GM and non-GM foods have to be separated as crops come into storage, undergo processing steps, and are used to produce the foods that eventually make it to our grocery stores. The complexity of these supply chains makes implementing product segregation and traceability a challenging task.
Enabling co-existence for GM and non-GM European food supply chains may be a new endeavour, but examples of strictly segregated supply chains actually already do exist. One example is the separation of dent maize, which is used for animal feed, and what is known as “waxy maize”, a type of maize used only for starch production. Farmers have been successful at keeping out-crossing between the two to a minimum, as mixing reduces quality. Each type is then delivered to their respective destinations, without any appreciable mixing or mix-ups.
Another example is double-zero rapeseed, which is used in food, as opposed to high-erucic acid rapeseed, which is only suitable for industrial use. These different versions of the same crop are grown in the same regions and are successfully kept separate on the farm and in subsequent handling and processing steps.
Even though co-existence systems aren’t entirely new, co-existence with GMOs poses unique challenges. These include very low threshold levels for unintended mixing, lax policies overseas, and widespread public rejection within Europe. Co-Extra's work with supply chains will begin by selecting a handful of representative cases to closely study in order to make recommendations for when GMOs get thrown into the mix.
Once supply representative supply chains have been well characterised, researchers will begin working on making computer models based on real supply chains. Well designed models, like computer models for forecasting weather, are predictive. This means they can digest input data and give a good idea of what is likely to happen.
The models will be put to work to help producers decide on most technically sound approaches to co-existence and traceability. There are certainly going to be more than one way to tackle the same challenge, and some are bound to more effective than others. For instance, researchers may take a well characterised supply chain and use predictive models to get an idea of the feasibility of certain proposed strategies to keep products segregated after an influx of GMOs.
Special attention needs to be focused on what are known as "hot spots", or points along the supply chain that pose a heightened risk for unwanted mixing.