One of the most common questions we get at the Non-GMO Project is why we verify products that are seemingly not at risk or at low-risk of being produced from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). While it may seem strange to have Non-GMO Project Verified salt or fruit, there are several important reasons that we verify all types of products—including those for which genetically modified versions have not yet been commercialized.
Hidden high-risk ingredients
First, some ingredients that seem low-risk may contain less-visible high-risk ingredients. Take, for example, dried fruit. Products like raisins and prunes are sometimes coated with a small quantity of an oil to keep them moist. The oils used on dried fruit are often at high-risk of being produced from genetically modified soybeans or canola. According to the Non-GMO Project Standard, all major GMO risk ingredients must be tested and evaluated prior to use in a Verified product.
Consumer knowledge about GMO ingredients
Verifying only high-risk products puts a burden on consumers to know what crops are currently being genetically engineered and which ingredients are derived from these GMOs. Most consumers do not walk around with encyclopedic knowledge of what is at high-risk for being a GMO. Every year we see new GMOs enter the marketplace and it is very complicated to discern which ingredients might be derived from a genetically engineered crop. The Non-GMO Project wants to make it as easy as possible for shoppers to know that the products they are buying are truly non-GMO.
Providing a level playing field for all non-GMO products
Only labeling products that are either at high-risk of being GMO or at high-risk of being contaminated with GMOs would potentially confuse consumers and might also create an unfair competitive advantage for the companies who seek Verification of high-risk ingredients. Picture a shopper in the grocery store aisle looking at two jars of raspberry jam, one sweetened with beet sugar (95 percent of U.S. sugar beets are genetically modified) and one sweetened with cane sugar (GMO versions are in development, but not on the market yet). If we only allowed high-risk products to carry the Butterfly, only the jar with beet sugar could have the seal. Then, the average shopper would likely put the cane sugar jam without the seal back on the shelf, assuming it must be at risk for being made with GMOs.
Building and maintaining a non-GMO food supply
The Non-GMO Project’s mission is to preserve and build a non-GMO food supply. By verifying low-risk products, the Non-GMO Project’s work builds consumer interest and industry investment in non-GMO food production. Biotech developers are constantly working to patent and commercialize new organisms (apples, bacteria, cows, salmon, wheat etc.). The lack of regulation and oversight for GMOs—including trials conducted in open-air fields at undisclosed locations—means there are ongoing and serious risks of contamination from experimental varieties. By including low-risk products in the scope of our program, we are poised to respond to contamination, identify risk products and conduct testing to get any problems under control quickly.
In addition, thanks to consumer demand, the Non-GMO Project is changing the way food companies look at their business in regards to sourcing ingredients and the supply chain. Companies are now proactively seeking Non-GMO Project Verification to demonstrate their non-GMO commitment and setting the bar for the future of food production. Every day consumers learn about our mission through the more than 40,000 products that carry the Butterfly seal, and they contact us to learn more through our websites and social media. Here are three examples of ingredients we receive questions about:
While not an organism, most table salt or sea salt on the market today has minor amounts of other ingredients—such as the anti‑caking agent dextrose—which are likely to be derived from genetically modified corn. However, these agents are considered to be “processing aids” and thus do not have to be included in the list of ingredients. Our rigorous verification process tracks down GMO risks that might not be obvious to the consumer. Some manufacturers choose to demonstrate to consumers that these ingredients are not the result of genetic modification. Packages of salt carrying the Non-GMO Project Verified seal give shoppers a non-GMO salt option, and also help educate shoppers about the multitude of micro inputs that exist in common products that seemingly have no connection to GMOs.
Genetically modified oranges have been developed in test plots, but they are not yet commercially available to growers. Non-GMO Project Verified oranges and other Verified low-risk ingredients help shed light on the issues of new novel organisms that are constantly being created in labs. Also, similar to table salt, minor amounts of other ingredients in orange juice could have originated as GMOs—citric acid, vitamin D and many other supplements begin as a substrate or derivative of genetically modified corn. Our seal provides assurance that the entire product was evaluated, and our rigorous Standard puts pressure on companies to change their ingredients to non-GMO sources.
Vegetable oil can sometimes contain combinations of different oil varieties even when the product claims to be a single ingredient food. Reports have found cases of fraud in the cooking oil industry. As the manufacturing of oil removes the GMO marker, testing—in this case, the seed—all the original ingredients are critical to any GMO avoidance claim. In addition, transitioning to ingredients at low-risk of being genetically modified—like from soy to sunflower oil—is one way that companies can effectively reduce the risk of GMO contamination that is common with crops at high-risk of being GMOs. As a result, demand for Non-GMO Project Verified sunflower products—such as oil and lecithin—has been steadily increasing over the past couple of years as consumers and food manufacturers seek non-GMO alternatives to high-risk oils.
The verification of low-risk and non-risk ingredients provides shoppers an informed choice about whether or not to consume genetically modified organisms. Preserving and building the non-GMO supply chain is a critical step of transitioning toward a safe, healthy food supply for future generations.