Understanding GMOs and non-GMO certification.


Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), to say the least, are a hot button issue. However, while the debate about the potential risks of GMOs continues to rage in the mainstream food industry, scientific community and political arena, within the natural products industry, the position is clear: NO GMOs. For this reason, natural products retailers are leading the way in providing quality products free from GMOs and educating their customers about the dangers GMO crops pose to our environment and our health. These ideals are spilling over into the mainstream, but it has not been without pushback and GMOs continue to flourish despite activism for the contrary. Let’s explore the recent actions regarding GMOs and what the experts have to say about the state of non-GMO labeling and agriculture.

GMOs: The Basics
A GMO is an organism altered in a lab through a gene-splicing technique that gives it a desired trait. The most prominent example of a GMO is Monsanto’s Roundup Ready Corn, which is modified to be resistant to glyphosate, an herbicide which the firm has branded Roundup. Resistance is possible because the herbicide is spliced into the genetic makeup of the corn, allowing farmers to spray the herbicide on crops to kill destructive weeds without harming the corn itself.

Here lies the major point of contention. When organic agriculture became something to strive for, it was to curb the use of herbicides and pesticides which are carcinogenic to people and pollute the environment. Now, to younger generations, it seems that organic agriculture has become about avoiding GMOs, but the prohibition of these chemicals is still central to the opposition of GMOs.

“In my view the most direct and obvious concern is the heavy use of pesticides associated with the production of GMO crops,” says Jim Fullmer, co-director, Demeter Association, Inc., Philomath, OR. “Glyphosate, for instance, is seen by much of the world as a carcinogen. Crops engineered to be able to resist glyphosate tend to have huge amounts of the herbicide applied to them as well as synthetic pesticides that are intrinsically part of such a farming system.”

Megan Westgate, co-founder and executive director  of  the Non-GMO Project agrees. “Over 80% of all GMOs grown worldwide are engineered for herbicide tolerance,” she explains. The logic behind making crops resistant to glyphosate was that it is a broad spectrum herbicide, removing the need to use multiple herbicides, thus reducing herbicide usage overall. Unfortunately, this did not pan out as the perpetual use of glyphosate allowed weeds to adapt and become resistant. Westgate cites a report stating that the response to herbicide resistant weeds created an increase in overall herbicide use — estimated at 383 million pounds higher than would have been the case without Roundup Ready crops (1).

This would be bad enough if not for the fact that biotech companies such as Monsanto have a financial stake in the proliferation of GMOs, profiting from both the sales of the herbicide and the herbicide-resistant seeds.

At-risk crops. According to the Non-GMO Project, based on data from December 2011, the crops most at risk of being genetically modified in the food supply are canola, corn, cotton, soy and sugar beet (see full breakdown in side bar, p. 60) (2). Animals are also at risk of contamination by GMOs from their feed which is all too often, corn, soy and canola. Additionally, “Over 80% of packaged foods in North America contain ingredients derived from GMOs (particularly corn, soy and sugar beets),” states Westgate. “At-risk” means not only that the plant grew from a genetically modified seed, but that it could have been contaminated by them.

This can happen in a variety of ways explains Fullmer, such as “genetic drift via wind or insects and contamination via the post- harvest handling of crops such as in transport and cleaning.” Factors like pollination via wind or insects can effect crops miles away. This makes the work of certifying products as non-GMO more tricky. For example, while crops certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are prohibited from using genetically modified seeds, requiring farmers to take precautions to prevent drift from surrounding GMO crops as well as avoiding co-mingling during post-harvest handling, Fullmer points out that USDA does not have a contamination threshold.

Westgate confirms this, but adds that USDA’s National Organic Program, “has excellent guidelines for traceability and segregation, which complements the Non-GMO Project’s Product Verification Program. The Non-GMO Project Standard is designed to honor the work that certified organic companies are already doing, with the added measure of testing risk ingredients at critical control points.”

While the Non-GMO Project is pragmatic, Demeter’s Biodynamic standards take a zero tolerance approach to GMO contamination. Keep in mind that, as Westgate points out, “64 countries, including Australia, Japan, and all of the countries in the European Union, have significant restrictions or outright bans on the production and sale of GMOs.” Demeter is an international non-profit quite dominant in Europe where the prevalence of GMOs is basically nonexistent.

“The Standard focuses on the idea of a farm being a holistic, regenerative, self-regulating system and when a farmer is being trespassed upon in manner out of his/her control, we really feel this is a basic violation of the farmers right to hold onto and develop their own seed genetics, and also to produce food free of GMO contamination,” explains Fullmer. “Thus it is true that from some regions of the USA there might not be the ability to grow certain crops as Biodynamic, and this is a painful reality, but the farm as a whole is not penalized.”

That is not to sound defeatist, as Non-GMO Project Verification and Biodynamic certification continue to grow. Currently, over 43,000 companies with products in every category have made the effort to comply with Non-GMO Project standards and Biodynamic acreage in the U.S. has increased 16% to 21,791 from 18,720.

Supplements. Foods are not the only products at risk of being contaminated by GMOs. “Many supplement ingredients are derived from high-risk crops like corn and soy,” explains Westgate. “Vitamins, probiotics and enzymes are other common examples of supplement inputs with GMO risk.” In an effort to improve transparency in the supplement industry, Non-GMO Project has been working with the Coalition for Supplement Sustainability to build a non-GMO supply chain for supplements.

GMO Developments. Despite the increased demand of non-GMO products, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to approve genetically engineered produce and even animals. For example, on March 20, 2015, FDA approved genetically engineered apples and potatoes. The apples, of Granny Smith and Golden Delicious varieties, collectively named “Arctic Apples,” are designed to resist browning. The potatoes, of Ranger Russet, Russet Burbank and Atlantic varieties, trade name “Innate,” are designed to reduce the formation of black spot bruises (3).

FDA also approved the first genetically engineered animal intended for food; the AquAdvantage Atlantic Salmon. Designed by AquaBounty technologies, the fish is engineered to grow to market size at a faster rate. FDA determined that the salmon is safe to eat and that its production has no significant environmental impact (4). Despite being a few years away from going to market, AquaBounty already has some major obstacles, as several retailers, including Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s and Target, have already pledged not to sell the GMO salmon (5).

What is also important to keep in mind is that science is progressing and with this progress, comes newer, more innovative ways to genetically alter organisms. “There is now a growing list of food crops coming from so called ‘synthetic biology’ that Demeter USA also considers genetic engineering,” explains Fullmer. “Examples include Crispr, manipulated gene drives and cytoplasmic male sterility.” These are important to keep an eye on because science also progresses much faster than the law, which has only recently taken any steps towards GMO transparency.

Transparency and Consumer Awareness
Labeling. The saga to create mandatory GMO labeling laws is a long one, but here is a brief synopsis. Certifications like USDA Certified Organic, Non-GMO Project Verified and Demeter’s Biodynamic are all voluntary ways for producers and brands to represent their values and stand out among other products as free from GMOs. However, there still remain all these other products which do contain GMOs and people are unaware. Wanting transparency for consumers, some states began devising laws to require product labels to state the presence of GMOs.

Vermont was the first to accomplish this, passing the Vermont Genetically Engineered Food Labeling Act (Act 120) in May 2014 mandating that raw produce and processed foods that are genetically modified or made with genetically modified ingredients be labeled as such, with the exception of animal products (e.g., meat and eggs), alcohol and dietary supplements or drugs (6). The law also prohibited the use of the term “natural” on genetically modified product labels or advertising as it would constitute a form of deception.

The passage of this single state law and the potential for other individual states passing similar mandates sparked a race for mainstream food lobbies and lawmakers on the Hill to draft a alternative labeling law that would preempt the Vermont law. Food lobbies and lawmakers feared that these individual state laws would create a patchwork of rules that would be costly for manufacturers to follow (ie. different label requirements and implementation) and therefore the cost would pass onto consumers. Proponents of transparency hoped this would make a nationwide mandatory labeling law possible, while detractors hoped to avoid any mandatory labeling.

Indeed, the first iteration of a bill proposed to preempt the Vermont law, H.R. 1599, was dubbed by anti-GMO activists, the D.A.R.K. Act, otherwise, the Deny Americans the Right to Know Act. It would have made stating the presence of GMOs in a product voluntary, essentially enabling a lack of transparency in the marketplace. The bill passed through the House but not the Senate, where it underwent a few revisions. Ultimately, a compromise was reached last June when Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry and Pat Roberts (R-KS), the Committee Chairman, reached a bipartisan agreement.

The bill which ultimately passed the Senate and was signed into law by President Obama the following month required the mandatory disclosure of GMOs but left it up to the manufacturer how to disclose it, whether by  text,  symbol,  or  electronic  or  digital  link (7). While this still remains a half measure for many anti-GMO activists, demand for transparency has gained steam and some food giants during the course of this debate chose to voluntarily disclose the presence of GMOs even before any law was passed, including Campbell Soup Co. and General Mills.

Are your customers informed? You are sure to run into both well-informed as well as ill-informed customers, both of which may have misconceptions about GMOs and non-GMO products. For example, one common misconception among consumers who seek non-GMO products, says Fullmer, is that “non-GMO labeled products are ‘organic’ when in fact non GMO labeled products may still be produced using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in farming systems.” This is a very important distinction to make, because while organic products can certainly be non-GMO, many non-GMO products cannot be organic because despite not using genetically modified seeds, they still utilize farming methods prohibited in organic agriculture. If pesticides and synthetic fertilizer are still a major concern for a customer, they should also seek out organic certification on their products.

Newer customers, while open to natural foods and exploring healthy alternatives, may be skeptical of the value of buying non-GMO products or dismissive of the risks GMOs pose. This is not unusual as there is a great deal of contradicting information and the backlash to GMOs is often framed as being in conflict with the science that reinforces their safety and value.

“In the U.S. and Canada, GMOs have been approved based on studies conducted by the same corporations that created them and profit from their sale,” explains Westgate. “GMOs are a direct extension of chemical agriculture and are developed and sold by the world’s biggest private chemical companies explicitly for profit and the sale of more chemicals.”

Breakdown of At-Risk Crops (2)

• Canola (approximately 90% of U.S. crop)
• Corn (approximately 88% of U.S. crop)
• Cotton (approximately 90% of U.S. crop)
• Papaya (approximately 988 acres, mostly in Hawaii)
• Soy (approximately 94% of U.S. crop)
• Sugar beet (approximately 95% of U.S. crop)
• Zucchini/summer yellow squash (approximately 25,000 acres)
• Alfalfa (first planted in 2011)

She cites a review of GMO literature that found that most of studies that determined foods made from GMOs were no different from conventional foods were conducted by the biotechnology companies themselves or their associations (8). For that matter, states Westgate, “Of the 13 men and women named to a panel of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that will make 2017 recommendations to the White House on regulating the biotech industry, seven have potential conflicts of interest. To date, there have been no epidemiological studies investigating potential effects of GMO food on human health.”

This makes the information surrounding GMOs suspect, as the agrochemical companies have vast resources to fund research in support of their products and marketing those results, leaving little room for contrary results, creating the illusion of scientific consensus. For example, the aforementioned review of literature found a roughly equal number of research groups raising concerns about genetically engineered foods and those suggesting GMOs were as safe. Westgate also cites a statement signed by 300 scientists that states, “The claimed consensus is…an artificial construct that has been falsely perpetuated through diverse fora.

Irrespective of contradictory evidence in the referred literature…the claim that there is now a consensus on the safety of GMOs continues to be widely and often uncritically aired. Published results are contradictory, in part due to the range of different research methods employed, an inadequacy of available procedures, and differences in the analysis and interpretation of data. Such a lack of consensus on safety is also evidenced by the agreement of policymakers from over 160 countries” (9).

A broad mischaracterization of GMOs that is often embraced is the narrative that they help feed the world, creating output that is not possible with organic agriculture. “GMO crops are not about feeding the world but about patented ownership of the global food supply,” states Westgate. In fact, extensive research has demonstrated the idea of GMOs feeding the world to be false. A study conducted by the Rodale Institute called the Farming Systems Trial, which began in 1981 and for more than 30 years has run two concurrent farm systems, one organic, the other conventional to determine which one performs better (10). Their 30 year report states that organic agriculture was not just more sustainable, using 45% less energy and producing 40% less greenhouse gases but also outperformed conventional agriculture. Organic agriculture matched conventional yields generally, but outperformed conventional yields in times of drought, making it more reliable and ultimately profitable than conventional agriculture.

This is not an easy subject to thoroughly understand, but for the average consumer, a little bit of knowledge goes a long way.


  1. “Critical Issue Report: The First Thirteen Years.” The Organic Center. https://www.organic-center.org/reportfiles/GE13YearsReport.pdf, Accessed 1/31/2017
  2. “What Is GMO?” www.nongmoproject.org/learn-more/what-is-gmo, Accessed 1/31/2017.
  3. “FDA concludes Arctic Apples and Innate Potatoes Are Safe For Consumption,” www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm439121.htm, Accessed 1/31/2017.
  4. “FDA Takes Several Actions Involving Genetically Engineered Plants and Animals for Food,” www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm473249.htm?source=govdelivery&utm_medium=email&utm_source=govdelivery, Accessed 1/31/2017.
  5. “GE Salmon Faces Exclusion from Retailers,” www.wholefoodsmagazine.com/news/breaking-news/ge-salmon-faces-exclusion-retailers/WF657914, Accessed 1/31/2017.
  6. Vermont Act 120 Rulemaking, http://ago.vermont.gov/assets/files/Consumer/GE_Food/Act%20120%20Public%20Presentation%20FINAL.pdf, Accessed 1/31/2017.
  7. 7. “Senate Passes GMO Labeling Bill.” WholeFoods Magazine. http://www.wholefoodsmagazine.com/news/main-news/senate-passes-gmo-labeling-bill, Accessed 1/31/2017.
  8. J.L. Domingo and J. Giné Bordonaba. “A literature review on the safety assessment of genetically modified plants.” Environ Int. 37(4):734-42. 2011.
  9. A. Hilbeck, et al. “No scientific consensus on GMO safety.” http://enveurope.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s12302-014-0034-1, Accessed 2/1/2017.
  10. “The Farming Systems Trial Celebrates Thirty Years.” http://rodaleinstitute.org/assets/FSTbookletFINAL.pdf, Accessed 2/1/2017.