Non-GMO Project has a dark side

Sug­gest­ing food prod­ucts with ver­i­fied non-GMO la­bel are safer is mis­lead­ing

The Peterborough Examiner - - Opinion - SYL­VAIN CHARLEBOIS Dr. Syl­vain Charlebois is se­nior di­rec­tor of the agri-food an­a­lyt­ics lab and a pro­fes­sor in food dis­tri­bu­tion and pol­icy at Dal­housie Univer­sity, and a se­nior fel­low with the At­lantic In­sti­tute for Mar­ket Stud­ies. © Troy Me­dia

Most con­sumers have seen non-GMO lo­gos on bread and other food prod­ucts at the gro­cery store. But the ver­i­fi­ca­tion pro­gram now faces crit­i­cism.

The Non-GMO Project ver­i­fied logo is now on over 50,000 food prod­ucts in North Amer­ica that bring in more than $30 bil­lion in re­tail sales. The green leaves and or­ange but­ter­fly logo first started show­ing up on prod­ucts in 2010 and are now seem­ingly ev­ery­where.

GMOs (ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied or­gan­isms) have at­tracted fierce crit­i­cism since they en­tered the food chain in 1994. GMO op­po­nents rou­tinely urge con­sumers to choose prod­ucts with the logo as a means of avoid­ing

GMOs.

A GMO is a plant or an­i­mal whose ge­netic makeup has been al­tered in a lab­o­ra­tory us­ing ge­netic engi­neer­ing or trans­genic tech­nol­ogy.

Most things in na­ture are ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied, but biotech­nolo­gies cre­ate ge­netic com­bi­na­tions we wouldn’t nor­mally see in na­ture.

That’s one of the main rea­sons many con­sumers are un­com­fort­able with the con­cept of ge­netic engi­neer­ing: it’s un­nat­u­ral. Many crit­ics go as far as stat­ing GMOs should be out­lawed.

GMO de­vel­op­ment is car­ried out in labs with­out con­sumer con­sent.

Then those ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered crops — such as canola, corn and soy — are grown by farm­ers and en­ter the food chain.

Since both the United States and Canada have a vol­un­tary la­belling regime for ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied food in­gre­di­ents, it was al­most im­pos­si­ble for con­sumers to avoid buy­ing nonGMO prod­ucts. The only op­tion was to go or­ganic, but those items quite of­ten are 20 to 30 per cent more ex­pen­sive. Not ev­ery­one can af­ford the added cost.

The in­for­ma­tion void on the mar­ket, cre­ated by lax la­belling poli­cies, en­cour­aged a move­ment in the op­po­site di­rec­tion.

The Non-GMO Project, a non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion lo­cated in Belling­ham, Wash., is essen­tially the prod­uct of a poor risk-com­mu­ni­ca­tion strat­egy by the biotech­nol­ogy sec­tor. Com­pa­nies like Bayer and BASF only have them­selves to blame. For years they sold their prod­ucts to farm­ers with­out much con­sid­er­a­tion for con­sumers. And gov­ern­ments in Canada and the United States have sanc­tioned the en­tire cha­rade for al­most three decades.

But the Non-GMO Project has its flaws, which are now be­ing ex­posed by a greater num­ber of or­ga­ni­za­tions, in­clud­ing the U.S. Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion (FDA).

The Non-GMO Project ver­i­fied logo essen­tially means two things:

• the com­pany be­hind the food prod­uct has paid for its prod­uct to be ver­i­fied by the group;

• the prod­uct earned ap­proval be­cause ge­netic se­quences aren’t present above a cer­tain thresh­old. The “thresh­old” is key.

The group uses a method called poly­merase chain re­ac­tion (PCR) test­ing to an­a­lyze DNA se­quences of food prod­ucts. The ver­i­fied logo doesn’t sig­nify that the prod­uct is GMO-free. It only in­di­cates that the prod­uct has lit­tle GMO con­tent.

Method­olog­i­cal chal­lenges mean the group can’t guar­an­tee any prod­uct is GMO-free. The group notes this on its web­site.

So most con­sumers don’t know what the lo­gos re­ally mean. After al­most a decade, the pres­ence of the lo­gos on thousands of food prod­ucts has only added mys­tery to an al­ready con­fused mar­ket­place.

Some com­pa­nies are ap­par­ently be­gin­ning to won­der if putting the logo on pack­ag­ing is still worth it.

The non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion, with rev­enues of over $2 mil­lion, slaps its la­bel on just about any prod­uct, in­clud­ing salt, wa­ter and even or­ange juice. Not only can salt and wa­ter not be ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied, many con­sumers aren’t aware that there are no ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered or­anges in the mar­ket­place.

So FDA re­cently told the in­dus­try it will crack down on ex­ag­ger­ated claims. Sug­gest­ing or im­ply­ing that food prod­ucts with the Non-GMO Project la­bel are safer and more nu­tri­tious is sim­ply mis­lead­ing and rests on scrawny sci­en­tific ev­i­dence. And putting the logo on prod­ucts that would never con­tain any ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered in­gre­di­ents just dam­ages the cred­i­bil­ity of the project.

Still, the Non-GMO Project is hardly to blame. Con­sumers need and want to make in­formed pur­chas­ing de­ci­sions and the group sought to pro­vide a clear la­belling sys­tem. It worked for a while, but the group’s ea­ger­ness has made the pro­gram more vul­ner­a­ble.

So we may be go­ing back to square one. Un­til North Amer­i­can gov­ern­ments adopt a manda­tory la­belling, con­sumers will un­for­tu­nately con­tinue to shop blindly.

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