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Finish product ethanol after distillation which has no traces of GMO, made from GMO corn crop is it consider to be GMO free or not?

Submitted by: ALT


Expert response from Robert Wager M.Sc.

Faculty Member, Biology Department, Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo BC Canada

Wednesday, 11/05/2016 01:45

As with this related question, the answer is far more complex than a simple yes or no. Different jurisdictions have different rules and regulations regarding what is a genetically engineered or GE (scientific term for GMO’s). Detectability is often the trigger for GMO status. A further complication has some jurisdictions exempt certain products from local GMO labeling rules.


Different jurisdictions have different rules about what constitutes a GMO product. Europe considers the threshold for GMO labeling to be any product containing ingredients derived from a GE crop at 0.9 percent or above. However, even though the GE origin of sugar is not detectable, EU law says the ethanol must still be labelled GMO as it “made from” GMOs. Japan and Australia set their thresholds for labeling at 5 percent. In North America there is no official threshold to determine GMO status. At present there are no regulations to dictate GMO-content labeling of food in North America. However, this may change soon.


In order to obtain USDA certified organic status one must not intentionally use any GMO products. However, there is no inadvertent trace level of GE derived ingredients that would trigger a decertification. The global International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement (IFOAM) does not advocate any cut-off level or testing for inadvertent GMO content in organic products. In fact there is only one jurisdiction in the world (Australia) that has a zero tolerance policy for GMO content in their organic regulations.


There are several non-governmental GMO labeling policies. The Non-GMO project is one of these. It is best to go to their website to learn of their criteria for Non-GMO status. There are two ways of determining whether a product contains ingredients derived from GMOs. The specific DNA sequence or protein uniquely found in the GMO can be detected for some products. If there is no DNA or protein in the final product it is impossible to test for GMO content. This is the case for ethanol.


The only way to determine GMO status for ethanol is to have a trace back system all the way to the primary crops. In order to maintain identity purity, GMO and non-GMO dedicated distribution systems would have to keep the two crops and derived ingredients separate for the entire length of the supply chain. This adds significant costs that are ultimately passed on to the consumer. Certified Organic or Non-GMO Project are examples of this type of identity preservation system. This is also why any potential national GMO labeling law would result in massive increases in food distribution infrastructure and higher costs for U.S. consumers.


The last complication involves exemptions to GMO labeling. Many jurisdictions have exemptions for certain products that are derived from GMOs. Europe exempts wines and cheeses from GMO labeling laws even though the yeast used to make wine is most likely a GMO and chymosin (the enzyme used to make cheese) is definitely a GMO. Here the distinction is in European law “made with” and not “made from” as is the case for GMO derived sugar for beer. Vermont is set to enact its own GMO labeling law (subject to a successful defense of court challenges) but interesting they are exempting all dairy products (70 percent of Vermont agriculture output) from their GMO food labeling law. Therefore GMO exemption status must be taken into consideration for each jurisdiction.


To recap from a scientific point of view, ethanol is not a GMO because it is not an organism and has no traces of the DNA or proteins that conferred GM status to the components used to make it. From a jurisdictional point of view, there is no agreement on what level of detectable GM content triggers a GMO designation. From a detectable point of view most products we consume, including ethanol, do not contain detectable DNA or protein that are from the genetic engineering of an organism used in food production. And finally, depending on the jurisdiction, there may be exemptions for certain products.