New Non-GMO Labeling Laws Leave Manufacturers Scrambling

Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, first became commercially viable to produce in 1976 as a way to increase yield in crops and make them more resistant to pests so that pesticides are not necessary. But is this good or bad?

The debate continues, and proponents of the non-GMO movement have since gotten three states to adopt their non-GMO labeling legislation: Connecticut, Vermont and Maine. Similar legislation was also on the ballot in California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado, but did not pass.

A Plan to Comply

George Pontiakos of Bi Nutraceuticals, the largest buyer of botanicals in North America, recently addressed a crowded room of concerned executives from food manufacturers, grocery retailers and industry professionals at Natural Products Expo West in March 2015. His lecture, "Understanding the Cost and Complexity of GMO Labeling," suggested any manufacturer attending should want to be in compliance with the new non-GMO labeling laws. But how can they do it? How can they comply to wear the non-GMO verified label on their products?

Their product must contain less than .9 percent GMO content. To this end, Pontiakos outlined a plan to comply, which included sourcing, validation, testing and rejection. He anticipated that the cost to the manufacturer will be a 25–45 percent increase per kilogram for testing. Other costs include an annual audit and planning for 1–5 percent rejection of ingredients.

"For the farmer," he said, "it will cost 40 times more for a field of non-GMO" crops than for the same GMO crop. For the manufacturers who want to go non-GMO, Pontiakos said to "set your sights now and get out there. ... Figure out which standard you are going for, accommodate it and get it out there now. Don't wait."

Crops Containing GMOs

The Non-GMO Project reports that there are 15 crops known to contain GMOs: alfalfa, corn, soy, cotton, canola, sugar beets, papaya, zucchini, beta vulgaris, brassica napa, brassica rapa, cucurbita, flax, rice and wheat. You may eat your way around the GMOs if you wish, but many of these crops play a bigger role to manufacturers who include derivatives of them in common packaged foods. In addition, crops like corn and alfalfa are fed to animals, making the meat we eat part of the GMO food chain. The big standout in the mix, according to Modern Farmer, is papaya. Why? We wouldn't have papaya had it not been for a GMO: The entire crop was once on the verge of extinction by the "ringspot virus" before Dennis Gonsalves created the GMO to save it.

The result? In 2013, the Big Island of Hawaii signed into law a bill to forbid new biotech research and GM crops. Gonsalves, once considered a hero, has seen a fall from grace.

Non-GMO Project Rallies a Non-GMO Movement

In the absence of legislation, the Non-GMO Project provides a stamp manufacturers can include on their packaging once a product is verified. To certain manufacturers, it is worth the cost to provide consumers with clean, non-GMO food and earn the non-GMO logo. It allows their products stand out from the competition. Numerous products have since been verified by the Non-GMO Project, listed on its website. You will see categories including baby food, packaged and frozen foods, soups and more. It also pays to stay educated on which crops or products to avoid.

As you would expect, some of the products that carry the logo are apples or bananas, which were never GMOs to begin with. Obviously, manufacturers can't resist slapping this new "buy me" mechanism on all their items in a largely uninformed consumer base.

Pontiakos balanced the discussion by pointing out that the U.S. feeds the world: "Even Europe cannot feed itself," he said. The U.S. grows 60 percent of all corn, 45 percent of all wheat and 34 percent of all soybeans worldwide. Could we feed everyone if there were no GMOs? In other words, according to Pontiakos, "the niche natural retail market wants non-GMO products, but does the entire customer base value non-GMOs enough to pay a premium price?"

Photo credit: Flickr