Processes based on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not allowed in organic farming. However, some essential substances for animal feed are nowadays largely produced with GMOs, which poses a challenge for the organic sector in Europe. These include, in particular, the B vitamins. In recent years, considerable efforts have been made to produce vitamin B2 or riboflavin without GMOs in Europe. However, implementation in practice is difficult and raises some questions.
B vitamins, essential
B vitamins are essential for vertebrates. They originate mainly from micro-organisms, especially yeasts and bacteria. Therefore, ruminant animals can cover their needs for B vitamins quite well from microbial fermentation in their rumen, whereas poultry and pigs are highly dependent on a supply with feed. B vitamins can also be added to feed with fermented components (e.g. silage; Witten and Aulrich, 2019) or by harvesting worms and insects, although this has narrow limits in current feeding systems for pigs and poultry as well, as a strong standardisation of feed is required in the organic sector in mass production to supply the large market.
Corresponding additives in poultry and pig feed, which must be produced specifically for the organic sector with GMO-free micro-organisms, have therefore been unavoidable up to now. However, GMO-free production of vitamin B is more expensive and therefore unattractive for large manufacturers.
GMO-free, but expensive
A research project of the Research Institute for Organic Agriculture (FiBL) together with a German manufacturer of organic yeast has been funded by the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture to develop a GMO-free, yeast-fed riboflavin product and bring it to the market. The project has been a success and the Ecovit R® product has been available on the European market since autumn 2019. It is produced in Germany according to organic standards. Its equivalence to conventional riboflavin products has been tested by FiBL in collaboration with the Centre for Poultry Research and Education in Kitzingen and documented in several publications (Lambertz et al., 2020 and 2021; Thesing et al., 2021). In the framework of the EU-funded RELACS1 project, the Thünen Institute in Braunschweig has also developed another process with which riboflavin can be obtained from an unmodified yeast strain, in order to create another potential alternative for the animal feed market. Thus, Ecovit R® does not have to remain a monopoly.
The safety of conventional GMO-based riboflavin lacks much to be desired
As part of the RELACS project, FiBL Switzerland tested whether it is possible to use lower doses in poultry feed than the European standard without any risk to animal health or loss of performance. In several controlled dosage trials, it was shown that a riboflavin supplement of three milligrams per kilogram of feed for laying hens and four milligrams per kilogram of feed for breeders and broilers is sufficient and does not pose any risk to the animals (Leiber et al., 2022a and 2022b).
Both the Ecovit R® product and a maximum allocation of four milligrams of riboflavin per kilogram of poultry feed can be applied in practice without any risk.
Lengthy approval process
In other European countries, however, the situation is more difficult. At present, Ecovit R® is not used anywhere in the EU in compound poultry feed. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, the official status of Ecovit R® in the EU is not yet entirely clear. Since it is not an isolated riboflavin, but a riboflavin-rich yeast product, it could be considered as a single-ingredient feed that would not have major obstacles for approval. However, EU Member State representatives in the European Commission’s Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed (ScoPAFF) could not agree on this, as some countries insist that Ecovit R® should be classified as a feed additive. Therefore, the product would have to go through a lengthy and costly authorisation procedure at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
Some countries insist that Ecovit R® should be classified as a feed additive
Industry hesitates to make a clear statement
The situation is therefore relatively unclear at present and raises an important question: To what extent does the industry take the absence of GMOs in upstream production processes seriously? If national and international associations as well as feed mills and trade take a clear joint position in favour of GMO-free feed vitamins and agree on binding ground rules, political agreement and costs seem manageable.
With yeast products, holistic, regional and organic sources of riboflavin are available, while the safety of conventional GMO-based riboflavin leaves much to be desired (Rychen et al., 2018), there are also real quality reasons that speak clearly in favour of organic riboflavin. There is only one decision to be made.
Author: Dr. Florian Leiber, Head of the Department of Livestock Sciences, Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), CH-Frick
Originally published in the in the German magazine Ökologie & Landbau (#04, 2022)
Subscribe to Bio Eco Actual Newsletter and be up to date with the latest news from the Organic Sector
Bio Eco Actual, International Organic Newspaper
Read Bio Eco Actual