October, 2021

GMOs regulations: does it impact plant-based foods?

Europe and United States GMO regulations landscape

Since he began to cultivate plants and raise animals for food, man has tried to select the most resistant ones with the best features. Nowadays, through different technologies that act on the genetic material of the organism/microorganism, it is possible to consciously select the best characteristics, in order to produce the so-called GMOs. According to different institutions, such as the European Commission or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), GMOs are genetically modified organisms and microorganisms where the genetic material has been altered differently from what occurs in nature through natural genetic conjugation or recombination.

However, regulations regarding the cultivation and marketing of GMO products differ in Europe and America.

In Europe, GMOs are authorized for experimental and commercial release into the environment only after undergoing a strict risk assessment procedure to avoid any possible undesirable effects on the environment and human health. Applications for GMOs may cover the import and processing of GM plant materials into Europe for food or feed purposes, as well as their import for cultivation. Most evaluations are performed by EFSA, the European Food Safety Authority, and generally refer to GMO plants such as corn, soybean, canola, cotton, potato, rice and sugar beet. Regarding imports from third countries, currently corn, cotton, soybean, canola, and beet are authorized in the EU for use in food and feed. Most of the GMOs authorized in the EU are intended for feed for farm animals but some imported foods may contain some traces.

Currently EU legislation states that genetically modified food must be labeled with “genetically modified” or “produced from” followed by the name of the genetically modified organism. If foods or feed contain more than 0.9% of authorized GMO in the whole product, this must be declared on the label. If the food or feed contains unauthorized GMOs the limit is at 0.1%.

However, products from animals fed with genetically modified crops are free from GMO labeling.  In America, the regulation of GMO products is handled by three federal agencies within the U.S. government. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates most feed and food, including GMOs by ensuring that they meet the same safety standards as all other foods. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for protecting human health and the environment, which includes regulation of pesticides. and the safety of substances used on GMO crops. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is responsible for protecting GMO and non-GMO crops from parasites and diseases.

Beginning in January 2022, some types of GMOs will have to be declared on the label using the claim “bioengineered foods”.

Consumer perception of GMO: how it impacts purchasing choices

One of the aspects to consider when talking about GMO products is undoubtedly the perception consumers have. This is a very important factor because it can affect the choice to buy the product, once its distribution is approved. According to the “EIT Food TrustTracker Report” that surveys 19.800 consumers in 18 European countries to measure their trust in the food system, they see innovation as a real opportunity both for the food system and for the people. In particular, they look positively on innovations related to plant-based, protein or low-salt/sugar foods that are healthy and sustainable. However, according to the report, the issues generating most uncertainty and mistrust among European consumers are those related to overproduction and overprocessing, the use of additives, GMOs, and a general sense of loss of authenticity.

However, consumer opinion is gradually changing: according to the 2019 study drawn up by EFSA titled “Food safety in the EU” 27% of people surveyed considers GMOs to be the relevant food problem in a list that included the abuse of antibiotics, hormones and steroids in farm animals, pesticides, additives and more.

In the U.S., on the other hand, they prefer and value transparency in labels for products that contain GMOs. According to the report Organic and Beyond” by Hartman Group, 65% of people interviewed believe that GMOs should be declared on the label, while 47% believe that companies are able to express very well when a product is not GMO, for example through the symbol NON-GMO Verified Seal. In addition, in the U.S., the FDA is launching an initiative called “Free your Mind” to help consumers better understand the science behind genetically engineered foods, with materials, fact sheets and videos that use a common language to provide information about GMO foods.

To sum up, the presence of GMO ingredients and the related declaration on the label is a practice requested by consumers, which however could lead to contradictory results: rewarding the product for its transparency or, on the contrary, discouraging its purchase. In particular, in case of a plant-based product, the declaration of GMO use in the packaging could create a discrepancy with the common idea of plant-based product, generally associated to the concept of natural and healthy. Moreover, as previously mentioned, a product, both vegetable and not, containing GMOs could not only face consumer opposition, but also trade barriers due to stricter regulations than in the country of origin. This is the case, for example, of the famous vegetable burger company, Impossible Foods, which is experiencing resistance to importing its product into Europe because it contains leghemoglobin from GMO soybeans, used to reproduce the “blood effect” of animal meat in their vegetable meat.