Cargill Inc., a staunch supporter of genetically engineered crops, on Thursday will release its first ingredients that an outside group is verifying as genetically unchanged.
In a bow to market pressure, Cargill has had three major products verified by the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit organization that tests products and ingredients to ensure their genetic origin and tracks them to make sure the full production process is uncontaminated. The products are sugar cane, high oleic sunflower oil and a bulking agent called erythritol that’s used in chewing gums and sweeteners such as Truvia, Cargill’s stevia-based product and a favorite among natural food consumers.
Cargill, headquartered in suburban Minneapolis, supplies a vast array of ingredients to foodmakers and restaurants, including major ones like General Mills, McDonald’s and Kraft Heinz. Over its 150-year history, the company has made thousands of products that were organic or altered through hybrid processes.
In recent decades, the firm has also been at the leading edge of genetic modification in foods, the process in which a gene carrying a potentially useful trait, such as pest resistance, is spliced from one plant or animal species into another. Today, between 70 percent and 80 percent of the food consumed in the United States contains genetically modified ingredients, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
But as consumers express growing preference for “clean label” foods, which can include a non-GMO verification, foodmakers are pushing Cargill and other suppliers to provide non-GMO ingredients.
“We see the consumer demand clearly has been growing at a pretty interesting clip,” said Mike Wagner, Cargill’s managing director of starches and sweeteners in North America. “Given our position in the ag supply chain, we are uniquely positioned to supply that scale of access to this growing segment.”
Awareness of genetically engineered food ingredients, often called genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, has surged in recent years. Earlier this year the federal government passed a new law requiring food companies to label the presence of GMOs in its products.
Cargill has been a vocal defender of GMOs, arguing that crop engineering is safe and is key to growing enough food to feed the world’s rising human population.
“This is not Cargill choosing one or the other. This is about providing our food manufacturers and consumers enhanced access to go the direction they want to go,” Wagner said.
Still, non-GMO food is an opportunity that will surely benefit suppliers that seize it.
“Cargill wouldn’t be going after it unless they believed this will be a sizable market and that it will continue to grow,” said Tom Vierhile, director of innovation insights at Canadean, a food market researcher.
Wagner said the company predicts non-GMO product sales will grow 12 percent annually for the next several years.
Megan Westgate, founder and executive director of the Non-GMO Project, said the nonprofit is increasingly approached by brands about the verification process. To date, she said, the group verified more than 40,000 products and represented $20 billion in revenue so far this year, a huge jump from $348.8 million in 2010.
The percentage of all new products introduced in the U.S. marketplace that carry the non-GMO claim is also rising, according to Mintel, a London-based market research firm. So far in 2016, more than 33 percent of all new U.S. food products brought to market claim to be non-GMO, up from 30.5 percent in 2015 and 14.7 percent the year prior. This has skyrocketed since 2010 when the number of new products bearing the non-GMO claim was just 3.5 percent.
From the movement’s perspective, having a player like Cargill onboard is a way to rapidly increase the availability of non-GMO foods.
“Cargill’s partnership with the Non-GMO Project is really evidence for what we are seeing, which is large scale, mainstream demand,” Westgate said. “Because of growing consumer awareness, it’s not just something that food-coop shoppers are asking for. As demand increases, there are challenges to keeping up with that demand, which is why we are so excited to work with Cargill.”
While Cargill has been marketing non-GMO ingredients for 15 years, Wagner said, this partnership with the most trusted verifier is an extra step that ensures the products are never contaminated with traces of genetically-modified foods.
The ag giant will continue selling genetically modified versions of these ingredients as well.
“Why these three? It’s a jumping-off point. It’s the first three of many in our portfolio across the entire food ingredient space where we play,” Wagner said.