A group called the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation has petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to prohibit use of the term “Non-GMO” on food, arguing this label misleads and deceives consumers about food safety. The Non-GMO Project has responded by calling the petition factually inaccurate and its petitioner, ITIF, a “biotech-backed think tank.”
According to its website, the Non-GMO Project was founded in 2007 by two grocery stores working to create a standard definition for foods that don’t contain GMOs. The initialism “GMO” stands for genetically modified organisms, a term that’s long been the subject of definitional debate. Here’s how The Non-GMO Project defines it: “a plant, animal, microorganism or other organism whose genetic makeup has been modified in a laboratory using genetic engineering or transgenic technology.”
Scientists use transgenic technology to modify animals and crops with the addition of DNA from another species, not to blindly tinker, but to add a useful feature like pest resistance in the case of Bt corn or breeding out horns in dairy cows to eliminate the need for painful dehorning.
With gene editing and other forms of genetic engineering now capturing the public’s attention, companies in the biotech space have an opportunity to clear up consumer confusion and provide some much needed context. Regulators are also grappling with definitions. As Mike Miille, CEO of the synthetic biology company Joyn Bio put it, “the semantics around some of this [language] is…evolving in real time.”
Though transgenic technology often receives the most public scrutiny, there are many other ways to modify organisms in a laboratory. Diploidy is the method used to create seedless watermelon, for example, and mutagenesis is used to create bright red grapefruits. Transgenic technology has its wholesome examples too, from disease-resistant papayas to non-browning apples, but opponents of GM foods tend not to care quite so much about apples or papayas.
Much of transgenic food ingredients on the market are soy and sugar sold in processed foods, another imprecise and contested food category that attracts most of the fear and fury about GMO foods. In particular, the the most controversial transgenic trait is Roundup Ready, which modifies crops so that they can be used with the herbicide Roundup to kill off pesky weeds while leaving a healthy plant behind. Opposition to Roundup and health concerns about processed foods are both deeply entangled in the opposition to GMOs, though neither concern has anything to do with transgenic technology in particular.
In its petition, ITIF makes the definitional argument, questioning why the “apparently allowable “traditional cross-breeding methods”—are these ‘natural’ or not? If not, why are they not? And if they are acceptable, natural or not, why are they acceptable and the methods used to bioengineer ‘GMOs’ are not?” For its part, The Non-GMO Project also seems to recognize its definition might need periodic retooling: the organization is currently taking public comments on its standard through October 18, 2018.
Over the years, The Non-GMO Project has been part of the movement against GMOs, arguing for what it and other groups dubbed the public’s “right to know.” Even though GM proponents have long questioned the factual basis of the opposition to GMOs, the “right to know” language stuck, ultimately driving broader demand for transparency in all aspects of the food system, a value that still shows up today in conversations about new technologies like blockchain.
In 2016, Congress passed legislation requiring labeling for GMO foods, and tasked the U.S. Department of Agriculture with its implementation, including the design of a food label. The USDA has issued preliminary versions of labels that use the term “bioengineered” rather than“genetically engineered,” and feature images of plants, suns and what seems to look like smiley faces. The non-GMO label, however, is an entirely different kind of food label because it’s subject to different standards and oversight.
The Non-GMO Project has no governmental authority and its non-GMO label isn’t a legally defined term. Foods bearing the USDA Organic label, for example, are required to meet the legal definition of “organic,” and are subject to government oversight. The Non-GMO Project is a private non-profit entity and its “third party” certification system is based on standards of its own design.
Third party certifications like “B Corporation,” fair trade and kosher are only as meaningful as the certifying entities that created them. There is no real oversight to scrutinize whether the measures these entities use have any larger societal value. Foods certified kosher ensure they have been prepared according to certain halakhic or Jewish talmudic rules about food, for example, but for those who who don’t keep kosher, the certification is essentially meaningless.
The B Corporation certification was established so for-profit companies could also be measured by their social and environmental contributions, but those contributions are ultimately only affirmed as good measures by the certifying entity. For example, Patagonia, a certified B-Corporation, does good by some people’s standards and less good by others, so the certification is only meaningful to those who subscribe to the same value system. Likewise, the Non-GMO label certifies that the food doesn’t contain any transgenic ingredients, and that’s only going to be meaningful to consumers who want to avoid GMOs.
In its petition, ITIF argues that The Non-GMO Project’s discussion of GMO risk misleads the public into believing GMO foods are more risky or unsafe than other foods. The scientific evidence doesn’t support The Non-GMO Project’s notions about GMOs and risk, argues ITIF, pointing to the National Academies of Science exhaustive report on genetically engineered crops, as well as the position of multiple scientific bodies affirming that GMO foods are no riskier than any others. But food labels have never suffered from a lack of vague, misleading terms, including, for example, natural, so regardless of how factual this petition may be, the FDA likely won’t be moved to take action. But as the FDA and other regulatory agencies revisit definitions of genetic engineering, who knows, this could be the moment the FDA takes aim at non-GMO too.