Expert Commentary

GMOs: A Primer (of Sorts)

Starting around 2016, I began speaking at AgriCons (IRMI Agribusiness conferences involving the Agribusiness and Farm Insurance Specialist (AFIS) certification) on the topic of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as they relate to the world of farming and agriculture. Last year, I returned home from another teaching stint for IRMI. I find it to be a fascinating topic, if for no other reason than that it is probably one of the most misunderstood areas of farming and food products—not by the farmers, but by the general public.


Agricultural Insurance
May 2020

My purpose today is to add some clarity and remind readers that, when it comes to most of the insurance products we sell, there is little, if any, insurance coverage response. But first, let's take a look at what a GMO is, how long they have been around, and what they mean for agriculture and the food on your table. GMOs have been in the farming industry now for 20-plus years.

In fact, the first genetically engineered crop to be commercialized debuted in May of 1994 with the introduction of the FLAVR SAVR tomato. The concept behind the FLAVR SAVR was that by modifying the plant, the ripe fruit would remain firmer for a longer period of time, perhaps even allowing it to be vine-ripened instead of being picked green. The benefit behind that thinking was that instead of picking green fruit and artificially ripening them by the use of an ethylene treatment—this new product would approach better taste and shelf life. Initial attempts to sell the product in a tomato paste were successful, but then the higher production and distribution costs, along with some faulty data analysis reduced demand. Like many products, lack of demand equals lack of market shelf space equals … NO sales.

Despite this initial start-stop to the introduction of GMO products, there was no turning back. Genetically modified corn and soybeans lead the planting numbers, but the growth is not limited to those two crops. In 2018, some 191.7 million hectares (approximately 473,690,700 acres) were planted worldwide with GMO crops including soybeans, corn, cotton, canola, potatoes, rice, squash, and  papaya. In order of planted acreage, the countries involved are the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, India, Paraguay, China, Pakistan, South Africa, Uruguay, Bolivia, Australia, Philippines, Myanmar, Sudan, Mexico, Spain, Columbia, Vietnam, Honduras, Chile, Portugal, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Indonesia, and Eswatini (previously Swaziland).

The usage of these crops has been on a steady increase. They are not going away. In fact, a recent Purdue University study, Eliminating GMOs Would Take Toll on Environment, Economies, by Wally Tyner, Farzad Taheripour, and Harry Mahaffey (February 29, 2016), opined that "[h]igher food prices, a significant boost in greenhouse gas emissions due to land use change and major loss of forest and pasture land would be some of the results if genetically modified organisms in the United States were banned."

Think about that statement and then consider this one from the World Bank, "The world needs to produce at least 50 percent more food to feed 9 billion people by 2050. But climate change could cut crop yields by more than 25 percent. The land, biodiversity, oceans, forests, and other forms of natural capital are being depleted at unprecedented rates."

So, you may ask, what's the problem or concern? Why are some people so concerned with GMOs in their food? What's the concern for the insurance industry? Where's the coverage? Let's see if we can answer some of these questions.

What Is a GMO?

First off, let's get to a generally acceptable definition of what a GMO is. Simply stated, when a gene from one organism is purposely moved to improve or change another organism in a laboratory, that's a GMO.

The World Health Organization, according to its website, has defined genetically modified foods as "foods derived from organisms whose genetic material (DNA) has been modified in a way that does not occur naturally, e.g. through the introduction of a gene from a different organism."

However, we also need to understand that "gene editing" will be considered a genetically engineered (GE) product in many circles. This is when a genetic item is removed from an item. For instance, recently scientists have been able to isolate the DNA from white button mushrooms that is responsible for browning these mushrooms in their aging process. They didn't add an item to the product/vegetable, they deleted one.

Whichever definition you prefer, let's also understand that we will also hear these synonyms for GMOs—GE products and transgenics. We can use these interchangeably.

How Does this Differ from Traditional Breeding?

In the past, classical breeding reproduction would only occur between closely related species (e.g., corn to corn or a closely related species). The overall goal of most plant breeders is to develop plant varieties with preferred (or good, if you will) agronomic characteristics. With GE products, any gene from any organism can be transferred to another organism. As an ongoing example, DNA from a bacterium such as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) can be transferred into corn or cotton.

Originally, GE crops were planted with but one concept in mind: to make the crop weed resistant or more resistant to a particular pest. Now we see what are called "stacked" traits, where more than one action is ongoing with the plant species. The manufacturer may be trying to fight both pests and weeds (or similar combinations) within the same GM seed. Therefore, they are "stacking" the traits within the seed.

What GE Crops Are Grown in the United States?

The growth of GMO crops has steadily increased since their introduction in 1996. The FLAVR SAVR was introduced earlier, but full-scale introduction of GMO crops was initiated in 1996. In the United States alone, as of 2018, more than 185 million acres are planted with GE seeds. The top 10 crops in the United States (according to 2018 ISAAA statistics1), in order of the most prolific growth or agricultural adaptation, are the following.

  1. Soybeans
  2. Corn
  3. Cotton
  4. Canola/Rapeseed
  5. Sugar Beets
  6. Alfalfa
  7. Papaya
  8. Squash
  9. Potatoes
  10. Apples
  11. Sugar beets

What Are the Concerns?

The majority of consumers seem to be focused on one primary issue: what's in my food? A simple way to say this is "food labeling." Second, some consumers and other interest groups are concerned about unknown allergies or similar issues. Other concerns that crop up (pun intended) include the following.

  • Might there be toxic effects to beneficial animals?
  • Will overuse cause resistance by pests and weeds (superweeds)?
  • Might there be growth with GE seeds in unwanted areas?
  • Is outcrossing (transmission of characteristics from one crop to another) possible?

Some of these questions are already answered (or in the process of being answered), and some are not.

Food Labeling

Since the overwhelming desire of most Americans is to know "what's in my food," US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard on December 20, 2018. The US Congress passed this law in 2016 and at that time directed the US Department of Agriculture to establish this mandatory standard for disclosing foods that are or may be bioengineered. Like it or not (and you can find plenty of folks with opposing views), the devil is in the details. One thing that the passage of this law did was to stop individual states from passing their own food labeling laws when it comes to GMOs.

A Brief Summary of this Law

  • Labeling started (or was allowed to start) as early as February 2019 with a requirement of disclosure by January 1, 2022, on all food products that have been bioengineered. There are also various effective dates depending upon the size of the manufacturer, but all will need to comply by the 2022 date.
  • Disclosures un the set standards are all captured under the term "bioengineered," but "genetically modified organism," "GMO," and "genetic engineering" are also used interchangeably.
  • The actual disclosure is a marketing requirement and does not convey any information about the health, safety, or environmental attributes of the products.
  • Even if a product has bioengineered products contained in it—it is not required to be labeled if it is provided by a restaurant, food truck, train, airplane, delicatessen, or similar establishments or is made by a very small food manufacturer.
  • When one sees the symbol, either a scannable link, text messaging, phone numbers, or websites will be provided to determine the actual information. It is not required to be on the label of the product, just the actual symbol is required. The symbol may be in color or black and white.
  • Finally, a second label that states "Derived from Bioengineering" will also be in use. When it is used, the food products do not contain detectable modified genetic material and as such are not considered to be "bioengineered" as defined by the labeling standard.

Achieved Results

Have GMO crops achieved their purpose of increased crop yields while battling the pests they were intended to defeat? For the most part, yields have increased with the utilization of GE seeds. There has also been a reduction in the use of pesticides and herbicides on GE crops.

Back to that Purdue study. Their crop models show that, if we were to eliminate all GMOs in the United States, the following things would occur.

  • Corn yields would decline some 11.2 percent.
  • Soybeans would lose some 5.25 percent of their yields.
  • Cotton would see a reduction in yield of 18.6 percent.

They further estimate that, to make up for that loss of yield, about 250,000 acres of US forest and pastureland would need to be converted to cropland. Globally, the impact would be even greater. With climate change challenges of the intrusion of salt water along the coastlines, less cultivable land being available due to growing cities, and the intrusion of cities into farmland, it is thought that any current reduction in farm outputs would not yield beneficial results to the general populace.

Effect on Insurance Coverage

What about insurance coverages? How, you may ask, might our current crop of insurance policies respond to some potential GMO-related losses? Let's consider a few possible loss situations.

Assume you have a food processor that normally handles organic products. Unwittingly, she takes in a nonorganic GMO crop, and it leaves residue behind that mixes into the next crop that she processes. Now she needs to clean her processing equipment so she can return to working with her organic clients. Where, we may ask, is the coverage for this?

Your farmer uses GMO seed. Some of his seed, during its application, migrates to a neighboring property that grows non-GMO crops. There is a mixture of the two crops on that section of land that impacts the organic farmer and his ability to send his crop to market. Where's the coverage?

You have an insured that has purchased product recall coverage as part of his risk management strategy. By mistake, some of his GE product is mislabeled and sent to market. Will there be a coverage trigger for this sort of event?

Your insured's GMO crop is alleged to have caused an allergic reaction in some of the people that have ingested it. Is there coverage under the farmer's farm liability coverage?

The answers will vary depending upon the (1) type of loss, (2) cause of loss, (3) alleged wrong, and (4) the manner in which the coverage was written. There are far too many variables for us to consider in this commentary. Suffice it to say that the above loss scenarios are all considerations to think about when providing risk management strategies for clients.

ISO Endorsements to the Farm Liability Coverage Form

The Insurance Services Office, Inc. (ISO), has published six farm liability, excess, and umbrella endorsements for use by their licensed users. I want to briefly focus on two of them.

  • FL 10 64 04 16, Exclusion—Injury or Damage From Genetically Modified Beans, Crops, Grains, Seeds, Plants, Shrubs or Trees
  • FL 10 65 04 16, Exclusion—Injury or Damage From Genetically Modified Animal(s) or Fish

First, we'll talk about the FL 10 64 04 16 exclusionary endorsement. While it is available to be used, I have yet to see its use. Of course, I do not see what ALL insurers that utilize ISO forms are doing. If one were to come across this in use today, here are some of the essential items to consider.

  • It is for use with the Farm Liability Coverage Form (FL 00 20) and/or the Personal Liability Endorsement (FL 04 12).
  • It states that the insurance does not apply to bodily injury (BI) or property damage (PD) caused by or resulting from the "genetic modification," whether by design or accident, of any bean(s), crop(s), grain(s), seed(s), plant(s), shrub(s), or tree(s) described in the Schedule.
  • It defines "genetic modification" to mean "… the insertion of a modified gene or gene from another variety or species into a bean(s), crop(s), grain(s), seed(s), plant(s), shrub(s) or tree(s) by 'genetic engineering.'"
  • It further states that "genetic modification" does not include the traditional horticultural practices of plant breeding by methods other than "genetic engineering" or by plant grafting.
  • It defines "genetic engineering" to "[mean] the use of technology in order to change the genetic makeup of cells or to move genes across species boundaries."
  • Obviously, the Schedule on the endorsement will be of paramount importance and one which will need to be addressed in a very careful manner. In that schedule, one needs to list the genetically modified bean(s), crop(s), grain(s), seed(s), plant(s), shrub(s), or tree(s) to which the exclusion is to apply.
  • If the items are not listed on the Schedule, they need to be shown in the Declarations.

The FL 10 65 is similar in its approach. Here is what it addresses.

  • It is for use with the Farm Liability Coverage Form (FL 00 20) and/or the Personal Liability Endorsement (FL 04 12).
  • It states that the insurance does not apply to BI or PD caused by or resulting from the "genetic modification," whether by design or accident, of any animal(s) or fish described in the Schedule.
  • It defines "genetic modification" to mean "… the insertion of a modified gene or gene from another variety or species in an animal(s) or fish by 'genetic engineering.'"
  • It defines "genetic engineering" to "[mean] the use of technology in order to change the genetic makeup of cells or to move genes across species boundaries."
  • Again, a Schedule is to be used, or the animal(s) or fish are to be designated on the Declarations.

The other four forms available for use are the following.

  • FB 10 64 04 16, Exclusion—Injury or Damage From Genetically Modified Beans, Crops, Grains, Seeds, Plants, Shrubs or Trees. This is for use with the Farm Umbrella and the Farm Premises and Personal Umbrella Liability endorsement.
  • FB 10 65 04 16, Exclusion—Injury or Damage From Genetically Modified Animal(s) or Fish. This is for use with the Farm Umbrella and the Farm Premises and Personal Umbrella Liability endorsement.
  • FE 10 64 04 16, Exclusion—Injury or Damage From Genetically Modified Beans, Crops, Grains, Seeds, Plants, Shrubs or Trees. This is for use with the Farm Excess Liability policy.
  • FE 10 65 04 16, Exclusion—Injury or Damage From Genetically Modified Animal(s) or Fish. This is for use with the Farm Excess Liability policy.

Risk Awareness

By being aware of the risks—both potential and feared—of utilizing GMO seeds and crops, our clients can become more proactive in their application of their risk management practices. Awareness of risk directly leads (in most cases) to the implementation of risk management practices. After all, we cannot manage that which we do not understand or see. The implementation of risk management practices leads our customers to consider risk transfer, avoidance, or other considerations in their farm and land management practices.

In the future, I find it possible that our growers may need to provide some sort of environmental impact study or report as a future condition of growing specific crops in specific areas. Perhaps if that comes to fruition, the environmental liability policies that we use will respond in a manner beneficial to the insured.

In recently speaking with one environmental insurer, I asked the question, "If my client's GMO crop migrates to a neighboring property, is their coverage under your environmental liability (pollution) coverage form?" The answer was a quick "no."

Here Is What I Am Certain of

GMOs—like it or not—are already an integral part of the food chain. Efforts are being made to further this pattern. Think of Bt eggplant (an area staple) being grown in Bangladesh and the Philippines or C4 rice being developed to increase yields to offset the loss of cultivable land.

Failing to engage our customers in risk management discussions regarding their use of GMO crops/seeds could prove a costly lesson for all of us. After all, one way or another—either via passive or active retention—one still has the risk. Some things (as of this writing) are still uninsurable. The discussion is sure to continue.

One Final Question—Do You Like Salmon?

Finally, in case you missed it, the Food and Drug Administration at the end of 2015 approved a salmon that has been engineered to grow twice as fast as its natural growing counterpart. AquAdvantage, starting with the genome from an Atlantic salmon, took a growth hormone out of a chinook salmon and combined it with a gene from an ocean pout to make a salmon that will grow twice as fast to arrive at your dinner plate twice as soon as the normal growth of a salmon would take. No word on whether or not it will cook twice as fast as wild salmon.


1 ISAAA (International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech), Resources Publications Pocket K Q and A about Genetically Modified Crops.


Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.

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