The Non-GMO Trend: Part 1
A Craze or Here to Stay?
The “GMO” issue has never been more complex or relevant in the food industry than right now. Non-GMO is undoubtedly a “hot topic” that evokes strong opinions from both sides of the spectrum. This trend has recently gained a lot of momentum. So much so in fact, that federal and state regulations are being modified surrounding the realm of “GMO” products. The state of Vermont requires mandatory non-GMO labeling. Companies like Whole Foods are also keeping current with the trend by announcing plans to require non-GMO labeling on all products in their stores by 2018. The “Non-GMO” trend is here to stay my friends.
Let’s take a step back and talk about what a GMO even is. GMO stands for “Genetically Modified Organism” which is formally defined as a plant, animal or microorganism that have had their genes altered through genetic engineering using the application of recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (rDNA) technology. Genetic engineering has become a substitute for the historical process of crossbreeding and hybridization of plants and animals. This process involves selective breeding based on desirable traits, which can take years to reproduce consistently.
Fast-forward to the 1970’s, the age of food biotechnology, where researchers were able to identify the specific genes responsible for a desired trait. Methods were developed to transfer genetic material from one organism to another by passing the time-consuming task of selective breeding. Viola! Genetically modified organisms in a nut-shell, which have been available commercially since the mid-1990’s.1
The question is- why? The idea was to produce crops that were resistant to pests, diseases and herbicides, that could grow in harsh conditions and increase shelf life. The subsequent increase in food products would hopefully satisfy our growing population’s dietary needs while balancing the Earth’s ever-dwindling resources. This all sounds great, right? The intent is good, however the public’s response to GMO products have mostly been negative.
Approximately thirty-eight countries have banned the growth and importation of GMO crops world-wide. But why? One common argument is that GM organisms would never naturally occur in the environment. Which leaves us to wonder if just because the technology is available to create GM organisms, does that make it a right, ethical, or a plausible option when facing the world’s impending food shortage crisis? Consumers’ hesitancy towards GMO products have increased sales of organic certified products, which are required to be derived from GMO-free sources.
A valid point to remember on the topic of GMOs is that more research could, should and is currently being done on both sides of this argument. There is a real lack of information on the positive or negative effects of GMOs. Regardless of the lack of knowledge on GMOs the food industry, driven by consumers, grabbed ahold of the “non-GMO” trend and ran with it.
Hence the birth of an organization known as “The Non-GMO Project”. The Non-GMO Project offers third party verification allowing food companies to guarantee that none of their food products have been genetically manipulated. The Non-GMO Project seal is currently the only independent third party certification available to communicate the non-GMO status of a product recognized in North America and Canada.
Right, wrong or indifferent, consumers tend to be attracted to products labeled as “non-GMO”, creating a great opportunity for brand positioning. The seal can be used as a marketing tool designed to provide customers with a clear indication that their products are made with non-GMO food sources. The Non-GMO Project works with technical administrators (FoodChain ID, Where Food Comes From, SCS Global Services and NSF International) to assess products for compliance to their standard.
The growing awareness and concern about GMOs is a growing trend in the food industry that, as far as we can tell, is not going anywhere. Food companies offering products that are Non-GMO will gain a competitive edge in the market place. There will be much more to come on this topic as regulations, consumer tastes and desires change, so stay tuned.
(dated 10/06/16) Update since publishing this blog post: A bill was passed which supersedes Vermont’s GMO Labeling requirements. These requirements no longer apply.
1 “Understanding Food Principles and Preparation”, fifth edition by Amy Brown
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