Non-GMO Project Launched to Address GMO Contamination Threat
The U.S. market for Non-GMO food products emerged not long after the introduction of GM corn and soybeans in the country in 1996. Consumer advocacy groups in the U.S. began raising concerns about human health and environmental risks of GM foods in the late 1990s.
Some food companies responded by labeling their products as “Non-GMO” or “GMO Free.” But these non-GMO claims lacked the credibility of an independent, third-party certification.
In 2003, a grassroots campaign was launched by two natural food retailers in the U.S. and Canada to ask U.S. food companies to verify that their products contained no GM ingredients. This campaign grew to become the Non-GMO Project, a program to verify that foods didn’t contain GM ingredients.
Concerned about GMO contamination of their products, leading organic and natural food companies in the U.S., including Whole Foods Market gave their support to the Non-GMO Project, which was officially launched in 2007 along with a standard for GMO avoidance.
Non-GMO Project Standard
The Non-GMO Project standard was developed with input from members of the natural and organic food industries. The standard has requirements for segregation, testing, and traceability. The types of products that can receive Non-GMO Project verification include planting seed, grains, food ingredients, food products including pet foods, personal care products, vitamins and supplements, livestock feed and supplements. The Project’s action thresholds or GMO tolerances are 0.25% for seed, 0.9% for food products and supplements, 5% for livestock, poultry, and seafood feed, and 1.5% for non-food items such as cleaning supplies and clothing and textiles.
The 0.9% threshold is consistent with the European Union’s threshold for GM labeling. In the EU it can be applied if the GMO contamination is adventitious or technically unavoidable.
Since launching in 2007, the Non-GMO Project has become the de facto Non-GMO standard in the U.S. because the U.S. government has not developed a national Non-GMO standard.
An estimated 45% of Non-GMO Project Verified products are also certified organic. Many U.S. food companies consider having both certifications as the “gold standard” for consumers to avoid GMOs as well as the pesticides and antibiotics prohibited by the organic rules. Companies that meet the requirements of the Non-GMO Project standard can display the Non-GMO Project butterfly logo on their products.
Non-GMO Project Growth
Since 2007, the Non-GMO Project has grown to be a 40 billion USD market. There are 100,000 Non-GMO Project Verified products from 3,100 brands.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, sales of Non-GMO Project Verified products have grown by 15% as consumers associate non-GMO as a healthier food choice. Prior to the pandemic, Non-GMO Project Verified product sales were increasing by 5%-10% per year.
The leading category of Non-GMO Project Verified products is refrigerated foods including milk, yogurt, eggs, meat products, and pasta. The second leading category is produce fruits and vegetables. Other leading categories of Non-GMO Project Verified products include snack foods, condiments, processed foods, and breads.
Plant-based foods are a fast-growing trend, and Non-GMO is seen as an essential attribute of such foods, according to research by Mintel.
Many mainstream U.S. food brands now have Non-GMO Project Verified products including Dannon yogurt, Gerber baby foods, Frito Lay snack products, Dole fruit juices, Barry Callebaut chocolate products, and more.
Some EU-based companies also have Non-GMO Project Verified products including AGRANA, Citrique Belge, LECICO GmbH, and Tate & Lyle.
Opposition to GMOs in the U.S.
The strong sales of Non-GMO Project Verified products shows that many American consumers have concerns about the risks of GM foods. A 2020 survey by the Pew Research Center found that about half of U.S. adults (51%) think GMOs are worse for people’s health than foods with no genetically modified ingredients. A 2018 study by the Hartman Group found that 46% of American consumers avoid GM foods and 42% of those are looking for products with the Non-GMO Project seal.
A new GM labeling law, the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS), went into effect in the U.S. at the beginning of this year. NBFDS will label foods containing GM ingredients as “Bioengineered.” The law is widely criticized for containing many loopholes. An estimated 70% of processed foods in the U.S. contain GM ingredients but many of these won’t be subject to labeling if the GM ingredients aren’t detectable by testing. Such ingredients include oils made from GM corn, soy, and canola and sugar from GM sugar beets. The NBFDS also excludes products derived from animals such as milk, meat and eggs, as well as animal feed. Also, food companies can use complex Quick Response (QR) codes that must be read with a cellphone to disclose GM ingredients instead of a product label. Problems with the law have led consumer advocates to file a lawsuit to overturn it.
However, some industry experts think the law will benefit the Non-GMO Project.
“More companies will voluntarily label their products as not produced using bioengineering. If a company wants a certifiable label, I believe the Non-GMO Project is going to grow,” says Jane Kolodinsky, Chair of Community Development and Applied Economics at the University of Vermont.
The confusion over NBFDS could lead more consumers to seek out certified organic or Non-GMO Project Verified products, making those labels even more meaningful.
“At the end of the day, they will look for those ‘shortcuts to trust’ that third party certifications represent, so in that sense, the Non-GMO Project is well positioned to continue as the most meaningful and recognizable non-GMO certification,” says Hans Eisenbeis, communication director for the Non-GMO Project.