The Non-GMO Project verified seal is appearing on a growing number of food prodÂucts. Sales of Non-GMO Project verified products increased 66 percent in 2012, topping $2.4 bilÂlion in sales—and that doesn’t even include sales of Whole Foods Market’s branded products that are non-GMO verified.
As the Non-GMO Project logo appears on more and more groÂcery shelves, some memÂbers of the organic food community express conÂcerns that non-GMO will hurt sales of organic foods.
“The non-GMO label threatens the USDA Organic label,” says Greg Lickteig, direcÂtor, The Scoular Company, which sells organic and non-GMO grains. “Given two prodÂucts on the grocery store shelf, one being non-GMO and the other organic, the non-GMO prodÂuct will most cerÂtainly be less expensive.”
Rakesh Raniga, president, Indianlife Foods, which sells both organic and Non-GMO Project verÂiÂfied products, agrees. “Non-GMO verified products will be less costly, thereÂfore some conÂsumers may choose them over organic.”
Lynn Clarkson, president of Clarkson Grain, a supÂplier of organic and non-GMO grains, also sees non-GMO competing with organic. “Yes, I think that a non-GMO label will comÂpete with the USDA organic label for buyers’ food dollars,” he says. “I do not have a sense of how much damage it will do. The best way to avoid GMOs is to buy foods graced with the USDA organic label.”
However, he also says that a non-GMO label could be a stepping stone to more organic demand. “If interÂest in a non-GMO label sensitizes buyers to the consequences of farmers widely using pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, such develÂopÂment might actually increase demand for certified organic foods.”
The Organic Trade Association hasn’t looked at any possible impact of the Non-GMO Project on organic, says Laura Batcha, executive vice presÂiÂdent of the Organic Trade Association. However, she says OTA surveys show increasÂing awareÂness and concern about GMOs among organic consumers. “The numÂber of parÂents that cite avoiding GMOs as a reaÂson to eat organics rose to 22%, up from 17% in 2011,” Batcha says. “We take that as a positive indication that consumers see GMOs as a core reason to purchase organic.”
Compatible with organics
Jim Riddle, coordinator, graduate student organic research grant program at the Ceres Trust and forÂmer chair of the National Organic Standards Board, doesn’t see a conÂflict between non-GMO verÂiÂfied and organic. “Many of those (non-GMO) claims appear on organic prodÂucts, and they are comÂpatÂiÂble with organic prodÂucts and mesÂsagÂing,” he says.
Furthermore Riddle says “Both mandatory GMO labels and voluntary non-GMO labels will force organic producers and marketers to up their game and describe how their production systems have been shown to proÂtect soil health and water quality; prevent pesticide contamination; and build biodiversity better than non-organic systems.”
As Riddle points out, many organic products also feature the Non-GMO Project verÂiÂfied seal. According to Megan Westgate, Non-GMO Project executive director, more than half of the Project’s 9,000 verified products are organic. Also, leadÂing organic food companies such as Eden Foods, Nature’s Path, and Lundberg Family Farms have been strong supÂportÂers of the Non-GMO Project since its founding.
Westgate says both labels are needed to help conÂsumers avoid GMOs. “We are comÂmitÂted to helping peoÂple underÂstand the respective values of certified organic and Non-GMO Project verified, and we regÂuÂlarly encourÂage peoÂple to seek out both labels as the gold standard,” she says.
Ken Whitman, presÂiÂdent of Natural Vitality [and pubÂlisher of Organic Connections], which sells organic supÂpleÂments that are also Non-GMO Project verÂiÂfied, says the non-GMO label is needed. “All food isn’t organic, and in the absence of GMO labelÂing there needs to be a way shopÂpers can be assured that the prodÂucts they are buyÂing are not genetÂiÂcally modÂiÂfied. The Non-GMO Project has filled that need,” he says.
Is there room for both labels?
Several organic indusÂtry experts say that eduÂcated organic conÂsumers would already know that organic is one of their best options to avoid GMOs since the National Organic Program rules conÂsider genetic engiÂneerÂing an “excluded method.”
“The true organic disÂciÂple will underÂstand that ‘organic’ has to be non-GMO,” says Steve Ford, presÂiÂdent of Stonebridge, Ltd., a supÂplier of non-GMO and organic soybeans.
“When it comes to labelÂing non-GMO prodÂucts it must be underÂstood that if you’re certitied organic then you’re non-GMO,” says Randal Buresh, presÂiÂdent of Oregon’s Wild Harvest. “The Non-GMO Project may help spread the word about organic farming, helping to clarify what being organic is all about.”
Brendan McEntee, presÂiÂdent of Cook Natural Products (also not a Non-GMO Project comÂpany), agrees. “For the informed organic conÂsumer there will not be any conÂfuÂsion about organic not being non-GMO.” Though he also says “Certain organic products may lose marÂket share to cerÂtiÂfied non-GMO.”
Bob Sinner, presÂiÂdent, SB&B Foods, a supÂplier of non-GMO and organic grains, sees a place for both non-GMO and organic labelÂing. “I underÂstand why the organic folks might try to protect their labeling turf, but as a uniÂfied effort to supÂport the conÂsumers that reject biotech, I would hope they realÂize the benÂeÂfits of both non-GMO and organic labelÂng,” he says.
Whitman conÂcurs. “I don’t think we need a turf war between organic and non-GMO. It wouldn’t be proÂducÂtive. GMO is unpopular with health-conscious shopÂpers. Organic is popÂuÂlar. Can’t we just get along?”