Non-GMO Project Brings Transparency to Organic Foods

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People buy organic foods for many reasons: their health, better taste, a desire to keep pesticides and herbicides out of our air, water and soil and a conviction that buying organic is one way to eat GMO-free.

One of the big problems with GMOs is that non-GMO crops can be contaminated through pollen drift. The fact that the organic field of soybeans used to make your organic soymilk could contain genetically modified material from a neighboring farm hasn’t been a possibility that most organic food producers have wanted to talk about or a question they have wanted to ask.

Independent organic and natural food producers, independent natural food stores and the largest natural/organic foods grocery store and natural/organic food distributor in the country have joined forces in the Non-GMO Project. Eden Foods, Nature’s Path, UNFI (a distributor of natural and organic foods), Straus Family Creamery, Whole Foods Market and many others have signed on. (Check out the complete list of enrolled products.)

The idea is simple, though the outcome will likely be complicated. Enrollees in the project agree to test any ingredients in their products that are grown in GMO form in America. Products that are verified as (nearly) GMO free by the process will be labeled with a GMO Verified seal. But because contamination is already so likely, the project wants to make sure consumers understand that this doesn’t mean the product is 100% GMO-free.

From the Non-GMO Project website:

“It is not a guarantee that the product is 100% GMO free. The reason for this is that our program is process-based, using a set of best practices to avoid contamination. We do require testing of all ingredients (everything being grown in GMO form in North America), but we don’t require testing of every single finished product. Instead, testing can be done at any one of a number of places in the production chain, for example right after harvest.Following the test, which must indicate that the ingredient is below 0.9% GMO (in alignment with laws in the European Union), we require rigorous traceability and segregation practices to be followed in order to ensure that the tested ingredients are what get used in the product. So in short,  what our seal means is that a product has been produced according to rigorous best practices for GMO avoidance, including testing of risk ingredients.”

The non-GMO project is radical.

With all of the recent bad press about organics, the organic establishment does not want to be looking for any GMO skeletons in any closets. Whatever they find could be very bad for business and very bad for the organic label. But that’s short-term thinking. The forward thinking companies that have signed onto the non-GMO project recognize that the credibility of the organic label is in question without further reassurance.

Getting the problem out in the open and being transparent about the process is not only the right thing to do, it’s a smart business decision, as well. Ignoring the problem in hopes that it won’t blow up is a poor way to do business.

Transparency was a huge part of organics in the beginning and some companies still uphold the value of transparency. As the Chicago Tribune points out, large conventional companies usually don’t want you to know that they own your favorite organic brands. That being the case, they certainly wouldn’t want you to know their products might be contaminated with GMOs.

It’s instructive to take a look at the list of food companies that have signed on to the non-GMO project. The few remaining independent organic and natural food companies that have refused to sell to large conventional conglomerates are there: Eden Foods, Nature’s Path, Turtle Island Foods and Straus Family Creamery are some of the participants with the most widely distributed products.

These companies are also some of the most principled in the business. Eden foods was the first company to stop using BPA-lined cans. Turtle Island won’t use any ingredient that is processed using hexane. None of these companies are owned by anyone other than their founders. Though I don’t buy a lot of packaged foods, when I do, these are the types of brands I’ll choose. When faced with a choice between Silk (owned by Dean Foods) and Eden, there is no contest. This handy visual chart will tell you who owns your favorite organic brands.

A number of retailers have endorsed the project – mostly small independents and co-ops. Whole Foods Market has signed on, which is hugely important in my opinion, and something they deserve praise for (they need it right now).

In related news, a U.S. District judge rejected the USDA’s decision to allow genetically modified sugar beets to enter the market. The decision was based largely on the risk of contamination to non-GMO crops due to cross-pollination. According to, the judge “cited studies that said winds can carry sugar beet pollen at least 2 1/2 miles, much farther than the voluntary buffer zones between beet crops recommended by Oregon agriculture officials.”

Want to buy non-GMO certified products? According to the New York Times, labels could start appearing on products this fall.

Image: jonboymitchell

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.