The Non-GMO Project’s butterfly verification mark is North America’s most trusted and meaningful label for GMO avoidance. Consumers trust our label because the Non-GMO Project is a third-party verification program backed by North America’s most rigorous Standard for GMO avoidance.
The Non-GMO Project’s product verification program has three main components: testing, traceability, and segregation. Each of these elements is critical to the rigor and integrity of our program.
The strength of the Non-GMO Project Standard is greatly enhanced by its testing requirements, which require testing of major (testable) ingredients that are at high risk for being GMOs. Let’s take a closer look at these testing practices!
Why Does the Non-GMO Project Test for GMO Content?
Testing is a crucial component of the Non-GMO Project Standard because it is the most reliable way to address the reality of contamination. GMOs can contaminate other crops through pollen drift in the field or at many other points during processing, transportation, and storage. In recent years, there have been several instances of large-scale GMO contamination. For example:
- Syngenta’s Enogen corn, a GMO meant solely for use in ethanol production, contaminated non-GMO white corn in Nebraska last year. Some experts are convinced that this contamination event was linked to a problem with masa (a corn-based dough) sold in California that made some people sick.
- Monsanto’s unapproved Roundup Ready wheat was discovered in Oregon in 2013 and Washington in 2016. These experimental varieties were grown in field trials ten years before the contamination occurred.
- In 2006, unapproved genetically modified LibertyLink rice contaminated the rice supply in much of the southern United States. Products containing LibertyLink were discovered around the world, leading to bans on American rice, a decrease in rice exports, and significant economic losses for farmers. Bayer CropScience eventually settled for $750 million in response to lawsuits involving over 11,000 farmers.
- Back in 2000, more than 300 food products had to be recalled after it was discovered that they contained genetically modified StarLink corn, a Bt variety that is not approved for human consumption. This crop was theoretically removed from the market due to health concerns, but it has resurfaced multiple times in the years since.
What Does the Non-GMO Project Test?
According to the Non-GMO Project Standard, major (testable) high-risk ingredients must be tested before they can be used in a Non-GMO Project Verified product. In a product containing soybean oil, for example, the raw soy would be tested prior to processing. The Non-GMO Project’s Technical Administrators work with manufacturers to determine the best place in the supply chain for testing; this is usually as close to initial processing as possible. In this way, and in combination with the traceability and segregation procedures, it is possible for one test to cover large quantities of material. These tests occur in approved laboratories that follow precise procedures to ensure precision. Approved labs must be ISO 17025 accredited for tests relevant to the Standard and pass the Non-GMO Project’s annual proficiency tests—learn more on nongmoproject.org!
Testing is also a key component of the Non-GMO Project Surveillance Program, which conducts spot testing of finished Non-GMO Project Verified products. This process adds an additional layer of rigor to the program and helps ensure that all parts of the Product Verification Program are operating with a high degree of accuracy.
How Does GMO Testing Work?
There two popular methods for GMO testing: PCR testing, which is quantitative, and lateral flow strip testing, which is usually qualitative. Strip tests (which work like home pregnancy tests) are only permitted by the Non-GMO Project Standard in specific instances where qualitative in-field testing is needed and when accuracy, sensitivity, and ramifications of false negative results are not significant concerns. In the majority of cases, the Non-GMO Project Standard demands polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing in laboratory testing, in instances where strip tests indicate GMO contamination, and in other situations where testing is required.
The PCR testing process takes a small bit of DNA and multiplies it many times over, amplifying the DNA until there is enough information for more accurate testing. If you read Jurassic Park, one of my childhood favorites, you may recognize this as the same technology those fictional scientists used to replicate dinosaur DNA—to their unfortunate peril!
For those of you who want to know more: in the PCR process, the DNA being tested is combined with specific detection molecules (primers) and an enzyme (polymerase). This mixture is heated, causing the original DNA strand to denature and separate.
The really interesting part begins when the mixture cools. Remember those detection molecules? They need to know exactly what they are looking for in order to work. These primers must find sequences of GMO DNA that are specific to a particular GMO in order to bond to them and build out new DNA. If the GMO content being tested for is present, primers attach to it and the process continues.
Once primers have attached to the target DNA sequence, the enzyme polymerase builds out new strands of DNA by adding nucleotides (the building blocks that make up DNA) to the primers. This cycle repeats about 25 to 50 times over roughly three hours, doubling the DNA strands each time until there are millions of strands of identical target DNA. This is the “chain reaction” in polymerase chain reaction.
Scientists can calculate the GMO content of a sample by comparing their findings against a calibration curve.
Can all Foods be Tested?
PCR testing has one important limitation: it requires intact DNA to work. Cooking, boiling, and other food processing methods can degrade DNA to a point where it is no longer useful for testing. Even products such as corn flakes and polenta, which are almost entirely corn, are often untestable because the corn DNA is severely damaged. Some companies make misleading non-GMO claims on this basis; they process out the DNA and call a GMO-laden product non-GMO. This is another reason it is so important to Look for the Butterfly! The Non-GMO Project Standard demands testing of source material at the point where DNA is still intact.
Animal products are another example of this limitation. There is currently no way to test animal products such as milk for GMO content. However, animal feed can be tested, which is exactly what the Non-GMO Project Standard requires. When you see the Butterfly on a product containing animal-derived ingredients, you can be certain those animals were fed a non-GMO diet in accordance with the Non-GMO Project Standard.
Additionally, testing labs have not yet developed commercial tests for many of the products of the newer genetic engineering technologies. Until such tests are developed, the Non-GMO Project Standard requires affidavit evidence for inputs at risk of being products of newer technologies, like gene editing. It is important to note that these requirements are within the context of the Project’s rigorous verification program, which includes segregation and traceability measures and testing for major (testable) GMO risk ingredients. In this way, we are playing a leadership role in helping to protect the supply chain from unchecked contamination by these ingredients. This will support manufacturers in meeting consumer expectations, ensuring that the ingredients they are using are truly non-GMO.
Shop with Confidence!
The stringent testing, segregation, and traceability requirements in the Non-GMO Project Standard mean that Verified products have met the most rigorous requirements for GMO avoidance. Other non-GMO labels in the marketplace do not mandate the same level of care, so Look for the Butterfly when you shop to help protect our non-GMO food supply and to keep GMOs out of your home.