Throughout September, we're celebrating the growing popularity of plant-based foods and the non-GMO innovation driving it. To help you keep GMOs out of your shopping cart, we're also shining a light on how genetic engineering shows up in this fast-growing food category.
Last week, we explored the rise of new GMOs in the plant-based space — you can read the blog here or explore this handy infographic.
In case you missed it, here's a quick refresher: New GMOs differ from traditional GMOs because they rely on emerging techniques such as CRISPR gene editing or synthetic biology. New GMOs can take many forms, including flavors, colorants, proteins, genetically engineered animals, etc. Traditional GMOs — sometimes described as "transgenic" because they combine genes from different taxonomic families — are made up of a handful of commodity crops engineered to withstand herbicide applications or to produce their own insecticide. Think soy, corn, canola and sugar beets. While the list of traditional, transgenic GMOs is relatively short, ingredients made from them are used in up to 75% of the products on grocery store shelves.
Traditional GMOs can show up in plant-based products, too. You can protect your right to choose by knowing what to look out for. When in doubt, look for the Butterfly!
Recipes calling for plant-based protein often use soybeans. Soy is a protein powerhouse in the plant-based world. It was also one of the first GMO crops in the United States.
Soy was the base ingredient for some of the first non-dairy milk alternatives. These days, soy milk shares shelf space with other popular plant-based milk products made from rice, oats, almonds and more. Soy is also the cornerstone of several meat alternatives, including tofu, tempeh and veggie burgers.
Today, at least 94% of soy is genetically modified to withstand multiple applications of weedkillers, produce an insecticide, or both.
A corn-ucopia of GMOs
More than 91 million acres of farmland are planted with corn in the United States. Most of that corn ends up in livestock feed or biofuel, while the remainder is processed for food manufacturing or used in industrial applications.
At the grocery store, corn and corn by-products are incredibly common. Corn can be the main ingredient, sweetener, starch, texturizer, or some other additive. A 2015 article in the Washington Post reported that corn is present in nearly every product in the grocery store. With 92% of corn genetically modified, the vast majority of those corn-derived starches, sweeteners and additives used on unverified products — or non-Non-GMO Project Verified products — come from GMOs.
Added oils and sweeteners
Oils and sugars are common in many processed foods, including plant-based options. Depending on what crops they're made from, they might be GMOs.
For example, canola oil is a widely available plant-based oil made from rapeseed. Canola oil is a common ingredient in prepared foods, including meat analogs and snacks, and some brands of vegan mayonnaise list canola oil as the first ingredient on the label. At least 95% of the rapeseed grown in the U.S. is genetically modified.
Sweeteners come in many forms. Genetically modified forms can include corn, which is processed into one of the most common sweeteners in food manufacturing — high-fructose corn syrup. Sugar also comes from sugar beets — and nearly all sugar beets grown in the States are genetically modified. GMO sugar cane is a recent development that's being cultivated in Brazil, and making its way through American regulatory systems. Sweeteners can appear in plant-based milk products, creamers, yogurts, processed foods and sweet products such as snacks and desserts.
At the Non-GMO Project, we often discuss new and traditional GMOs as two distinct categories determined by the technology that produced them. To be clear, both new and traditional techniques result in GMOs; they just go about it in unique ways which can impact their testing, labeling and regulation.
As the biotechnology industry continues its explosive expansion, we'll see more GMOs enter the market and more techniques developed to create them. And as our appetite for plant-based products continues to grow, our work protecting natural ingredients and non-GMO innovation in this space becomes more important than ever.
Stay tuned throughout September as we explore the products, ingredients and people driving the plant-based movement!
This spring we’re exploring biotech’s biggest and greenwashiest claims in our series Are GMOs really going to save the world? This is the second piece in the series. Don't forget to check out Part One of the series, Genetically Engineered Golden Rice: Real Hope or Misplaced Hype? and Part Three, Can a Lab-based Food System Save the World?
Drought is a major problem in agriculture. It always has been. A drought is a long, dry period that causes water shortages, which in turn compromise crop growth and development. Droughts impact agriculture more than any other sector.
As the planet warms due to the climate crisis, scientists expect more frequent and extreme weather events, including droughts. The greatest impacts of a changing climate are already being felt across the Global South, including the drought-prone continent of Africa.
Which all adds up to this daunting state of affairs:
- Climate change is an existential crisis for our species (and countless others).
- Droughts are likely to gain in intensity and frequency.
- Africa bears the brunt of both climate change and droughts.
At the same time, the population of Africa is projected to double by 2050, putting more than a billion people in the path of a warming planet's worst impacts.
In recent decades, a truly dizzying amount of money has been spent under the banners of philanthropy and international aid. Programs such as AGRA (A Green Revolution for Africa) offer hybrid seeds and fertilizers, while WEMA (Water Efficient Maize for Africa project) supplies high-yielding corn (or maize) seed and, more recently, GMOs.
Despite these and other programs, success remains elusive. In fact, one of the best-funded initiatives has had a net negative impact, increasing the hardship experienced by the people it was supposed to help.
Who truly benefits the most from the adoption of GMOs, and is there even a place for genetic engineering in a warmer, drier and more densely populated Africa?
Genetically modified corn for drought tolerance
Drought hits corn hard. When faced with water shortages for more than four days in a row, yield losses are virtually unavoidable. Drought tolerant corn has been in development for decades using a variety of techniques — traditional, modern and biotechnological. The genetically engineered version, Monsanto's Droughtgard corn, only came onto the market in the last 10 years. (Monsanto has since been acquired by Bayer, who now owns the Droughtgard products).
The Union of Concerned Scientists described Droughtgard's performance as offering "modest" yield improvements under moderate drought conditions. Under extreme drought conditions, they doubt that there will be much yield improvement at all. Nevertheless, Droughtgard corn is being sent to African farmers as a climate solution.
Corn acreage expanding on a dry continent
Corn is water-intensive to grow. It's also a staple crop that supplies nearly a fifth of the daily caloric intake per person across much of Eastern and Southern Africa. Most of the corn produced in sub-Saharan Africa is destined for human consumption — a stark contrast from higher-income countries where corn is mostly destined for livestock feed and biofuel.
The planting area for corn is expanding at a rate that is "considered unsustainable and is expected to come at the expense of crop diversity and the environment." Meanwhile, droughts are getting worse and more are on the way.
The African Center for Biodiversity (ACB) argues that Droughtgard's development rests on incomplete science and limited perspective. Droughts are complex things. The characteristics of a drought — its intensity, duration, when in the growth cycle it strikes — determine how crops fare. Adaptations to stressors such as drought are generally complex traits, meaning that many genes within the crop’s DNA are involved in their expression. Genetic modification operates at the level of a single gene or possibly a few genes, making it a poor tool for this particular job.
The ACB isn't the only stakeholder concerned about corporate control and GMOs in Africa. Environmental justice advocate Nnimmo Bassey argues, "The politics of GMO is about who controls the market, it is not about feeding the people."
The industrial model of agriculture that gave birth to the Green Revolution has reached its apex. During its tenure, it has degraded the earth's soil, depleted essential species diversity, contributed to economic inequality and failed to eliminate hunger. But we are at a crossroads. The choice is ours, whether we double down on an extractive model of agriculture that has failed to deliver and is deeply destructive to our fragile environment, or we can find a new path forward.
We believe that the best solutions are based on local and Indigenous knowledge, evolving with the participation of small farmers. These solutions emerge with deep respect for the social and economic impacts of both action and inaction, they prioritize equity and autonomy, and they value food sovereignty over profit.
This blog was originally published on December 9, 2021. It has been updated in celebration of "Popcorn Lover's Day."
For many of us, movies and popcorn go hand-in-hand. To have one without the other is only half the fun! While we sit in a dark theater, we give little thought to the fact that the popcorn was gloriously and naturally non-GMO.
Popcorn is naturally resistant to GMO contamination, which plagues other corn varieties across North America. The prevalence of GMOs (92% of U.S.-grown corn is genetically modified) and corn's reproductive habits contribute to the problem. Corn is, to be blunt, a promiscuous plant. Each stalk generates up to a billion pollen grains, which can drift 1/2 mile away on a gentle breeze, and insects and human activity increase the pollination radius.
In the end, growing corn is a balancing act between the crop's natural tendency towards a reproductive free-for-all and the farmer's desire for order.
For decades, non-GMO and organic farmers used a certain natural trait that protects popcorn to keep their field corn free from contamination. However, the biotech industry recently inserted this trait into GMO corn — a move that could destroy one of the most potent genetic shields against GMO contamination. It’s a bit complicated, so let’s get into it.
The best barrier against GMOs — and why big biotech wants it
Some corn varieties carry a trait known as "cross-incompatibility" or "CI." It's part of their genetic code. Pollen from corn with the CI trait can only fertilize another plant that also carries it. Think of it as an exclusive club, open only to card-carrying members. A tiny genetic bouncer guards each ear of corn, turning away prospective partygoers if they lack this gene. The CI trait is both the lock and the key, guarding against contaminants.
Popcorn naturally contains the CI trait, making it resistant to fertilization by corn that doesn't carry the trait. Because genetically modified corn hasn't held the CI trait, popcorn is naturally resistant to GMO contamination (that's why the Non-GMO Project does not consider popcorn a high-risk crop, unlike field corn or sweet corn). The CI trait is so useful that breeders have used it to their advantage for decades, incorporating it into non-GMO and organic field corn through traditional breeding techniques.
In 2015, agribusiness giant Corteva submitted a patent application for a seed blend containing a new kind of GMO corn. This GMO combined two traits that had not been paired before in a single seed:
- Genetic engineering, causing the plant to express an insecticide, and
- The CI trait.
Because of that CI trait, pollen from this corn can only pollinate other varieties with the CI trait. And because the seed also contains genetically modified material, this variety could pave the way for GMO contamination in non-GMO and organic varieties that used to have the highest security around. Popcorn and field corn varieties with the CI trait — previously impenetrable — would now be vulnerable to contamination. (Imagine that tiny genetic bouncer we mentioned earlier letting GMO party crashers into the exclusive club.)
Understandably, Corteva's new GMO struck fear into the hearts of the non-GMO and organic movement. Non-GMO corn is already a dramatic minority on North American farmland. Genetically modified corn covers more than 90 million acres of U.S. farmland (that's one of the reasons the Non-GMO Project considers corn — except popcorn — to be high-risk for GMOs). Non-GMO and organic need all the protection they can get.
In the end, the patent application for this particular product was denied, but the desire to capitalize on nature's ingenuity is still circulating in the biotech industry. For anyone wanting to hold back the tide of GMO contamination, the prospect of losing the best protection against crop loss and financial ruin is terrifying.
What's at stake for non-GMO and organic
GMO contamination has far-reaching effects. Consumers might experience ruined meals if contaminated corn flour doesn't set or bake through. Farmers face financial losses, and even international markets are at risk. According to the Center for Food Safety, an infamous contamination event in 2000 introduced GMO corn not approved for human consumption into the food supply. Three years later, traces of the contaminant were still detectable in U.S. corn.
Contamination events happen when protection methods fail or when different batches of corn commingle in processing facilities (that's why the Non-GMO Project supports a rigorously segregated supply chain for high-risk ingredients such as corn). Contamination of non-GMO corn is well-documented, and GMO contamination has been detected in varieties of heirloom native corn from Mexico, the birthplace of corn. These varieties are the product of thousands of years of traditional knowledge and indigenous expertise, containing genetic information vital to food security. The diversity of native Mexican corn will face even greater threats if genetically engineered corn with the CI trait becomes common.
Clearly, non-GMO crops need more protection, not less.
Learn how contamination impacts heirloom varieties in Mexico
How clean food labels protect each other
Grassroots organizations, including Organic Seed Alliance (OSA), work to protect growers, breeders and crops. The OSA knows all too well how contamination affects organic growers, reporting that "the reputational and economic harms fall squarely on the organic producer":
"Organic growers shoulder the lion’s share of the burden when it comes to protecting against [genetically engineered] contamination."
After all, organic production is a significant commitment. It requires careful planning and continuous learning. Conventional farmers face a 3-year transition period before they can access organic markets. But, transitioning farms can support themselves during this time with non-GMO crops if their products are in compliance with the Non-GMO Project Standard. Because the Standard includes testing, tracing and segregation requirements, non-GMO farmers have just as much to lose as organic farmers through contamination events.
Non-GMO agriculture also supports organic by creating physical buffers that reduce contamination on farmland and in processing facilities. An aspiring organic farmer working next to non-GMO plots knows that promiscuous pollen wafting through the air is unlikely to contain genetically modified material. The non-GMO movement as a whole encourages a segregated supply chain for processing and shipping facilities, improving on another potential contamination point. Every single way that contamination risks to organic farmers can be reduced or eliminated helps farmers move to organic, ensuring more organic acreage, less synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and greater biodiversity.
GMO contamination does not serve the interests of the billions of people worldwide who rely on corn as a staple in their diet. Biodiversity is not preserved through the narrow lens of genetic engineering. Instead, it is whittled away until nature's bounty can be listed on a spreadsheet or perused in a patent database. To ensure food security for generations to come and to address the environmental impacts of a century of industrial agriculture, we must build and protect the non-GMO seed supply.
Whether you enjoy a hot buttery snack at a movie theater or look for the Butterfly and the USDA organic seal at the grocery store, you, too, benefit from the non-GMO corn supply.
It's a classic case of mistaken identity.
Some common grocery store products have odd names or unique features, and they're mistaken for GMOs. But many are proudly non-GMO — and some of them are Non-GMO Project Verified!
The Butterfly helps shoppers find products that meet the highest standard in North America for GMO avoidance. To unmask the real GMOs, we bring you the truth about some of the most misunderstood products on the market.
Is Modified Corn Starch a GMO?
This might be the question we're asked more than any other. The confusion is understandable — the word "modified" is sitting right there.
In truth, corn starch might be GMO — but not for the reason you think.
The "modified" in "modified corn starch" doesn't mean genetically modified. It means that the starch was changed in some way to make it more useful in food production. For example, if a crop is harvested, processed and milled into a powder, then treated so it can withstand higher temperatures, it has been changed from its natural state. But do those changes make it a GMO? Nope. None of those changes are genetic modifications. Products that are changed this way can be Verified by the Non-GMO Project.
However, if an organism's DNA has been altered in a lab, creating combinations of plant, animal or bacterial genes that do not occur in nature? Those kinds of changes — modifications to an organism's DNA — result in GMOs, which we believe should be clearly labeled and segregated from the food supply. And it’s all too possible that some corn starch products are derived from GMOs.
The GMO risk in corn starch is because the product is made from corn, which is a high-risk crop. At least 92% of the corn produced in the U.S. is genetically modified. Any product that contains corn as a major ingredient must comply with the Non-GMO Project Standard requirements, which include ingredient testing, tracing and segregation.
Where's the synbio?
Alternatives to traditional animal proteins are all the rage. The market for meat alternatives — from plant-based to cell-cultured — is already booming, and forecast to expand another 11.2% by 2027. With so many products to choose from, how can a concerned consumer steer clear of GMOs?
The Non-GMO Project has hundreds of Verified alternative proteins for you to choose from — you can browse Verified products to find something that suits your fancy.
With its massive media coverage (not to mention its (in)famous origins in genetically modified soy and synthetic biology) the Impossible Burger could give the impression that all meat alternatives are made with GMOs. In fact, some of the biggest brands in alternative proteins, including products made by Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods' main competitor, are Non-GMO Project Verified. (There are other great verified brands too, including Before the Butcher, Field Roast and Lightlife, to name a few.)
Imposters in the produce section
Fresh fruit can seem simply too good to be true (particularly at the height of berry season). Add in handy characteristics such as seedlessness, and the thoughtful shopper starts to wonder if these products are GMOs. Fruit is made to scatter seeds far and wide, but watermelons and grapes both appear in popular seedless versions? How can that be?!
Happily, neither the seedless watermelon nor the grape is a GMO.
Thompson grapes, the most common seedless grape variety, can be traced back as far as the Ottoman Empire, long before the advent of modern biotechnology. Flame seedless grapes, the most common red seedless variety, are the result of traditional crossbreeding methods of several existing cultivars, including the Thompson.
Seedless watermelons are a sterile hybrid produced through skilled breeding. It's a bit like cross-breeding a donkey and a horse to create a sterile mule — a reproductive dead end, but unique and useful nonetheless. Seedless watermelons may have small, white "seedlets" that aren't mature enough to grow new plants (and don't inspire the awkward "ptooey!" of full-grown, black-husked seeds).
To date, the Non-GMO Project's research team — who track more than 460 biotech developers around the globe — have found no reports of genetically modified watermelons on the market or in development.
Meaning you can snack with wild abandon.
Non-browning apples — GMO or no?
What about pre-cut fruit, particularly kinds that resist browning? That depends on the product.
There is a non-browning GMO apple on the market — the Arctic Apple. Arctic Apples come in Golden Delicious and Granny Smith varieties, with Fuji and Gala versions in development. Packaged servings of Arctic Apple from a grocery retailer should be labeled with a bioengineered food disclosure, but other food service venues don't require it and the appearance of the disclosure can vary widely.
What You Need to Know About Bioengineered (BE) Food Labeling
At the Non-GMO Project, we wonder why the Arctic Apple was even produced when there is a perfectly delightful non-browning non-GMO apple available — the Opal apple. Opals were created through traditional cross-breeding methods, producing a crispy, sweet and slightly tangy fruit with naturally low levels of the enzyme that causes apples to turn brown. The Opal apple is proudly Non-GMO Project Verified, and is grown in our home state of Washington.
GMOs need not apply
In separating GMOs from naturally overachieving crops, we found that some of those "too good to be true" foods are simply too good to be GMOs. They are products of nature's bounty, skilled breeders, or a combination of the two.
New GMOs and products of synthetic biology are entering the market at an alarming rate. With so many choices to be made every day, it helps when some of those choices are just a bit easier.
That's where we come in.
The Non-GMO Project has you covered, from the Product Verification Program, ongoing monitoring of the biotechnology sector and the latest news you need to keep GMOs out of your shopping cart. We're proud to help you locate the kinds of non-GMO choices you want for your family, and for generations to come.
This article is part of a 3-part series on familiar foods with surprising backstories. Part Three: Mexico is the birthplace of corn, and corn is the "source of life." But the unique genetic resources of native maize — and the social structure and cultural identity that evolved along with the crops — are under threat from powerful agribusiness, global trade agreements and GMOs.
Read Part One: Is Synbio Vanilla "Natural"? Heck, No! and Part Two: What Does Bill Gates Have To Do With Ethiopian Chickens?
Did you know a full third of the human population depends on corn as a staple food? It's one of the most commonly grown grains in the world, second only to rice. Corn is also considered a high-risk for being GMO.
Genetically modified corn became available in 1996, engineered to tolerate chemical weed killers or produce their own insecticide. Today, at least 92% of U.S.-grown corn and more than 80% of Canadian-grown corn are genetically modified to do one or both of these things. But the ubiquity of GMO corn stops at the southern border. Mexico is both the birthplace of corn and the repository of thousands of invaluable, locally-adapted varieties.
Cultivating GMO corn for commercial use is prohibited on Mexican soil, and President Lopez Obrador has pledged to end imports of GMO corn — most of which come from the U.S. It takes some serious grit to banish the pet technology of powerful agri-chemical corporations. The reasons behind this bold move reach deep into the soil, into the rural landscapes of Mexico's small-holder farmers, and into the past.
Maize in Mexico
Corn is part of a family of cereal grain domesticated in Mexico close to 9,000 years ago. Indigenous Taino people called it mahiz, meaning "source of life" in the local dialect, from which we get the modern term, "maize."
Today, maize production is critical to food security and political stability in Mexico. It is at the heart of Mexican cultural, agronomic and gastronomic life.
This spiritual and social importance contrasts deeply with genetically modified corn's commodification, degradation and devaluation — a difference that was already palpable when the North American Free Trade Agreement ("NAFTA") nearly destroyed traditional Mexican agriculture.
NAFTA and native maize
In the early 1990s, NAFTA — the first iteration of a trade agreement between Mexico, Canada and the United States — was a mere glint in the eye of North American leaders and lobbyists. Mexican farmers grew enough maize for most domestic consumption, saving and sharing seed as part of the stewardship of small-holder farming. The government protected the market by only allowing foreign corn imports if the domestic supply faced a shortfall.
North of the border, American farmers also grew corn. U.S corn, however, was a far cry from the 21,000+ native varieties grown in Mexico. It was a commodity crop grown from high-yield hybrid seeds, destined for biofuels, animal feed and highly processed packaged goods, or sold to overseas markets. Robust federal insurance programs and subsidies made U.S. corn cheap.
NAFTA opened Mexican markets to highly subsidized U.S. corn. American agribusiness giants flooded the Mexican market at less than the cost of production. The Counter describes NAFTA's impact during its first decade, when "U.S. corn exports to Mexico quadrupled, while the price of domestically-grown corn in Mexico crashed by nearly 70 percent." With their livelihood all but wiped out, many agricultural workers abandoned farming altogether, migrating to urban centers — and eventually across the border — searching for jobs. And when farmers leave the land, native maize loses its key caretakers.
Native maize varieties have much to recommend them: They often perform better under difficult conditions, in poor soil and mountainous areas. On the other hand, modern hybrids prefer flat plains and mechanized harvesting. Native maize varieties are optimized for a range of local conditions, fostering unique traits that are crucial as we adapt to climate change.
Diversity is the bedrock of native maize varieties, but in global markets that favor consistent output, it sometimes works against producers. Foreign buyers look for massive quantities of identical ears and kernels that can be processed and packaged at scale. The things that make native maize genetically valuable can also make it a niche product.
And once GMOs arrived on the scene, that cornucopia faced a new threat.
Foreign seed has long posed a threat to native maize. In 2005, Mexico passed a biosecurity law to limit genetically modified corn cultivation in Mexico. Sadly, the law was not iron-clad, and Big Ag already had its eye on the Mexican market. Before long, biotech corporations planted experimental plots of GMO corn in Mexico's northern states, and pollen from the genetically modified corn ultimately contaminated native maize.
Wind pollination isn't the sole source of contamination. According to agribusiness writer and researcher Tim Wise, "The most pervasive form of [contamination] isn't pollen on the wind, it's kernels of maize in people's pockets." When people carry corn seed over longer distances, it becomes that much harder to maintain the integrity of native maize varieties. After all, no one can tell if a kernel nestled in the palm of their hand contains patented DNA. And once that kernel grows, it can contaminate nearby stalks. GMOs that are released into the environment cannot be recalled.
While GMOs spread north of the border, the kernels traveled south. Contamination by modified and patented DNA is well documented, threatening the genetic resources of one of the world's most important crops.
Glyphosate, be gone!
The preservation of Mexico's cultural and genetic heritage is only gaining steam. On the last day of 2020, Mexico's president announced the phasing out of GMO corn imports as well as glyphosate, the weedkiller most commonly used with GMO crops. Mexican courts rejected the move by corporate giants to lift Mexico's biosecurity restrictions, ruling instead to protect biodiversity and the right to a healthy environment.
These decisions reflect the knowledge that the "source of life" is inextricable from Mexico's cultural heritage and social fabric. The team at A Growing Culture argues convincingly that culture and agriculture are inseparable:
"The gateway to environmental erosion is cultural erosion. When the fabric of communities is weakened through industrialization, the careful stewardship of the land, the embeddedness, and the knowledge of these communities are weakened as well."
A truly nourishing and equitable food system emerges from the essential interconnectedness of people and land, tradition and innovation. Industrial-style agriculture driven by transnational corporate interests disrupts this interconnectedness, with devastating consequences for both people and the planet. The triumph of culture and biodiversity over capitalism and Big Ag signals a brighter future.