not a requirement today, but Vermont recently passed legislation requiring this be done by 2016, French said. In his view, the "real issue" is not the safety of GMO food ingredients but "the right of the consumer to know" whether the product includes ingredients with GMO traits.
He pointed out that two-thirds of consumers in the United States, compared to 90 percent in China and 82 percent in Brazil, say they read product labels in conjunction with purchases. He believes that number, at least for the United States, is inflated.
Among various age groups of consumers in the United States, 54 to 69 percent indicate an awareness of food ingredients, French said. But he wonders about the level of understanding because surveys show 42 percent cannot distinguish between the terms "organic" and "natural" as applied to foods.
According to the NMI survey, 61 percent of adults register a doubt about GMO foods because of health concerns, French said. Other concerns pertained to the environment (53 percent) or to both of those (38 percent). In the younger portion of the population, those concerns were up by 8 to 10 percentage points from 2012 to 2013.
Since 2000, countries in the European Union have developed 3,699 non-GMO food products, French stated. In the United States, that total jumped from 551 in 2012 to 1,350 in 2013 — an increase of 145 percent.
Among all the respondents in the 2013 survey, just over 50 percent indicated they were using more food items they identify as non-GMO than in the past. In the younger age groups, that usage jumped by 11 to 19 percentage points from 2012 to 2013, French pointed out.
A poll of the food processors who were webinar attendees indicated that 53 percent of them are providing at least some non-GMO products, 14 percent were planning to do so, 22 percent had no such plans and 11 percent had not considered the idea.
Since 1997, Ingredion has engaged in non-GMO food production, Utterback said. It relies on the TrueTrace tracking program, which it adopted from Great Britain in 2004, and obtains an annual certification from the third party Safe Quality Food Institute.
Paying 30- to 75-cent-per-bushel premiums for the corn it obtains, Ingredion contracts with growers for non-GMO corn and only accepts corn that is trucked to its Indianapolis facility, he said. The annual turnover among those growers is less than 5 percent.
The contracted growers are subject to exacting standards for establishing the identity and maintaining the segregation of the corn, Utterback said. In addition to on-site verification, various tests have a tolerance of less than 0.1 percent.
Given the pervasiveness of corn with one or more of the current 12 GMO traits, Utterback indicated that it can be very difficult to meet the non-GMO standards. He said it is especially difficult with corn because of how pollination occurs — 97 percent of which is provided by a plant other than the pollinated plant, thereby creating the possibility of pollination from nearby fields of GMO corn.
When there is corn on adjacent land, Ingredion requires a 600-foot buffer for any non-GMO crop it will accept. Because of the likelihood of volunteer corn plants, it also requires a one-year interval between the growing of GMO and non-GMO contracted corn but will give a contract for non-GMO corn following soybeans.
Citing statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Utterback noted that 25 percent of the corn grown in the country in 2000 had a GMO trait. That percentage gradually increased to 52 by 2005, 86 in 2010 and 93 in 2014.
By state, 95 percent of the corn grown in Iowa in 2014 has at least one GMO trait. Percentages for other states this year include 93 in both Indiana and Michigan; 92 in Wisconsin; and 91 in Illinois.
During the question and answer segment of the webinar, French remarked that consumers tend to "overstate their views" on GMOs and other items posed in surveys. He believes there is a widespread lack of understanding regarding GMOs.
"It gets to be very emotional," French said. He cited an overall negativity pertaining to the word "genetic" and also to "modified".
Despite those observations, French remarked that "non-GMO is a trend, not a fad" that food processors will be forced to recognize and face, particularly on labeling, if they want to continue to be able to sell their products.
"I want to know what's in my stuff," is an emerging consumer attitude that also applies to cellphones and household cleansers, French said. Given that trend, he said it behooves food processors "to address skepticism" and to offer transparency in their contact with consumers.