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Comment: The dark side of the Non-GMO Project

Critics say this effort has gone awry and is now firmly in the realm of ‘absence claim abuse’

Most consumers have seen the Non-GMO logos on bread and many other food products while shopping at the grocery store.

Today in North America, the Non-GMO Project Verified logo is on over 50,000 food products that bring in more than US$30 billion in retail sales. The green leaves and the orange butterfly are literally everywhere and the logos have been spreading since 2007.

The first product to hit the market with the logo was in 2010, barely nine years ago. GMOs, known as 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 orange butterfly as a means of avoiding the purchasing of GMOs. But now, the verification program itself is beginning to get its share of criticism.

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 would not normally see in nature.

That is one of the main reasons why many consumers are uncomfortable with the concept of genetic engineering. It is unnatural, and many critics go as far as stating that GMOs should be outlawed. All of it is done in obscure labs, without consumers providing consent. 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 anyone to avoid them. The only option was to go organic, which is quite often 20 to 30 per cent more expensive to purchase. Not everyone can afford the added prices.

The information void, created by our latest labelling policy enticed the market to go completely in the opposite direction. The Non-GMO Project, a non-profit organization located in Bellingham, Washington, is essentially the product of a poor risk communication strategy by the biotechnology sector.

Biotechnology companies, such as Bayer and BASF, only have themselves to blame. For years, they sold their products to farmers without much considering the consumers as part of the social acceptability equation. And governments in both 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 Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) in the United States.

The Non-GMO Project Verified logo essentially means two things. First, this would signify that the manufacturing company, or whichever company is behind the food product, has paid the fees for its product to become “verified” by the non-profit group. Second, the product earned the seal of approval if genetic sequences are not present above a certain threshold.

Indeed, the word “threshold” is key here. The group uses a method called polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing to analyse DNA sequences of food products. The Non-GMO Project Verified logo does not signify that the product is GMO free. Rather, it only indicates that the food product has little GMO content, but due to methodological challenges, the group cannot guarantee any products to be GMO free. The group notes this information on its website.

But most Canadians are unaware of what these logos really mean. After almost a decade, the presence of these logos on thousands of food products has only added more mystery to an already confused marketplace. Many “absence claim” offenders are on the market, but the Non-GMO Project is now seen as the most well known, the poster child of absence claim abuse.

Reports suggest now that some food companies are beginning to wonder if adding the logo on their packaging is still worth it. The U.S.-based non-profit organization, with revenues of over US$2 million, slaps its label on just about any product, including salt, water, even orange juice. Not only can salt and water not be genetically modified, many Canadian consumers are not aware that genetically engineered oranges in the marketplace do not exist.

As a result, the American FDA has recently notified the industry that it intends to crack down on exaggerated absence claims in the food industry. Suggesting or implying that food products with the Non-GMO Project Verified label are safer and more nutritious is simply misleading and rests on scrawny scientific evidence. Also, adding the logo on products that would never contain any genetically engineered ingredients in the first place does not help; affecting its credibility forever.

Still, the Non-GMO Project is hardly to blame. Consumers need to make informed decisions when purchasing food, and the group sought to provide a clear labelling system. It worked for a while, but the group’s eagerness to fix an ill has made its program more vulnerable. As a result, we may be going back to square one.

Until our government opts to adopt a mandatory labelling approach, consumers will continue to shop blindly, and that’s unfortunate.

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