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Non-GMO Sugar Cane from Brazil: What You Need to Know

Recently the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) asked for public comment on its proposal to add sugarcane to its List of Bioengineered (BE) Foods.

What does the presence of commercially available GMO sugarcane mean for the US food industry?

The Background of the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS)

In December 2018, the NBFDS specified means by which food manufacturers and importers are to disclose to consumers foods they use that are or MAY be bioengineered. The regulations included a list of bioengineered foods for which entities must maintain records. These regulations became effective in February 2019 with mandatory compliance by 2022.

What Changed and Why is the AMS seeking public comment on BE sugar cane?

When the list was drawn up in 2018, there was no commercially available BE sugarcane, so it was NOT on the list. Subsequently, Brazil has approved BE sugarcane that was developed using recombinant DNA technology to be insect-resistant to help control sugarcane borer infestation. According to the AMS, Brazil planted approximately 4,000 hectares (out of 8.5 million hectares!!!) for commercial production in the 2018-19 crop year and now believes sugar made from this insect resistant cane should be added to the list.

So How Does the Industry Prove Compliance?

The AMS said in the Federal Register notice, “If a regulated entity is using a food or ingredient from an item on the list, they must make a bioengineered food disclosure UNLESS they have records demonstrating that the food or ingredient they are using is NOT bioengineered.”

In other words the entire global supply chain of cane sugar will now be Guilty Until Proven Innocent.

Under the Standard, regulated entities must make a bioengineered food disclosure if they are using a food on the AMS List of Bioengineered Foods (the List), or a food produced from an item on the List unless they can prove their "innocence".

There are several options:

1) Maintain records to demonstrate that modified genetic material is undetectable. SEE SUGAR BEETS BELOW.

2) Have a validated refining process to demonstrate that modified genetic material is not detected.

3) Maintain records that demonstrate the food is sourced from a non-bioengineered crop or source. Such records may include organic certification; country of origin records that show the food is imported from a country that does not produce bioengineered crops; or affidavits from suppliers stating the food is sourced from non-bioengineered crops.

So Why Isn’t Sugar from US Grown Sugar Beets labeled as BE?

Nearly all US sugar beets are BE varieties modified to be resistant to the application of the herbicide glyphosate (commonly known as Round-Up).

In Dec 2018, the USDA handed a victory to the US Sugar Beet growers when it determined that only foods containing detectable genetic material should be considered as bioengineered or genetically modified (GMO).

The growers subsequently demonstrated the absence of modified genetic material making refined sugar derived from GMO sugar beets exempt from BE labeling.

Will the Brazilian Cane Growers Be Granted the Same Exclusion?

If precedent holds, then yes. Many academic papers have proved that sugar derived from BE sugar cane has been tested and shown to be free of modified genetic material and thus should be exempt from BE labeling. Proving the absence of genetic material should be no more onerous for the Brazilian cane growers as it was for the US sugar beet growers. In addition (and logically), the USDA has declared the GMO cane to be safe for human consumption.

But What About Transparency in Our Supply Chain? NBFDS Under Attack

Just recently, over 19 months since the NBFDS final rule was published, a coalition of nonprofit organizations and food retailers filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California challenging key aspects of the NBFDS final rule.

The plaintiffs allege that around 70% of foods using BE ingredients are highly processed foods that do not need to bear a BE disclosure under the final rule, making the NBFDS rule a toothless tiger. They particularly dislike the ruling that if genetic material is not detectable, no BE labeling is required.

An Opinion

One of the most challenging issue underpinning these conversations is the lack of clear understanding by the consumer of the costs and benefits of genetic modification of the foods we eat. In the US, the term GMO is identified closely with glyphosates, as the vast majority of sugar beets (not cane), soy and corn have been genetically modified to be resistant to the herbicide. Individuals who have proven health consequences due to this exposure have been so successful in court that Bayer (who purchased Monsanto), agreed to pay $10 billion to settle claims. And it may not be enough. This association has led to many food companies to prefer the use of cane sugar instead of beet sugar in their products.

If the consumer expected the NBFDS to inform them about what foods contained Round-Up resistant ingredients, they were very disappointed.

But what happens when the genetic modification actually reduces the use of agro-chemicals, such as in the case of the recent Brazilian insect resistant cane sugar?

Or if varieties of cane sugar cane be engineered to be more drought resistant, or higher yielding, thus reducing water usage, land usage, and perhaps making the crop more profitable to improve the livelihoods of the farmers?

Do we still dislike the GMO association?

Trust, Truth and Transparency

Ultimately, it comes down to 1) trusting that our government prioritizes the health and safety of its citizens above corporate interests (including agri-business) and 2) truth and transparency. Sometimes the consumer just wants to know what they are eating, how it was grown and by whom. These trends are not going away.

Any government actions that are taken to confuse or to treat one US company or industry at the expense of another is simply not free enterprise.

Wouldn’t it be great if the consumers could actually trust a source that would clearly identify the risks and benefits of GMO/BE foods? Untainted by outside interests or lobby groups?

Perhap we would actually PREFER the GMO cane because it may have a net positive benefit to the world in which we live.

In the meantime, as these debates persist, Sugaright will continue to offer Non-GMO Project Verified Cane Sugar which offers third party assurance to our customers.

As we value your trust in us, we will always offer truth and transparency.


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