We’re Scientists. We’re Moms. And We Avoid Non-GMO Products

Written by Dr Alison Bernstein, Dr Layla Katiraee, and Dr Anastasia Bodnar

We are scientists and moms concerned about the health of our children and the planet they will inherit. Last year, we wrote to celebrities campaigning for labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMO) and invited them to talk to scientists and farmers about their concerns. Today, we’re writing about why we avoid Non-GMO and GMO-free labels, especially the Non-GMO Project’s label.

The Non-GMO Project (NGP) offers a voluntary, fee-based system for companies to label their products as non-GMO. Despite the overwhelming scientific consensus on GMO safety, NGP continues to make thoroughly discredited claims about supposed dangers of GMOs. NGP claims to campaign for transparency, openness, and choice in our food supply, but the organization has stated its intent is to eliminate GMOs.

NGP leads consumers to believe that choosing non-GMO is consistent with values that consumers (including ourselves) seek out, such as healthy diets and sustainability. However, choosing non-GMO is often inconsistent with these values and we are concerned about the impact of an expanding non-GMO market share. The financial, environmental and health impacts of adopting non-GMO ingredients include changes in food formulations, reduced nutritional quality, higher prices, increased pesticide use, and reduced food availability. Consequently, we would like companies to know why we and many others actively avoid the Non-GMO Project’s labels.

The Non-GMO label can be misleading when it is found on items for which there is no GMO counterpart, such as carrots. It can also be redundant, since the USDA’s organic label already excludes GMOs.

A Non-GMO Label Can Be Misleading

The Non-GMO Project’s butterfly label graces the packaging of many items, including fresh produce, packaged foods, sea salt, kitty litter, and many others. However, there is no GMO counterpart to many of these labeled items. Customers are misled into paying a premium for items that are identical to brands that choose not to pay for the certification.

As a reminder, the only items for which a GMO counterpart is currently available to consumers are: alfalfa, canola, corn (field and sweet, but not popcorn), cotton, papaya, potatoes, soybeans (but not tofu or edamame varieties), sugar beet, and squash. Genetically engineered apples and salmon will be available soon.

Even when a GMO counterpart exists, a non-GMO label can still mislead consumers into thinking that there is something materially different about the crops produced by “GMO” techniques. The non-browning trait prevents bruising during shipping and allows consumers to store cut produce without discoloration or changes in texture. Consequently, non-browning produce reduces food waste and saves resources. There are non-browning apples, potatoes, mushrooms, and grapes in development. All of these have similar genetic changes and similar benefits to consumers, yet each was developed with a different technique of genetic modification, and consequently, only the apples and potatoes are ineligible for the subjective butterfly label.

A Non-GMO Label Does Not Mean “Better For the Environment”

Sustainability in agriculture means using practices that minimize environmental impact while adapting to a changing environment. Reducing food waste, pesticide use and carbon emissions are three important ways that specific GMOs can help reduce the environmental impact of agriculture. US regulatory agencies recently approved a genetically modified potato. These potatoes have a gene from another potato species that makes them resistant to browning caused by bruising, which is a primary cause of the loss of over 400 million pounds of potatoes annually. The second generation of the potato is designed to also be resistant to potato blight, which will decrease the amount of pesticides needed. More generally, a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences showed that herbicide tolerant and pest resistant GMOs have reduced insecticide use and have allowed farmers to use less toxic herbicides. In addition to the direct environmental benefit of reduced pesticide use, this means reduced tractor use, fuel consumption, and carbon emissions.

A Non-GMO Label Does Not Mean “Pesticide-Free”

Non-GMO labels do not provide any information about the pesticides used. Ironically, Non-GMO labeled products may actually contain ingredients grown using harsher pesticides.The demand for non-GMO ingredients has caused an increase in cane sugar and a demand for sugar from non-GMO sugar beets. Sugar cane is often grown using herbicides that are more toxic to humans and the environment than the herbicide used with GMO sugar beets. Additionally, sugar cane is usually burned preharvest, which has environmental and health impacts. Non-GMO sugar beets need multiple herbicides with more frequent applications than GMO sugar beets.

A Non-GMO Label Does Not Mean “Healthier”

The World Health Organization has recognized food fortification as a beneficial way to “deliver nutrients to large segments of the population without requiring radical changes in food consumption patterns.” (see this publication from WHO and this post from CDC for more information).

Many vitamins and nutrients used for enrichment are derived from genetically modified microorganisms. Others are derived from crops, such as corn, that are genetically modified. The Non-GMO Project bans the use of micronutrients derived from these GMOs. As such, there are documented instances of foods that have lost their vitamin content after changing their manufacturing process to meet the Non-GMO Project’s certification requirements.

Avoiding Non-GMO Labels

In the US and Canada, we are fortunate to have the luxury of many food options. Customers can choose non-GMO food via the USDA’s organic label, which excludes these crops. As individuals who are not interested in Non-GMO labeled products, we find that our options are gradually shrinking, particularly in the stores we shop in, such as Costco, Publix, Kroger, Meijer, Harris Teeter, and others. While certain groups may declare this a victory, it is reducing safe choices and freedom for farmers and the large majority of consumers based on the unfounded fears of a small, yet vocal, group that is imposing its dietary preferences on the rest of the market.

We, as concerned consumers and parents, actively avoid non-GMO labels, especially the Non-GMO Project’s label. Whether a product was made from non-GMO or GMO seeds is irrelevant to us since the process of making a seed tells us nothing about sustainability, pesticide use or nutritional content.

We avoid the NGP label because it demonizes a useful and promising technology. Genetic engineering, along with other tools, can help us address challenges like pests and droughts, while addressing nutritional issues, such as allergens or nutrient deficiencies. Farmers need these tools at their disposal to ensure a safe, sustainable, and reliable food supply.

By demonizing the method, the Non-GMO Project ensures that crops improved by biotechnology will not be commercialized, takes these crops away from farmers and consumers, and perpetuates the false idea that the breeding method tells us anything of importance. This prevents even the attempt to commercialize crops that have the potential to positively impact the environment and our diets. Two such crops are gluten-free wheat, which can help people with Celiac disease, and oranges resistant to citrus greening, which may help save the US citrus industry and reduce the need for insecticides.

Join us in telling companies that the absence of the label was a factor in your purchasing decision. Join us in advocating for science-based decisions in agriculture, in celebrating the plethora of choices our rich agricultural system has to offer, and in advocating for facts, not fear, when purchasing food. Tweet your support using #FactsNotFear and#Moms4GMOs or #Dads4GMOs.

UPDATE (December 18th, 2016): We’ve written a follow-up article addressing some of the comments we received.