Peeling Back the Label: Non-GMO & Organic

By Melody Meyer, vice president of policy and industry relations, United Natural Foods (UNFI)

The rise of Non-GMO foods has stormed the aisles of almost every supermarket, natural food store and big box outlet, running rip shod over almost every other label claim. I can even find the Non-GMO claim inside my local gas-mart amongst the nuts and chips. Forecasts indicate that the global Non-GMO foods market will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 16.23% during the 2017-2021 period. 

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You likely recognize the Non-GMO Project's easy-to-spot label with its brilliant orange butterfly logo anointing packages throughout the store. That butterfly identifies the leading verifier of Non-GMO product. As this mighty butterfly alights on more and more products, do consumers really understand what the label means?

Let’s start by understanding what GMO’s are.

A GMO, or genetically modified organism, is a plant, animal, microorganism or any organism whose genetic makeup has been modified using recombinant DNA methods (a fancy way of saying combining the genes of two different species). It can also include new gene editing techniques, such as CRISPR and Synthetic Biology that edit traits of a single species, much like cutting and pasting on the genetic level.

These are relatively new techniques that create unstable combinations of plants, animals, bacterial and viral genes in the laboratory. These new entities could never occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods. They are always patented and the chemical and pharmaceutical companies who meddle with genetic legacies are the proud owners of these novel products. This ownership increasingly manifests as a corporate takeover of our food supply through the patenting of seeds.

GMO's are engineered with the intention of creating plants that are tolerant to drought, disease and pesticides, which in turn will create higher yields. It has not yet been proven that GMO's are meeting these goals. In fact to the contrary, some evidence concludes that GM may be creating health problems in humans and livestock while contributing to environmental damage through increased pesticide use.

Organic Produce Network (OPN)

The list of genetically modified crops approved in the US is relatively small, and the most common are the subsidized commodities such as corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, sugar beets and alfalfa.  Papaya, yellow “crook neck” squash, zucchini, “Arctic” apple and potatoes are planted in lesser amounts. There is even a genetically modified salmon swimming upstream to a store near you.   

GMO’s are in many of the products we consume on a daily basis, especially in packaged and processed foods. Estimations are that 75 percent  of non-organic processed food contains GMO’s.

What does Non-GMO mean?

Non-GMO verification certifies the absence of genetically engineered ingredients in foods and other products. The Non-GMO Project, with its monarch of a label, is the most recognized verifier of Non-GMO products. Their process assures that products bearing their seal are made from Non-GMO ingredients. They identify the high-risk crops and ingredients that need to be tested, and if a product has the potential of having any of those ingredients, they provide analytical testing at various critical points throughout the supply chain. 

To bear the Non-GMO claim the product must not be over a threshold of GMO contamination. For seeds, the threshold is 0.2 percent . For human food and products ingested or used directly on skin, the threshold is .09 percent. For cleaning products, textiles, and products not ingested or used directly on skin, it is 1.5percent and for animal feed and supplements, 5 percent .

The Non-GMO Project verification is voluntary and not regulated or enforced by the USDA or FDA. 

Organic is Non-GMO, but Non-GMO is not always organic.

Non-GMO products only verify the absence of genetically altered material. Non-GMO verification means the food has been grown with seeds that are not genetically altered and contamination has not occurred in the field or in storage. A Non-GMO farmer can still spray toxic pesticides, herbicides and apply synthetic fertilizers that create algae blooms and dead zones.

Non-GMO verification does not mean it’s organic.

Why is it that some organic products are also labeled as Non-GMO?

GMO’s are prohibited in the production of organic products, but contamination can occur in the production, storage and manufacturing process. This is especially true in crops that spread their pollen promiscuously, such as corn, cotton and alfalfa. The organic regulations require certifiers to test 5% of the time for GMO’s and pesticide residues, so the organic verification protocol may not always catch contaminated organic crops.

Non-GMO verified products have the entire supply chain inspected, evaluated and approved through a third party audit program. 100 percent of all high-risk products are tested throughout the supply chain.

So while Organic is indeed Non-GMO in production and intention, inadvertent cross-pollination and contamination can occur. This may be a reason that some organic producers get certified organic as well as Non-GMO verified. Others feel they must for market reasons.

Implications for producers and manufacturers in this genetic roulette:

For manufacturers and producers alike the sales growth of the Non-GMO verified label is seductive. Some choose to become Non-GMO verified even if they do not have high-risk ingredients in order to boost sales and gain consumer confidence. Non-GMO oats, quinoa and lentils are good examples; there are no genetically altered versions in existence. Certifying a product that isn’t high-risk as Non-GMO is a bit of an irony.

An organic farmer who buys organic seed and grows according to the strict organic regulations can through no fault of her own have an entire crop contaminated by a neighboring GMO producer. If this occurs, the crop must be sold as conventional resulting in huge financial losses. This market loss, as a result of genetic pollution, is borne 100% by the organic producer while the GMO polluter pays nothing for the unholy transgression.

What is the best way to avoid GMO’s in your food?

Always buy organic and if the product has high-risk ingredients such as corn or soy, selecting an organic and NON-GMO verified product will assure that you’re not serving forth GMO’s at today’s table.

Melody is a weekly contributor to OPN Connect.  You can follow her blog at


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