GMO Nuance

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are back...in the news, that is.  They've been around a long time so, really, they've never left.  But now with both GMO labeling campaigns alongside Chipotle's announcement that they're removing GMO food from their restaurants, the politics of what it means to be "GMO" are in full swing.

It's confusing.

Surprisingly, no federal agency sets GMO claim standards (like the ones you might see in the supermarket - Non-GMO, GMO Free, No GMOs, etc.). Rep. Mike Pompeo's (R-KS) proposed legislation - HR 1599, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 - would change this by creating a national standard for Non-GMO claims.  As I wrote about last week, there is really only one organization, the Non-GMO Project, that is seen as the standard bearer for certifying foods without GMOs.  They are a non-profit third party organization tasked with determining which foods meet their criteria for Non-GMO Project Verified. 

Here is more about them, in their words:

"While you may see other claims regarding GMO status (e.g. “GMO free”), these are really not legally or scientifically defensible, and they are not verified by a third party. The Non-GMO Project is the only organization offering independent verification of testing and GMO controls for products in the U.S. and Canada. Buying products that are verified by our program is the best way to support the sustained availability of non-GMO choices in North America."

Next time you're in the supermarket, peruse the aisles and have a look.

On the surface, a national standard seems like a great idea.  Less consumer confusion, and a single set of criteria across the board.  But critics worry a USDA Non-GMO certification program would significantly lower the bar, that more foods that shouldn't would end up getting certified.  Which brings us back to Chipotle.

Quick reminder - Chipotle's anti-GMO campaign claims they've taken GMOs off the menu.  Yet some consumers have felt this is misleading, leading to a ongoing lawsuit against Chipotle.  The issue?  Their soda contains high fructose corn syrup (made from GMO corn) and their meat is from animals fed GMO feed.  The Non-GMO Project will not certify foods as Non-GMO if the animal feed (or eggs, milk, or any other food where genetic engineering (GE) was part of the production process) was GMO, making Chipotle's claims untrue in their eyes.  Follow?

This is important because critics argue that a USDA standard will result in GMO-free claims that include animals fed GMO feed, a weaker standard than the one the Non-GMO Project currently sets.  It's a small detail but hugely important to the corn industry, and the animal feed industry generally. The vast majority of feed out there is GMO so this would no doubt greatly affect this sector, no matter the outcome.  In addition to animal feed, HR 1599 would also allow the GMO-free designation if animals were given GE drugs, or produced with GE in some way.

What to make of all this?  To me, a single standard set by a government agency seems useful for so many reasons, not the least of which consumers will know what symbol to look for in a grocery store (if they choose to avoid GMO foods).  But the standard would have to be credible and consumers would have to trust that it means something, otherwise we're left with a government standard, third party certifiers, a host of icons and claims, and a sea of dazed shoppers.

Reminds me of the fair trade, sustainable, shade grown buzz words we too often see in the store.  There are so many, and taken together they end up meaning nothing at all.