WASHINGTON, May 13, 2016 - As the debate continues over whether or not foods containing genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) should be labeled with a federal standard, more and more marketers are trying to promote their products as non-GMO – even if they contain no GMO ingredients or if a GMO version doesn’t really exist.

It’s part of a growing trend to capture consumers’ desire to eat what they perceive to be healthier or somehow, more “natural” food. And if marketers can convince consumers that their product is better in some way, they can sometimes charge a premium.

The Food and Drug Administration, in conjunction with USDA and EPA, regulates genetically-enhanced crops and found that foods from GMO plant varieties are as safe as comparable, non-GMO foods. Organic foods –which are not derived from GMOs – are regulated by USDA and labeled “USDA organic.”

But non-GMO labels are not regulated by the federal government and they are popping up in supermarket and even home improvement stores throughout America.

Take Lowe’s for example, where most of the bedding plants are provided by Alabama-based Bonnie Plants. Almost everywhere you look, some bedding plants – bell peppers, broccoli, and cucumbers, for example – are all prominently labeled as non-GMO – even though there are no such plants approved for commercial sale.

How can that be? In the United States, there are currently 10 crop types commercially available from genetically modified seed: alfalfa, apples, canola, corn, cotton, soybeans, sugar beets, papaya, potatoes and squash.

So you couldn’t buy a GMO bell pepper if you tried. But you could buy organic pepper seeds (which have to be certified) or non-GMO seeds (which do not).

So is a company like Bonnie Plants trying to confuse consumers? Spokesperson Joan Casanova

says the non-GMO signage on Bonnie Plants was initiated last year as an effort to inform and respond to consumer requests.

“In the past three years, due to much publicity and continued, perceived controversy in regard to GMO’s, in general, we received an overwhelming number of consumer inquiries in regard to our seed origin,” says Casanova. “Additionally, many of our retailers also received numerous inquiries from consumers as to whether Bonnie Plants varieties are GMO or non-GMO. 

“In our effort to provide clarification to our consumers and to our retailers regarding the question of our seed origin, the decision was made to create signage, identifying our seed as non-GMO. This decision was made to provide a truthful and what we considered helpful response to consumers and retailers asking the GMO/non-GMO question, in regard to Bonnie Plants’ varieties,” Casanova adds.

Bonnie Plants is certainly not alone in embracing this trend.

Dozens of food companies have picked up non-GMO labeling. The push is primarily driven by the Non-GMO Project, a Bellingham, Washington, nonprofit group. But even their verification seal can be confusing and, by their own admission, products with the seal may not be totally free of GMOs.

Our verification is an assurance that a product has been produced according to consensus-based best practices for GMO avoidance,” the group points out on their web site. “We use an Action Threshold of 0.9 percent. This is in alignment with laws in the European Union (where any product containing more than 0.9 percent GMO must be labeled).

So are non-GMO verified products by this nonprofit totally free of GMOs? The answer is “no” as the Non-GMO project points out once you dig a bit deeper into their website or read their 37-page explanation of how they verify.

“Unfortunately, ‘GMO free’ and similar claims are not legally or scientifically defensible due to limitations of testing methodology,” the website says. “In addition, the risk of contamination to seeds, crops, ingredients and products is too high to reliably claim that a product is ‘GMO free.’”

Instead, the Project says it assures “the shopper that the product in question is in compliance with the Project’s rigorous standard. The website URL is included as part of the Seal to ensure that there is transparency for consumers who want to learn more about our verification.”

Consumer interest in the non-GMO label has also caught the attention of many organic growers, who must go through much more rigorous and often times more-costly requirements than their non-GMO brethren. And some fear that non-GMO sales are robbing market share away from organics.

Organic product sales – including both food and fiber products – have been soaring, reaching $39 billion in 2014, according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA).

However, sales of products with the non-GMO label are growing quickly, too, topping $13 billion in the year ended Nov. 1, according to data compiled by Sims LLC, a research company that tracks natural, organic, and specialty-product food purchasing trends at major retailers – with the exception of sales at Whole Foods. According to Sims, sales of 100 percent organic food products during that same period were only $4.8 billion.

In an attempt to give organic foods more of a marketing edge, companies such as Organic Valley have launched new labels to promote the fact that “Organic is always non-GMO.” And California Certified Organic Farmers – the state’s certifying agency – launched an “Organic is Non-GMO & more” seal last year to clarify “another of the many benefits of certified organic food production.”

“With so many different eco-labels to choose from, making smart decisions about food has become increasingly overwhelming for consumers,” the organization wrote in a blog post.

Those who support the use of biotechnology to enhance food production are increasingly concerned that they are losing the marketing battle – even though organics represent only about 5 percent of the U.S. food sales.  

“What’s frustrating is the traction that this anti-GMO effort has garnered, in spite of the science supporting the value of bioengineered plant traits,” noted National Milk Producers CEO Jim Mulhern in a recent blog post. “The evidence is clear that not only are GM crops safe, they also provide broad environmental benefits by reducing soil loss, as well as reducing farmers' use of water, pesticides and fuel.

“Today’s trendy narrative, however, is the mistaken notion that without Roundup Ready plant traits, there would be less use of pesticides – when in fact there would be much more. The great benefit to the environment of GMO crops is that they require far less use of pesticides and other chemicals. Farmers have overwhelmingly adopted GM crop technology because it increases productivity while improving agricultural sustainability,” Mulhern wrote.


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