Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) - What’s the Scoop?

Posted on 6/25/2014 12:50:52 PM By Jeff Timm

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or genetically engineered organisms, which entered the marketplace approximately 20 years ago, are mentioned frequently in multiple contexts in the news and trade press.  Be it food breeding methods, agricultural feedstocks for biochemistries, or packaging, everyone seems to have a position on GMOs role in each specific context. Additionally, there is broad public policy issues connected with GMO usage in the food stream regarding future agricultural land usage for non-food agriculture as a source of raw materials for the bioeconomy.  Since issues surrounding food play a major part in packaging material choices, let's start with some background that might clarify the issues around these discussion topics. 

What are GMOs?

GMOs are a genetically engineered organism that has undergone a recombinant DNA procedure.  Recombinant DNA technology involves the transfer of genetic material from one organism (donor) to another (recipient) plant or animal. Genetic modification requires that genes within the DNA sequence be modified.  This blog will only be discussing plant genetic engineering and how it connects to the packaging market.

The genetic engineering process that is used to develop GMOs utilizes viruses and bacteria most often to implant the desired gene(s) into the organism. 

plant breeding, fda, gmo, gmos

Source: U. S. Food & Drug Administration

What are the benefits of GMOs?

Genetic engineering is used in food crops to create pest and disease resistance, improve crops and improve product characteristics.1

Pest & disease resistance

Resistance to viruses, fungi, bacteria, insects and mites, and nematodes

Crop improvements

Herbicide tolerance and resistance, improved nitrogen utilization, hormone regulation, and increased yield

Improved product characteristics

More nutrients, more anti-nutritional factors, fewer allergens, and more functional attributes.

What are the down sides of GMOs?

Potential risks exist with the use and distribution of GMOs. One such risk is that GMOs could transfer genetic material to unmodified varieties, developing more aggressive weeds, for example.  A second potential risk is that when applied on a global scale, GMOs may fail to thrive in unexpected altered climatic conditions.  A third risk regarding the global impact of GMOs is that biotechnology of agriculture has the potential to concentrate control in the hands of a few growers and processors, rather than help to relieve global food security problems caused by iniquity, poverty, and concentration of food production.  Finally, there is the unsubstantiated risk that GMO foods will pose unintended consequences to food safety and human health issues due to gene manipulation.

How are GMOs regulated?

In the U.S., the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) (additional FDA question & answer on food from genetically engineered plants) regulates the safety of foods and food products from plant sources.  This includes animal feed, as under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, food is defined in relevant part as food for man and other animals. 

The FDA policy treats the regulatory control of GMO products the same way it controls traditionally grown/developed food:

“Foods, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, and their byproducts, derived from plant varieties developed by the new methods of genetic modification are regulated within the existing framework of the act, FDA's implementing regulations, and current practice, utilizing an approach identical in principle to that applied to foods developed by traditional plant breeding.  The regulatory status of a food, irrespective of the method by which it is developed, is dependent upon objective characteristics of the food and the intended use of the food (or its components).  The method by which food is produced or developed may in some cases help to understand the safety or nutritional characteristics of the finished food. However, the key factors in reviewing safetyconcerns should be the characteristics of the food product, rather than the fact that the new methods are used”.1

The FDA has a consultation process that encourages developers of genetically engineered plants to consult with the FDA before marketing products.  The testing process is similar to non GMO foods.  In the U. S., genetically modified crops are evaluated to determine that their compliance is “substantially equivalent” to conventionally bred crops.  Traditional crops are generally regarded as safe (GRAS).  Having said this, however, there is a testing hurdle to be crossed which is being designated as “substantially equivalent”.2 The FDA position was based on testing protocol developed in 1991 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) in order to provide a standardization of international methodology for the safety assessment of GMO foods.

“The assessment scheme focuses on characteristics of the new plant variety, based on characteristics of the host and donor species, the nature of the genetic change, the identity and function of newly introduced substances, and unexpected or unintended effects that accompany the genetic change.  The assessment focuses on the following considerations:

  • Toxicants known to be characteristic of the host and donor species
  • The potential that food allergens will be transferred from one food source to another
  • The concentration and bioavailability of important nutrients for which a food crop is ordinarily consumed
  • The safety and nutritional value of newly introduced proteins
  • The identity, composition and nutritional value of modified carbohydrates, or fats and oils”1

Most countries use a similar risk assessment, although one concern, especially for developing countries, is creating uniform regulations and enforcing them. Concerns that need to be constantly addressed are:

  • Impact on non-target organisms in the environment
  • Whether the modified crop might persist in the environment longer than usual or invade new habitats
  • Likelihood and consequences of a gene being transferred unintentionally from the modified crop to other species

Counter to the U. S. consumer, which is just starting to debate the relevancy of GMO food and crops, the European community has taken a strong position against GMOs due to public resistance, which has resulted in a very limited expansion in Europe (no GMO foods have been authorized since 1998).  In 2001, the European Commission adopted two new legislative proposals on GMOs concerning traceability, reinforcing current labeling rules and streamlining the authorization procedure for GMOs in food and feed and for their deliberate release into the environment.  The Commission expects that adoption of these proposals will pave the way for resuming the authorization of new GMO products in the EU.

How does this data affect material of choice in packaging?

The concerns over GMO crops and food have spilled over into the packaging arena.  GMO concerns sometimes are part of the packaging material of choice selection/specification approval process when bioplastic film, beverage and rigid containers are being considered.  This is being driven by the trend of consumers demanding more transparency in the identification of GMO ingredients in the packaging material or the food via labeling.   

A true story from my packaging development experience highlights the concern over GMO crops being used as raw materials for certain bioplastics.  The example is a film converter supplying a bioplastic snack food package to an environmentally conscience grocery chain. The grocery chain wanted to convert a traditional petroleum plastic film package to a bioplastic due to the sustainable and renewable aspects of the bioplastic material.  The grocery chain asked the film converter to specify that the bioplastic material of choice was manufactured using non-GMO agricultural feedstocks.  When the converter went back to their film supplier and asked for certified non-GMO material, they were told that the film supplier could not provide it. The supplier indicated that it was almost impossible to provide a certified non-GMO corn-based bioplastic due to “drift” (the wind blowing and insects and birds transporting seed and pollen from agricultural field to field).  As a result, the grocery chain kept their traditional petroleum-based film packaging material.  It is obvious that the grocery chain decided that having a GMO material in their food package was a higher customer image risk than not providing a biobased environmentally friendly renewable packaging material.  Was this the right choice?

gmo free, gmo, gmos

Source: A gallery curated by mikescottnz

Status of GMO food labeling

The packaging concern over GMO crops and food are the GMO labeling laws at both the federal and state level over the labeling of foods containing GMOs.  Federal legislation introduced in April 2014, the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014 (H.R. 4432),” specifically prohibits any mandatory labeling of foods developed using bioengineering just because it contains GMO material.  It does allow labeling in situations that meet the aforementioned six safety FDA assessments.  It also would overrule any state enacted laws and put all rulemaking and decisions regarding GMO labeling exclusively in the hands of the FDA.

Additionally, this bill will regulate the use of non-GMO labeling as follows:  “If a claim in the labeling of food indicates, directly or indirectly, that bio-engineering was not used in the production of the food, such claim shall be subject to the following requirements—

  • May be made only if the food bearing the claim is comprised of ingredients subject to supply chain process controls that address
    • the producer planting a seed developed by means other than through the use of bioengineering
    • the producer keeping the crop separated during growth, harvesting, storage, and transportation; and
    • persons in direct contact with such crop or foods derived from such crop during transportation, storage, or processing keeping the product separated from foods or food ingredients derived through bioengineering
  • May be made for a food produced in accordance with bullet point above in which food produced from, containing, or consisting of a bioengineered organism is inadvertently present;
  • May not suggest either expressly or by implication that foods developed without the use of bioengineering are safer than foods produced from, containing, or consisting of a bio-engineered organism”

Of course, there are many more tidbits of information and regulations in the Bill.

Running concurrently with the introduction of the House bill is Senate bill S. 809 – Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act.  The Senate bill has a much stronger GMO labeling requirement.  Additionally there have been 60 food labeling bills introduced in 20 states.3  Only three states have actually passed legislation.  Connecticut (HB 6418 & HB 6419) and Maine (LD 718) laws are on hold pending the adoption of similar laws in neighboring states.  Vermont passed a law (HB 112) which goes into effect in 2016.  Already major food and grocery trade associations have filed appeals regarding the Vermont legislation.  Sixty-four countries have GMO labeling laws with varying requirements.4  

All these laws, both state and federal, will take many years reveal their intentions due to legal actions brought by opponents to this legislation that will drag on through the appeal process.

Non-GMO certification

A number of organizations and state agencies offer certification programs for identifying and certifying non-GMO foods.  One such organization is the Non-GMO Project; its verification label means that a product has been made without the intentional use of genetically engineered ingredients (GMOs), and that procedures were put in place to prevent contamination with GMOs.  For ingredients or other inputs that are at high risk of being genetically engineered or contaminated, such as corn and soy, the standards require testing. 

The label does not guarantee that the product is “GMO-free,” (almost impossible due to “drift”) but aims to provide assurance that the product contains levels of GMOs that are less than 0.5% in foods, personal care products or dietary supplements, and less than 0.9% in textiles or cleaning products.

Due to some marketplace confusion one should take note of the differences between “organic” and “non-GMO.”  A food can be non-GMO but not be U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) certified organic, but if it is USDA certified organic, it is non-GMO. 

usda, fda, department of agriculture, us department of agriculture

        Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

A great source of information on certifications/environmental labeling and other issues surrounding the bioeconomy is sponsored by Consumer Reports”.  In particular, I would recommend reading their section on eco-labels℠.

gmo, non gmo, non gmo project, non gmo project verfied

 Source:  The Non-GMO Project

What’s the bottom line with GMO food labeling?

If a GMO food labeling law is enacted, it should be a federal law.  The FDA is the agency chartered to oversee food safety on a national basis.  This is the only way to have workable legislative requirements that have common requirements, penalties and agreed upon definitions enforceable in all states.  Trying to manage a hodge podge of state legislation/regulation would be a nightmare for food processors. 

Like many of the issues that receive a lot of attention from the public consumer sector, the science does not always match up with the media attention or consumer perceived understanding of these issues.  There has not been any credible evidence by any science body or notable science journal stating that it is harmful to eat genetically modified foods. 

With the current emphasis on healthy eating, this age of increased food safety awareness, “grow and eat” local movements and the increased emphasis on foods without additives or excessive processing vigilance on GMOs is warranted until the scientific research can definitively come to a conclusion one way or another.

What’s next?

One potential outgrowth of the issue surrounding the use or non-use of GMO agricultural feedstocks for raw material for bioplastic production is the debate on the use of agricultural land for growing food vs. growing food or non-food crops intentionally for bioplastic and biochemistry applications.  Some on the land for growing food side of the equation fear that if prime land for food crops is converted to non-food uses, the market dynamics of this may raise food prices or eliminate available land for food production if the non-food use is economically more viable.  According to the European Bioplastic Association, only 0.01% of global agricultural area is currently being used for bioplastic production.

land use for bioplastics, bioplastics

Options for bioplastic and biochemistries raw materials are:

  • Grow crops intentionally for this use (such as sugar cane, corn, bulrush and switchgrass)
  • Use non-food agricultural crops as the raw material source (second-generation biomass)
  • Use waste materials from food harvesting, production and post-preparation (second and third-generation biomass)

In the case of crops grown for food or the use of food harvesting/production by-products, this is referred to as “first-generation biomass” (plant dry matter derived sugars, starches, and oils) feedstocks.  In the second alternative mentioned above, the use of non-food agricultural crops as the raw material source, this is referred to as “second and third-generation biomass”.  This second and third-generation biomass is generally lignocellulosic-composed of carbohydrate polymers and an aromatic polymer derived from energy crops, forestry products and by-products (sawdust) and even post-preparation food waste.

An organization at the forefront of this debate is the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance (BFA).  The stated goal of the BFA is “to help guide the responsible selection of feedstocks for biobased plastics in order to encourage a more sustainable flow of materials, helping to create lasting value for present and future generations.”  Founding members of the BFA include:  The Coca-Cola Company, Danone, Ford Motor Company, H.J. Heinz Company, Nestle, Nike, Inc., P&G and Unilever.   The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has helped to convene the BFA in order to enable progress toward realizing its important objectives.

coca cola, coca cola company, ford, heinz, nestle, p&g, proctor and gamble, nike, wwf

Moving the renewable industry to a raw material supply based on non-food second and third-generation sources potentially will entail GMO crops grown for maximum lignocellulosic yield and robustness or the opposite for applications that depend on increased levels of carbohydrates where lignin is not desired.  How the intersection of this conversion is managed will be critical to the future management of natural resources while providing the biobased industries the two key factors they need for success:  cost effective availability and sustainable renewability.  

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.


1FDA Statement of Policy - Foods Derived from New Plant Varieties

2GMO myths and Truths – An Evidence Based Examination of the Claims Made for the Safety and Efficacy of Genetically Modified Crops

3Center For Food Safety – State Labeling Initiatives

4Center for Food Safety – International Labeling Laws

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