Major GM labelling initiative in US: the Non-GMO Project
October 21, 2008
In a recent poll, 53% of Americans said that they would not eat GM foods – a significant disparity between what consumers in the US want from their food system and what that food system is actually delivering. It also demonstrates a lack of consumer knowledge about the proportion of food in America that contains GM. The majority of this 53% will already be unwittingly consuming GM food every day against their wishes, because GM food is currently not labelled in the US, despite the fact that 87% of Americans believe that it should be.
The US Government’s opposition to telling American consumers that some of their food is GM stems from the greatest coup by the GM companies, which was to ensure no GM food had to be tested for safety. The concept of “substantial equivalence” means that if a GM crop looks like its non-GM equivalent and grows like it, then it is assumed to be the same, and no safety testing is needed before people eat it. GM maize may have added virus and antibiotic resistance genes, and a gene that makes it express an insecticide in every leaf, stem and root – but to the US government it looks and grows like maize, so it is safe to eat.
This has meant that GM foods don’t have to be labelled, and has resulted in widespread ignorance among consumers about the presence of GM in their food. Keeping consumers in the dark has prevented them from making real choices about the food they eat. Without labels the principles of supply and demand are no longer in effect as consumers can’t send a message to farmers and manufacturers about what they do, and don’t, want to eat.
Even though general consumer knowledge of GMOs is low in the US, there are still consumers who are well-informed and want to feed themselves and their families non-GM foods. North America has a thriving natural products industry and many organic and natural food companies. These companies have made a number of attempts to maintain non-GM status, however:
over others in the supply chain
supplies of ingredients, in some cases having to discontinue some product lines as they could no longer secure guaranteed non-GM ingredients
The Non-GMO Project
In 2005, two natural food retailers started the ‘Non-GMO Project’, to develop a robust, industry-wide non-GMO verification system thatwould provide consumers with a trustworthy and recognisable non-GMO label to look for on products.The project would provide efficiencies of scale and would enable certification to be done in a simple low-cost way. The companies’ united front could send a message to suppliers about non-GMO demand.
They ensured the project would have robust scientific backing, and by 2007 the project expanded its board of directors to include representatives from all stakeholder groups in the natural products industry.
The project is now supported by the biggest companies in the North American natural and organic sector, an industry worth over $62 billion in the US alone.
Well-known brands such as Whole Foods, Seeds of Change and Nature’s Way are supporting the campaign, along with around 400 companies across the US and Canada, representing annual sales of around $12billion.
The Non-GMO verification scheme has just opened (summer 2008) for product registration. Already several hundred products have been enrolled and it is anticipated that several thousand will be registered in the coming months. The project has also set up an ingredient supplier database to help manufacturers find uncontaminated ingredients through access to a list of verified non-GM suppliers. As increasing numbers of processors and distributors get their products verified, the database of trusted sources is growing.
The Non-GMO seal will be launched on labels in October 2009 in conjunction with a major consumer awareness campaign. Several things indicate that the US market is ready for this sort of initiative. Greater interest in healthy food among consumers is reflected by the steady growth in sales of natural and organic food. In 2007, the US natural products industry was worth $62 billionn and growing at 10%, while the organic sector was worth $20 billion and growing at 21%. With the uproar over rBGH dairy products finally making GM a prominent consumer issue, American consumers are beginning to ask more questions about where their food comes from.The project is anticipating registration of around 28,000 unique products from the organic and natural industry in the verification scheme over the next few years, representing 70% of the sector.
By implementing the non-GMO standard, the project aims to keep new GM crops from gaining dominance and build a resilient non-GM food sector within the United States.