On July 29th, 2016, President Obama signed off on a historically discriminatory and fatally flawed GMO labeling bill. In the wake of the signing, many of us are feeling defeated and heartbroken. This new legislation was created with a single purpose in mind—to destroy the incredible grassroots momentum of powerful GMO labeling bills put forward by hundreds of thousands of activists in more than 30 states. Most notably, the nation’s first meaningful mandatory GMO labeling legislation, which went into effect July 1 in Vermont, has effectively been snuffed out. Replacing it, the new “DARK Act” prescribes a two-year void followed by unenforceable, vague and poorly written rules that at best require 800 numbers and QR codes—codes that can’t be accessed by the 100 million Americans who don’t own expensive smart phones. After five years of incredible momentum built by countless individuals and organizations that believe Americans have the same right to know as citizens in the 64 other countries that require real GMO labeling, this is indeed a dark day.
In spite of the darkness, though, there is still sun shining through. The non-GMO movement is a fire too strong to extinguish, and it’s a good day to recognize a couple of the powerful ways in which our momentum will continue.
The mandatory labeling movement has achieved unimaginable success in raising awareness about the GMO issue. In the past few years, national media attention and the corresponding public understanding inspired by state labeling efforts have brought a once obscure term—GMO—into the spotlight. When we started the Non-GMO Project 10 years ago, it always took me a few minutes to explain what I did, because only rarely had my audience ever heard of genetic engineering. Fast forward to a 2014 Consumer Reports survey in which 72% of Americans say it’s important to them to avoid GMOs when they shop. Knowledge is power, and this public awakening is shifting the scales in a way that can’t be undone, even by this horrendous bill. Our elected officials have utterly failed to represent the will of the people this time around, but they can’t stop the deep sincerity with which Americans are now pursuing information and choices when it comes to GMOs.
This brings us to our next ray of light, and it’s a big one. We all vote with our wallets every time we shop, and collectively we DO have the power to change the way our food is grown and made. This is the premise that the Non-GMO Project was founded on a decade ago, and it is indeed proving to be powerful. As the availability of non-GMO food choices skyrockets, GMO crops are on the decline for the first time since their introduction.
The Project’s nonprofit mission is to preserve and build sources of non-GMO products, educate consumers, and provide verified non-GMO choices. We decided long ago that the most pragmatic and effective way to do this is to leverage the power of the marketplace. When we were first thinking about strategy back in 2006, we didn’t feel like we could afford to wait for the government to take action, and we didn’t trust that the government would ever adequately represent our interests. So we set out to protect non-GMO food in a different way, by creating a system by which food companies could meet the consumer demand for non-GMO choices, thereby changing the supply chain and preserving non-GMO food for future generations. In 2007, the Non-GMO Project created North America’s first third party standard, certification and label for non-GMO. Since then, our strategy has proven effective beyond what we ever could have imagined.
There are nearly 2,700 brands in the Non-GMO Project’s Product Verification Program, and more than 36,000 products that have been Verified to our rigorous standard. Collectively, these products represent more than $16 billion in annual sales. That’s still small in the scope of overall U.S. food sales (just over 1%), but it’s a lot for a label that started trickling into the market just six years ago. And the growth is exponential. What started as a niche project for organic and natural products is now spreading into the mainstream market. Conventional brands are seeking the Non-GMO Project Verified Butterfly at a rapidly accelerating rate, which is momentous for our mission of growing the non-GMO supply chain.
Ensuring access to non-GMO choices necessitates the conversion of North American acreage to non-GMO agriculture at sufficient scale. When big, conventional brands come on board and massively overhaul their sourcing and production practices, the impact to farmland is incredible. As an example, consider Danone, which made a pledge in July to seek Non-GMO Project verification for all products in the Dannon, Oikos and Danimals brands. Achieving this goal will require the conversion of 80,000 acres of cropland from GMO production to non-GMO production—enough to feed 45,000 cows. That’s a lot of impact, and it is happening entirely because of consumer demand, and in spite of anything the government does or doesn’t do. Because it’s going to take a couple of years to create this new supply chain and earn the Butterfly, Danone has also pledged to label any GMO ingredients in the meantime. Similar pledges from Campbell’s and Mars point to the opportunity for brands to lead the way in voluntarily providing the clear, on-pack disclosure that the DARK Act has blocked from becoming mandatory.
No one can argue that we all have a right to know what’s in the food we’re eating and feeding to our families. That’s what the mandatory labeling movement is all about, and the violation of this simple right to know is what makes the passage of the DARK Act so reprehensible.
While the Non-GMO Project has always supported mandatory labeling efforts, I have to admit that I care about more than just the right to know. I wouldn’t be satisfied with a grocery store where every product said, “Produced with genetic engineering,” which is one potential outcome of a strictly right to know tactic. Like many other concerned citizens who have been working on this issue for a decade or more, what I actually care about is having choices— specifically, non-GMO choices. I believe that preserving and building the non-GMO supply chain is a critical step of transitioning toward a non-GMO food supply for future generations. I also believe that the integrity of our diverse genetic inheritance is essential to human and environmental health and ecological harmony.
I want every person in this country, regardless of where they live or how much money they make, to be able to easily identify and afford non-GMO choices. Every day, as more people seek out the Butterfly and companies of all types and sizes do the hard work to earn it, we are moving toward that vision. Your choices are powerful, your voice in the marketplace is loud. Bask in that sunshine a little, and let’s carry on. The earth and our children will thank us.