Accessibility links

Genetically-Modified Maize Threatens Crunchy Snack Chips

The snack industry says the crunch in its chips is threatened by an enzyme that's been genetically engineered into maize.

The snack industry says the crunch in its chips is threatened by an enzyme that's been genetically engineered into maize.

Variety intended for ethanol could make cereal soggy and chips crumbly

A new type of genetically-modified maize intended for ethanol biofuel production has won approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The biofuels industry welcomes this new GM maize, created by the agriculture giant Syngenta. But opposition is coming from an unusual source - snack food makers.

Maize-based snacks are a $6 billion business in the U.S. And the snack industry says the crunch of their chips is threatened by an enzyme genetically engineered into Syngenta's new maize.

Easier ethanol

The enzyme, known as alpha amylase, breaks down starch into sugar, which is then fermented into ethanol.

According to Syngenta, having the enzyme built into the maize will help produce more ethanol while consuming less water and energy, which in turn will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A 2007 U.S. law requiring gasoline to be blended with renewable fuels has driven up demand for ethanol. This year, 40 percent of the U.S. maize crop went to ethanol production.

Soggy cereal, crumbly chips

But what is good for producing ethanol is not good for everyone.

"We don't produce ethanol. We produce food products," says Mary Waters, president of the North American Millers Association, one of five major food industry groups that are, in their words, "deeply disappointed" with USDA's decision to approve the crop without restrictions.

They are not worried about food safety. In a joint statement, they noted they have supported other genetically-engineered crops.

The worry, Waters says, is that Syngenta's starch-busting maize could turn cereal soggy, snack chips crumbly or hurt other processed foods if even a tiny amount ends up in the human food chain.

"It would only take one kernel in 10,000 to affect food processing," she says.

History of contamination

And it would not be the first time a genetically-modified product wound up where it did not belong. Unapproved GM maize turned up in the food supply in 2001, as did unapproved rice in 2006. Estimates vary widely, but the financial losses from these contamination cases ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The contaminated maize did not cause health problems. "But it did cause major disruptions in the availability of food grade [maize]," says Jim McCarthy, president of the Snack Food Association. "So, we do think this will have a major impact and we're urging Syngenta to rethink this."

Not a 'major issue'

"I don't really believe that there's much probability that there's going to be any kind of major issue with misdirection of the grain," Syngenta's Jack Bernens says.

Bernens says the company will only sell the seeds to farmers who will deliver the crop to nearby ethanol plants. And they will not sell seed near where food facilities get their maize.

Besides, Bernens says, the chance that a few stray kernels would create big problems is overblown. He says the enzyme is most active at specific conditions of temperature, moisture and alkalinity that are different from most food processing.

"We've done a lot of work in that area," he says, "and for the most part, the processes don't come together under those conditions that would equal the most activity."

'Restrictive' access to information

The Snack Food Association's Jim McCarthy would like to see that research, but he says Syngenta won't share the data without strict conditions.

"There have been some very restrictive allocations of data to this point," he says. "And that's one of the major concerns we have."

Syngenta originally offered the trade groups access to their evidence, but only if they backed the company's application to the USDA for approval. The trade groups rejected that offer. Then Syngenta said they could have the data and samples to test, but only if they signed a confidentiality agreement.

The company says that's standard business practice to protect trade secrets. But it didn't sit well the North American Millers Association's Mary Waters.

"We can't have access to information predicated on support no matter what, and an inability to share it with our scientists," she says. "All we care about is the science."

Syngenta notes that it has provided access to information to some in the industry who did sign confidentiality agreements. And the company is setting up an advisory council with members across the industry to resolve any contentious issues.

But the food groups are not satisfied. They say they are now considering a lawsuit to protect the crunch of their chips.

  • 16x9 Image

    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.