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At Zing, we’re celebrating our Non-GMO Project verification status! In addition to raising awareness about sustainable agricultural practices, we’re also excited to partner with like-minded brands to help educate consumers about the importance of choosing non-genetically modified foods.

Here at Zing, we pride ourselves on providing real, nutritious solutions for the entire family. We believe that food influences how you feel, and hope you find comfort in knowing that we choose organic, glyphosate-free oats. Our recipes do not contain non-nutritious oils, sugars or preservatives. All of our products are Non-GMO Project Verified because we believe our customers deserve the strongest certification for GMO avoidance.

Now let’s dive into this topic by answering a few FAQs!

What are GMOs?

GMOs = Genetically Modified Organisms. GMOs can refer to any living thing that has had their DNA altered through biotechnology. When it comes to GMOs, most of us tend to think of crops rather than all living things - but GMOs can refer to any plant, animal or organism whose DNA has been altered outside of the cell, or combined with the DNA of another species. 

Why are we avoiding them?

The safety of GMOs is a complex subject. The majority of safety studies on GMOs are conducted by the same companies making the GMOs. Sketchy? We agree. 

There are cases when the GMO modification process is used on microorganisms to create medicines and vaccines, which can be useful for medicinal development. Yet, when we refer to daily nutrition, the positivity shifts to uncertainty. In the absence of independent, long-term safety testing, the ultimate effects of consuming GMOs are unknown. At Zing, we're also concerned about the impacts of the pesticides that go hand-in-hand with many GMO crops.

What common GMO foods should we look out for?

Believe it or not, some well-known GMO foods include items you may be eating daily: corn, soy, squash, apples and potatoes — to name a few. Many farmers grow GMOs to make it easier to apply weedkiller or resist insects. Because GMOs are common in livestock feed, the Non-GMO Project Standard includes guidelines for ensuring livestock that supply eggs, dairy or meat receive non-GMO feed.  

Why is the Butterfly label so important?

As we discussed, a “non-GMO” claim on food suggests that all ingredients were derived from plants, animals, or other organisms whose genetic material has not been altered through biotechnology. Unfortunately, a self-made“non-GMO” claim is not always trustworthy because it is not third-party verified.

Voluntary “non-GMO” labeling is acceptable to FDA, provided it is truthful and not misleading. FDA has guidance for manufacturers who voluntarily label their products as “non-GMO” which includes recommendations for ways to substantiate the claim. This is guidance, however, and is not legally enforced.

To ensure that your purchases are truly “non-GMO,” look for a third-party certification label like Non-GMO Project Verified or USDA Organic. Since 2007, the Butterfly label has helped millions of people find Non-GMO Project Verified products quickly and easily. The Butterfly is the leading third-party certification for GMO avoidance. To be Verified, each product goes through a thorough review process. Its major and minor ingredients are traced back through the supply chain — giving us (and you!) the most accurate information about the food you eat.

Why is non-GMO best for our planet?

Many GMO crops are grown in a chemical-rich environment that damages the soil, increases pollution and makes use of considerably more energy; which, in turn, causes a strain on the earth’s natural resources. 

Support the Butterfly with us!

At Zing, we are committed to building a better food system, and bringing you the best possible products while we’re at it. Join us in celebrating non-GMO foods by seeking out products with the Butterfly label at your local retailers!

By: Christie Lucas

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!

Soy protein

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.

Four pie charts showing the proportion of crops grown in the U.S. that are GMOs— 94% of soy, 92% of corn, 99% of sugar beets and 95% of canolaToday, 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!

Did you know the Non-GMO Project verifies food and wellness products for animals as well as products made for people?

It's true! Verified food and treats abound, and dogs and cats are common benefactors. There are also other Verified supplies, including pet wipes, supplements and first aid products designed for creatures great and small. 

Looking for Non-GMO Project Verified products in the pet supply aisle can help us move to a more sustainable, non-GMO supply chain. Acreage that goes non-GMO sees fewer pesticide applications than land planted with GMO crops — whether the end user is human or not. 

Verified food for your four-legged friend

A calico cat looks up at the person kneeling to give it a dish of food.Dogs and cats are by far the most popular pets in North America — and both depend on a meat-based diet for their well-being. They just aren't set up for vegetarianism. Their digestive systems and nutritional needs are best served by consuming animal products. Which is an opportunity for anyone who wants to expand the non-GMO supply chain.

If you use meat or dairy products, choosing Non-GMO Project Verified options is one of the most impactful ways to support a non-GMO supply chain. That's because most GMO crops don't go towards feeding people; they go toward feeding livestock. Genetically modified corn, soy, cotton and alfalfa occupy more than 200 million acres in the U.S., and more than half of U.S. grains are fed to livestock. 

For animal-derived products to be in compliance with the Non-GMO Project Standard, the livestock must have received non-GMO feed. That applies to animal-derived products destined for people or their pets. Going non-GMO for food and treats offers the same benefits whether those products are for you or your pet! 

Rover says, 9 out of 10 squirrels prefer non-GMO corn

A fully frown doberman sits in front of a tree to have its portrait taken. The dog is wearing a stylish bandana around its neck to show its support for preserving biodiversity.In 2012, a farmer in South Dakota named Paul Fonder stocked a squirrel feeder with one cob of genetically modified corn and one cob of non-GMO, organically-produced corn. The results were unambiguous: Local squirrels preferred the non-GMO and organic corn. Fonder repeated the experiment several times using different genetically modified and non-GMO corn varieties. Each time, squirrels picked non-GMO corn.

Fonder was inspired by an earlier experiment he'd read about in The Organic and Non-GMO Report — one that went awry in a fascinating way. The earlier experiment was in Illinois in 2007, when Maynard Kropf stashed 10 ears each of non-GMO and GMO corn in his garage, planning to conduct a taste test over the winter with squirrels. But Kropf forgot about the corn, never putting it out. Local mice soon volunteered, chewing through the paper bags to consume every last kernel of the non-GMO corn and leaving the GMO varieties untouched.

Some ranchers have reported improved health outcomes after switching to non-GMO livestock feed, including better fertility and digestive health.

Admittedly, these taste tests were ad hoc affairs. The ranchers' observations are anecdotal, lacking the structure of a formal study. Still, the stories are compelling and underscore the need for rigorous, independent, long-term feeding studies on the effects of GMOs. 

Shoppers like you have many reasons for looking for the Butterfly. Are you looking for the best natural products for your best friend? Would you like to see more acreage converted to non-GMO production? Many reasons apply just as well to products you buy for your pet as to products you buy for yourself — and all of them help move the supply chain toward a non-GMO future.

At the Non-GMO Project, part of our goal is to help people better understand the GMO issue so they can make the best decisions for themselves. Through articles like this one, as well as infographics and videos, we educate the public about GMOs and where they might appear. That work often involves combatting common misconceptions. 

Here's an example: One common misconception is that GMOs are necessary to feed a growing population. Contrary to biotechnology industry promises, a careful analysis of GMOs finds that they have not meaningfully increased crop yields or reduced global hunger. Or the misconception that new GMOs made with emerging techniques such as gene editing are not GMOs. Common gene editing techniques meet the definition of GMOs.

Under the Non-GMO Project Standard*, a GMO is a living organism to which biotechnology has been applied. We define biotechnology as in vitro nucleic acid techniques — the alteration of genetic material in a petri dish or test tube ("in vitro" means "in glass") — or combining genetic material from different organisms beyond natural reproductive barriers in ways that aren't used in traditional breeding. (You can find more information about what makes a GMO a GMO in our recent article, What Is a GMO?)

How do those misconceptions measure up against our definition of a GMO? In other words, what's not a GMO?

Traditional cross-breeding ≠ GMOs

Here's one myth we'd love to dismantle entirely and forever: The idea that after thousands of years of selective breeding by skilled farmers and indigenous experts, all our modern food crops are genetically modified. In other words, if human hands have played a role in changing an organism, that organism is a GMO.

This idea is categorically false.

GMOs aren't just the end product of change guided by human hands. GMOs are the result of biotechnology, and biotechnology consists of manipulating the genetic material of an organism in glass petri dishes or test tubes (in vitro) or combining genetic material from different organisms in ways that overcome natural reproductive barriers. 

How does the claim that "all crops have undergone changes directed by human breeders, so they're all GMOs" measure up against the definition of GMOs? Let's see:

  1. Are new traits the result of in vitro nucleic acid techniques (altering the organism's DNA in a glass petri dish or test tube)? No.
  2. Do the new crops combine genetic material from different organisms using techniques different from those used in traditional breeding and selection? No.

Zero out of 2 criteria were met, meaning modern crops are not all GMOs just because humans selectively bred them. 

For our next question: What about the mutants?

Mutants and watermelons

It's summertime. As the temperature rises, grocery stores offer big bins of heavy, sweet watermelons, with or without seeds. We frequently hear from people wondering if those seedless varieties are GMOs, and we're happy to set the record straight.

The short answer is no, seedless watermelons are not GMOs. The slightly longer answer is that seedless watermelons aren't GMOs because the process by which they are produced doesn't meet the Non-GMO Project's Standard's criteria for biotechnology. 

Seedless watermelons are created through a process called "random mutagenesis." A young watermelon plant is exposed to a chemical compound to induce a genetic mutation in the plant. The mutation causes the plant to develop double the usual number of chromosomes. That plant is then cross-bred with a regular watermelon plant, resulting in a seedless melon. (You can find more information about mutagenesis in our article, Does Mutation Breeding Produce GMOs?)

How does that process of creating a seedless watermelon measure up against the definition of GMOs? Let's see:

  1. Were the changes made using in vitro nucleic acid techniques (altering the crop's DNA in a glass petri dish or test tube)? No, random mutagenesis is not an in vitro nucleic acid technique. 
  2. Do seedless watermelons combine genetic material from different organisms overcoming natural reproductive barriers? No, the cross-breeding part of the process is between a watermelon and another watermelon.

Again, 0/2 criteria are met. Seedless watermelons are not GMOs. 

For more examples of mistaken identity, read Exposing GMOs: Are You Being Fooled By Imposters?

If you have questions about a specific product or crop and want to know if it's a GMO, contact us at info@nongmoproject.org. We're happy to walk you through the definition and see how a suspected GMO measures up. 

*The Non-GMO Project Standard's definitions of GMOs and biotechnology are adapted from the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, an international treaty designed to protect biodiversity from potential risks of GMOs. It is consistent with definitions used by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization and the European Union's GMO Legislation. By adhering to international standards for clarity and consistency/specificity, the Non-GMO Project upholds the highest standards for rigor, transparency and subject matter expertise.

When GMOs were commercialized in the 1990s, few people knew about these novel organisms entering the food supply. Their development, testing and deployment had occurred with a startling lack of transparency. However, as early GMOs and their derivatives made their way into more and more common food products, folks in the natural foods sector started asking questions. Some of those folks went on to found the Non-GMO Project, North America’s most rigorous third-party verification for non-GMO food and products.

From time to time, people ask us why we do the work we do. What do we have against GMOs, anyways? The answer to that question is not short. From the unsettling origins of the GMO experiment, we've witnessed a complex web of negative impacts and downstream effects that start with this technology. The GMO food web and the technology driving it have evolved, and so do the consequences.

What's wrong with GMOs? We'll walk you through it.

Corporate consolidation and short-term studies

The first GMOs were developed by chemical companies with ingenious business plans. For example, Monsanto sold chemicals for decades before engineering herbicide-tolerant "Roundup Ready" soybeans in 1996. By creating herbicide-tolerant GMOs, they gained restrictive utility patents on a major commodity crop and sold a lot more of their signature weedkiller, Roundup, a companion product to the GMO soy. The plan worked so well that glyphosate-based herbicides such as Roundup have seen a 15-fold increase in use since Monsanto introduced its first GMO.

Very little was known about GMOs when they entered the food supply. Most people were unaware that everyday food products contained ingredients derived from novel organisms. Even fewer people knew that safety testing was mainly short-term feeding studies conducted by the same corporations who created GMOs and stood to profit from their adoption. 

Without independent safety assessments, the long-term impacts of GMOs are unknown. Meanwhile, those utility patents helped solidify agricultural companies' growing seed supply monopoly. Today more than 60% of the world's seeds are owned by just four corporations. 

Environmental antagonists

The dramatic spike in herbicide use is a sobering outcome of GMO adoption, but it's not the only one. There are significant downstream impacts from adopting this technology and the chemical inputs that go with it. That business plan to sell more weedkillers alongside patented GMO seeds worked like a charm. Farmers sprayed more glyphosate more often, and subsequently, "superweeds" with evolved resistance to those chemicals rose up in response.

Herbicide tolerance wasn't the only GMO trait. Genetically engineered corn was created to produce its own insecticidal bacteria. Because the insecticide was constantly present as the corn grew, insect populations developed similar tolerance as the superweeds. It's a case of be-careful-what-you-wish-for: If GMO manufacturers pictured pristine landscapes that produced only the GMO crops they designed, they were engineering a certain kind of doom. Landscapes aren't meant to be pristine or monotonous, and nature rebels against a lack of diversity. 

In the end, GMOs are antithetical to the kind of regenerative food system we desperately need to feed a growing population on a warming planet. Improving soil health, protecting biodiversity and curbing greenhouse gasses are critical initiatives to support human wellbeing. GMOs move us in the opposite direction, towards monocrops, homogeneity and chemical dependence.

The cultural impacts of GMOs

Some of the most damning impacts of an industrialized and engineered food system are cultural and social. Food is a basic human need. It's also a crucial element of the social fabric of communities worldwide. We gather for feasts and celebrations, expressing cultural identities through the food we share. Traditionally people ate globally diverse diets to reflect our cultural backgrounds. However, the types of foods we consume have consolidated over time to become more homogenous worldwide.  

Last fall, author Diane Wilson talked with the Non-GMO Project about her book "The Seed Keeper" as part of our Speaker Series. Her novel explores Indigenous food sovereignty through the stories of four Native American women and the loss of traditional foods and cultural practices after colonization. "A very important part of the culture was displaced when tribes were moved onto reservations" and lost access to their foods.

"You move people onto reservations, you give them commodity foods that come in a sack, so it's high starch high fat, and immediately you see a shift in both the spiritual and the physical health of people and the emotional wellbeing because it's very compromising to your sense of self as an Indigenous person to be living in this way."

Wilson is enrolled on the Rosebud Reservation, and she works as part of the growing movement to restore Indigenous food sovereignty. "We're reclaiming that old relationship… and we're rebuilding the health of our communities by returning to those traditional foods."

Respecting and restoring food's cultural and social significance and the stewardship of natural resources goes beyond Indigenous communities. "It actually impacts all of us," says Wilson. "The work we've been doing in Indigenous communities has some great teaching and lessons for all of us."

New GMOs, new risks

Since the Non-GMO Project was established in 2007, the field of biotechnology has changed. New GMOs created with emerging and evolving techniques such as gene editing and synthetic biology are flooding the market — and with new technology comes unique risks. 

Because these new techniques work in different ways than those used to produce traditional GMOs, they face fewer regulatory hurdles. Many products made from new GMOs won't require disclosure under the USDA's new bioengineered (BE) food labeling law, and that doesn't help keep shoppers informed about what's in their food. 

The technology behind some new GMOs is cheaper and more accessible than traditional biotechnology techniques — there are even DIY CRISPR gene-editing kits for the at-home enthusiast! With fewer barriers to entry, fewer hurdles in the regulatory field and massive investment from venture capitalists supporting new GMO research, our work at the Non-GMO Project is more important than ever.

When GMOs first came on the market in the 1990s, the general public didn't know much about them. Thankfully, we've come a long way since then. Through the advocacy of activist organizations, including the Non-GMO Project, familiarity with the term GMO is nearly universal.* 

We love to see awareness of the GMO issue grow (in the early days, most Americans were unaware that GMOs were entering the food supply). We believe that everyone has the right to decide for themselves whether or not to consume GMOs, and providing folks with the latest information is what the Non-GMO Project is all about. 

However, there's still a lot of confusion about what a GMO is — and what it isn't — due mainly to the speed at which the biotech landscape evolves. It's not surprising. As science leaps forward, regulation lags behind. Meanwhile, new products continue to enter the market. 

The Non-GMO Project's research team stays on top of new developments so we can bring you the latest information. So let's get down to it: What is a GMO, what are "new GMOs" and how does the changing landscape of biotechnology impact your food supply?

The application of biotechnology

The term "G-M-O" stands for genetically modified organism, a living organism whose genetic makeup has been altered using biotechnology. 

The Non-GMO Project Standard defines biotechnology as the application of: 

  1. in vitro nucleic acid techniques, including recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and the direct injection of nucleic acid into cells or organelles; or 
  2. Fusion of cells beyond the taxonomic family, that overcame natural physiological, reproductive, or recombination barriers and that are not techniques used in traditional breeding and selection. 

Under the Standard, the application of biotechnology to an organism creates a GMO. 

Biologists classify living organisms into groups based on their similarities or differences. It's called taxonomy. Between 8 and 9 million species have been identified and classified by scientists. Some organisms are closely related, others only distantly. The closer the relationship, the easier it is for their genetic material to merge through natural reproduction or traditional cross-breeding techniques. The more different two organisms are, the more hijinks are needed to overcome natural reproductive obstacles. Biotechnology provides those hijinks.

Biotechnology can be used to combine genetic material from two or more organisms, creating a "transgenic" organism. Some organisms are so dissimilar that their cells don't even recognize each other as potential mates. In answer to the question "will they or won't they?" — these two won't. If scientists want those cells to work together, they use biotechnology so the cells will accept each other despite their differences.

Traditional techniques, transgenic GMOs 

The first GMOs to enter the food system were "transgenic" GMOs, meaning they contained DNA from two or more species. The first of these traditional GMOs were soy engineered to withstand herbicide and corn that produces its own insecticide. Genetically engineered corn and soy still dominate GMO acreage in North America, but they are not the only transgenic GMOs. Other transgenic GMOs include genetically engineered canola, cotton, sugar beets and alfalfa — all engineered for similar traits as the original corn and soy — and papaya engineered for disease resistance.

The biotechnology that drives genetic engineering continues to evolve. The Non-GMO Project research team is monitoring a growing number of products made with new genetic engineering techniques that outpace regulations and evade labeling requirements designed for first-generation GMOs.

New GMO techniques

New GMOs are produced using techniques including gene editing and synthetic biology. 

Gene editing tools such as CRISPR and TALEN have been heralded as a highly precise form of biotechnology that makes targeted cuts to an organism's DNA. Still, there are significant uncertainties with the process, including "off-target" effects when the DNA strand is edited at the wrong site or other unintended outcomes.

Synthetic biology (or synbio) is sometimes referred to within the biotechnology industry as "precision fermentation." This technique (as it appears in the marketplace at this time?) generally relies on genetically modified microorganisms such as engineered yeast or algae that are programmed to produce specific compounds. Synbio ingredients already appear in virtually every aisle at the grocery store, including fragrances, flavors, vitamins and even non-animal dairy proteins. This means you may have consumed synbio ingredients already without your knowledge.

New GMOs differ from traditional GMOs in crucial ways which impact their regulation and labeling: 

New GMOs face fewer regulatory hurdles than traditional transgenic GMOs because they lack foreign DNA in the final product. 

For example, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency recently moved to eliminate government oversight of gene-edited crops that do not contain foreign DNA. That's right — no foreign DNA, no government involvement in the release, cultivation or sale of genetically modified organisms despite the fact they are novel organisms.

The absence of foreign DNA also impacts labeling. In the U.S. the new federal Bioengineered (BE) Food labeling law does not apply to goods without detectable modified genetic material in the finished product. As a result, most products made with new GMO ingredients won't require a bioengineered food disclosure — and shoppers can't rely only on the BE label to be sure which products are made with GMOs.

Traditional GMOs represented only a handful of crops, but they've had a massive impact on North American acreage and the food supply. Today, most conventional prepared foods in the grocery store contain ingredients and inputs derived from GMOs. Meanwhile, new GMOs are proliferating in the supply chain. The techniques used to produce them are cheaper and more accessible than transgenic technology, leading to a dramatic increase in the number of biotech developers exploring the field. 

In the past 30 years, a handful of transgenic GMOs and new techniques for creating GMOs have utterly disrupted the food system. This makes us wonder how many conscious eaters and thoughtful shoppers it takes to disrupt it again, to create a natural, regenerative and equitable food system. A few well-placed changes can move mountains. Imagine what we can accomplish together.

*Source: Organic and Beyond Ⓒ 2020, The Hartman Group, Inc.

African man looking up standing in a corn field

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.  Beans and lentils

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:

    1. Climate change is an existential crisis for our species (and countless others).
    2. Droughts are likely to gain in intensity and frequency.
    3. 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? 

Crops in drought

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 spring, we're offering three stories on biotech's biggest and greenwashiest claims in our series, "Are GMOs really going to save the world?" Part One looks at Golden Rice, one of the most controversial GMOs ever created. Don't forget to check out Part Two, How Useful are GMOs on a Warming Planet? and Part 3, Can a Lab-based Food System Save the World?

The biotech industry loves to talk about precision. 

For example, advocates for genetic engineering and genetic modification have adopted the term "precision agriculture" to rebrand unpopular technologies that produce GMOs. Divorced from its meaning, precision agriculture sounds very attractive indeed, as if the untidiness of life — and farming — can be tamed if only we apply a sharp enough blade. 

Our regular readers know precision agriculture by its other names, "genetic modification" and "genetic engineering." One genetically engineered crop, in particular, Golden Rice, exemplifies the hype and hyperbole of modern biotechnology.

Golden Rice is genetically engineered to contain beta-carotene, a precursor to Vitamin A. It was developed in the late 1990s to treat Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) — a form of malnutrition that can lead to blindness and death. VAD mainly impacts children and expectant mothers in developing economies across Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa (where plain white rice provides daily calories but little actual nutrition). 

From a distance, the theory of Golden Rice offers elegant, even algebraic simplicity: If we add the thing that's missing (Vitamin A) to the thing that people suffering from malnutrition eat every day (rice), then — presto! — deficiency solved!

In practice, it doesn't work that way.

Vitamin A deficiency is not an isolated problem. It is a product of extreme poverty intertwined with inequality's social and economic drivers. Effective solutions are systemic rather than targeted, and the realities of extreme poverty quickly undo a "precise" tool like Golden Rice.

How does Golden Rice fail as a "silver bullet" solution? And what can we do instead?

"Golden Rice" wears rose-colored glasses.

The biggest problem with Golden Rice is tied directly to the reason it was created in the first place: People afflicted with VAD rely on very limited diets, and those limitations make Golden Rice ineffective.

People must consume Vitamin A with fat for the body to use it. In regions where people rely on rice to survive, the fruits and vegetables containing copious amounts of the stuff are unavailable — neither are fat-bearing foods like oils or meat. Even if Golden Rice replaced white rice, the lack of diversity in the local diet prevents it from doing any good.

Time is another enemy of Golden Rice. Beta carotene — the precursor to Vitamin A that gives Golden Rice its color — deteriorates over time. How the grain is stored and transported impacts how much of the supplement gets to the people who need it. Vacuum-sealing and refrigeration seem to slow nutrient loss, but people in rural and impoverished areas rarely have these kinds of resources. Again, the conditions that cause VAD also undermine the efficacy of Golden Rice. 

Research into Golden Rice's effectiveness has produced skewed results because studies operate under ideal conditions that don't reflect the realities of the regions most affected by VAD. For example, a 2008 study provided a daily butter ration to each participant, optimizing the absorption of Vitamin A — a benefit that is not available to most families facing VAD.  

In the end, Golden Rice is most effective for people who don't need it — people with diverse diets and access to refrigeration — meaning that it's not really effective at all. Providing the basic human needs that would increase Golden Rice's effectiveness  — improved nutrition, healthcare and basic infrastructure — would go a long way to solving VAD itself, not to mention many of the other ills of extreme poverty. 

With more dietary options, the foods that naturally deliver Vitamin A could do their work, providing essential nutrients and the healthy fats needed to metabolize them. Consistent health care is a perfect delivery system for the Vitamin A supplementation programs that have already been highly successful — as well as other life-saving treatments. 

Where would we be today if we had applied the resources used to develop Golden Rice over the past 20+ years directly to the VAD crisis and its underlying causes?

Farmers choose the best seeds — and they don't choose Golden Rice.

Another obstacle to Golden Rice's success is adoption: Will farmers in affected regions choose to grow it, and how will those crops perform?

Golden Rice cross-bred with locally grown rice produces offspring suitable to a given area, but these crosses often have low productivity. In 2017 in India, local rice varieties crossed with Golden Rice produced pale and stunted plants. Unsurprisingly, low performance is an unappealing trait for farmers. A study in the Philippines (the first country to approve Golden Rice for commercial cultivation) concluded farmers are unlikely to plant the low-yielding crop. "Some [farmers] might adopt Golden Rice if it could fetch a premium in the market, but extremely poor customers are unlikely to pay it." 

Again, the roadblocks of poverty and necessity undermine Golden Rice's effectiveness. 

Failing diversity = future catastrophe

Reliance on a single crop such as Golden Rice is very dangerous even with the best intentions. 

The people impacted by VAD rely on diets with little diversity. Even if Golden Rice effectively controlled VAD (a claim we've challenged above) and even if the adoption overcame practical barriers (ditto), distributing a handful of rice seed varieties to support millions of people across a massive land area increases the fragility of the food system. Genetic uniformity is a welcome mat to plant pests and diseases — threats that are only increasing in the changing climate whose effects are forecast to disproportionately impact the Global South, including all the regions affected by VAD.

The Non-GMO Project was founded on the belief that every person has the right to adequate, nutritious and natural food. Real solutions are based on a holistic understanding of the problem and must work with the messy realities of our troubled world.  

We support the fastest, most effective and longest-lasting solutions to suffering worldwide and we have yet to see an offering from the biotech industry that stands up to scrutiny. 

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.

Flour in a spoon before weighing itThe "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.

Lady holding a tasty vegan burger at workplace

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).

Side view of cheerful young teenager girls friends outdoors in garden, eating watermelon.

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 Two: Chickens are quickly becoming the world's most widely consumed meat. Intensive factory farming dominates poultry production, creating a laundry list of related problems — but is genetic engineering an effective solution? 

Read Part One: Is Synbio Vanilla "Natural"? Heck, No! and Part Three: GMOs and Heritage Corn: Protecting the Source of Life

Chicken is quickly becoming the world's most popular meat. More than 90% of the world's chicken is produced through factory farming. This intensive livestock production method brings with it myriad problems, including horribly cruel conditions and an ideal setting for new pathogens to emerge. The conventional poultry industry is embracing new kinds of genetic engineering to pave the way to an all-chicken future. 

These days, most GMO corn and soy — the two most prevalent GMO crops — end up in animal feed. GMO livestock feed is, quite simply, the norm. However, the rise of new GMOs made with emerging techniques includes genetically engineering the animals themselves. In 2015,  GMO salmon became the first genetically engineered animal approved by the FDA for human consumption — but it surely won't be the last. 

If the future is chicken-centric, dependent on the co-existing apparatus of factory farming and GMOs, what else are we producing? 

The factory farming flu

Modern livestock production is an extension of industrial agriculture. Most chickens come from so-called "factory farming" operations, and even the shallowest internet searches reveal a deeply cruel system that demands reform. Agricultural biotechnology is often employed to expand fundamentally inhumane and dangerous practices. 

Factory farming practices house thousands of animals in crowded, filthy and stressful conditions. They come from genetically similar stock after generations of breeding to maximize growth. This creates the ideal conditions for viral and bacterial pathogens to emerge, mutate and spread. In the book Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching, Dr. Michael Greger writes, "If you actually want to create global pandemics, then build factory farms." (If this prophecy seemed distant at the book's release in 2006, perhaps it has more resonance as we enter the third year of the coronavirus pandemic.)

Researchers at the Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh are developing a GMO chicken with resistance to avian influenza. Currently, 90% of the chicken consumed globally comes from factory farming, making the suppression of bird flu a high priority. And while less flu is absolutely a good thing, engineering resistance treats the symptom (the rise of a specific pathogen) while leaving the underlying cause in place (a production model that breeds pathogens nearly as quickly as it breeds chickens).

Bird flu is not the only animal-borne disease plaguing concentrated livestock operations. The Guardian lists Mers, Nipah and Covid-19 as pathogens of importance, while The Counter just published a deep dive into salmonella. Perhaps the best lesson here is that nature is dextrous, and viruses and bacteria emerge and mutate wherever conditions are kind to them. 

Why did Bill Gates cross the road?

Chicken's rise as The World's Most Popular Meat isn't an entirely natural phenomenon. It has had several helpers along the way. 

Philanthropic organizations and governments in developing economies are singing poultry's praises. Bill Gates himself — Microsoft mogul and owner of more farmland in North America than any other individual — blogged about chicken-keeping as the antidote to poverty and even donated 100,000 birds to impoverished families. Ethiopia is one of several sub-saharan African countries expecting a population spike in the coming decades. The government is already promoting consumption of and investment in resources for the next generation's nuggets. 

Chicken-keeping is commonplace in Ethiopia's rural areas, where a flock of 5 or 6 birds can provide crucial income for a family. These chickens are indigenous varieties with a different lineage than the factory farm broilers. Indigenous chickens scavenge for their food and are skilled at evading predators, but they don't grow quickly or lay frequently. Even by the standards of a developing economy, many Ethiopians consume very little meat. 

All of which begs the question: What do the Bill Gateses of the world have in mind when they picture expanded poultry production? Is the landscape populated with indigenous birds, well-adapted to their environment but considered low-producers? Were Gates' 100,000 free chickens standard broiler stock, bred for high productivity but ill-suited to life in Africa's rural villages? Perhaps the chicken of the future is a new bird altogether. Research facilities across sub-Saharan Africa and the EU are working to integrate the productivity of factory farm breeds with the resilience of the indigenous chicken — and genetic engineering is one of the tools available to them.

The trouble with chickens bred for productivity is that they show deficits in other areas. Fast-growing birds tend to be slower birds, less skilled at scavenging and avoiding predators. The factory farm setting which gave rise to conventional broilers controls for those particular risks, but chicken-keepers in sub-saharan Africa seldom have supplementary feed or shelter to offer their flocks. 

Currently, 90% of the chicken consumed globally comes from factory farming. The system is easily replicable, environmentally questionable and morally reprehensible. Can small household flocks survive with birds explicitly bred for a factory setting? If factory farmed livestock production spread across the planet's fastest growing continent, what dangers would follow? 

Food for thought

Encouraging the consumption of animal protein in this day and age has another, more cynical purpose: the conversion of overproduced commodity grains — mostly GMOs — into discrete protein units. In the book, Animal, Vegetable, Junk, Mark Bittman identifies livestock as a great way to turn grain into money. For example, it takes 8 pounds of grain to generate 1 pound of chicken, smoothly turning crops into profit. That kind of conversion rate is a good thing, Bittman writes, "if you're looking for a product that's easier to ship and more marketable than corn."

The idea places an unsettling spin on Gates' 100,000 free chickens, as does the phrasing in Fortune magazine's article outlining biotechnology's role in "finding ways for farmers to produce more corn and soybeans on every acre." It becomes difficult to read those words without seeing an ulterior motive. 

Only the philanthropists themselves know their motivations. However, the long-term plan bears investigating  — particularly with initiatives based on foreign, historically exploitative support. Is a movement, new product or aid package an effective way to feed people or an effective way to extract wealth? Does it create self-sufficiency or ongoing dependence? Will it concentrate power in foreign hands, ensuring continued influence over previously colonized land? 

If colonization and imperialism sound like buzzwords from previous centuries, keep in mind these twin specters operate under the guise of progress and development. In the end, only the methods of approach have evolved. Genetically engineered animals and crops are among the sneakiest, as "helping hands" — including patented GMOs and costly agricultural products — displace traditional wisdom and locally-adapted seeds. Meanwhile, the beneficiaries are the same as they've ever been.

Tractor spraying pesticides on field with sprayer

Agriculture is uniquely positioned in the environmental movement. Because everyone needs to eat, a sustainable food system is crucial for humanity's well-being. However, agriculture is currently responsible for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, and crops exposed to extreme weather events are vulnerable to the impacts of a changing climate.

Everybody wants a truly healthy food system — one that provides good food for all, and does so within the limits of the earth's resources. 

The biotech industry would have us place all our eggs in their basket, promising silver-bullet solutions in genetic engineering. But these are expensive dalliances. They sound good on paper, magical even, but relying on biotech solutions to complex environmental problems is ultimately ineffective. Worse still, costly GMO development steals focus and funding from more promising initiatives, such as the adoption of agroecological farming practices.

With so many resources behind them, why do GMOs keep falling short? By examining the parts and ignoring the whole, the biotechnology industry bases its solutions on a reductive and distorted vision of the natural world.

Traditional GMOs and "Failure to Yield"

Some of the earliest GMOs were commodity crops engineered for herbicide tolerance or to produce their own insecticide. These traits, the thinking went, would reduce losses to weed competition or insect activity. With fewer losses, yields would ultimately improve. Despite the promises of agrichemical corporations, however, it hasn't worked out that way.

Multiple assessments of crop performance show no evidence that GMOs increase yields. For example, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report in 2009 examining 13 years of GMO corn and soy production in the U.S., and concluded that genetic engineering "has done little to increase overall crop yields." Genetically modified "soybeans have not increased yields," the report continues,"and corn has increased yield only marginally on a crop wide basis." 

Moreover, the most prominent traits in early GMOs — herbicide-tolerance and the production of insecticide within the plant — have serious consequences. Herbicide-tolerance traits go hand in hand with the dramatic increases in pesticide use which in turn gave rise to "superweeds." Pest-resistant GMOs, engineered to produce insecticide in every cell, have dramatically increased the target pest's exposure to the toxin, resulting in "superbugs.'' 

Gene editing and crop performance

New GMO techniques such as gene editing are advertised as precise tools for modification, genetic "scissors" that cut only where we tell them to. There are, however, serious doubts about the level of precision that gene editing offers. As we've discussed before, off-target effects and unintended outcomes occur regularly in gene-editing experiments. But perhaps a bigger problem for gene-editing advocates is in the basic functioning of genetics. 

Crop performance relies on a whole range of factors. The genetic makeup of the crop is one of those factors. Other factors include soil health, biodiversity within the soil biome and in the surrounding plants and animals, precipitation and storm activity, and the skills of the farmers tending the crops. Neglect in any one of these areas can impact performance, even in crops with the strongest genetic profile.

Gene editing works on a "one-gene-at-a-time" basis. DNA may be cut, silenced, or have new sequences inserted — hopefully at the desired location. A one-gene-at-a-time tool might seem precise, but it is only effective at addressing traits that are driven by one gene. There are many, many, many genes involved in complex traits such as high-yield, drought- or saline-tolerance or better nutrient uptake. 

Simple traits — traits that can be affected by a single gene — are limited.

The performance of crops or livestock, or how they react to environmental stressors such as heat or drought — these are highly complex traits. Complex traits are determined by many genes working together. Some traits, called "omnigenic" traits, need all the genes to participate, every single one. Jumping in with the biotech tool of choice to modify all of the genes in specific and controlled ways is simply not possible.

Here's a visual tool to help explain the difference: Picture a DNA strand as a string of lights. Each light on the string is a gene. If we were to ask which genes are involved in higher  crop yields, all the lights would shine. If we were to ask which genes are involved in more biomass and better growth, all the lights would shine. Which genes might contribute to salt-tolerance — you get the picture. 

The complexity and interconnectedness of nature is present at a genetic level. With each step back from the microscope, those relationships continue, now between one species and another, now between all parts of the ecosystem. Nature is more than the sum of its parts. 

Holistic solutions are the best solutions

Over the past 30 years, there have been increases in crop performance made through traditional crossbreeding and other agroecological practices, from looking at the totality of the genome, and the entirety of the landscape it occupies. 

The idea that GMOs are the best way, or the only way, to feed the world is based on reductive science and an extractive mindset. The premise of this theory, how it casts food production and our relationship to our environment, is simply flawed. 

We don't need GMOs to feed the world. We need to work with the land so that it can thrive — and we can thrive with it. 

Carey Gillam Speaker Series

The following is an excerpt from The Monsanto Papers: Deadly Secrets, Corporate Corruption, and One Man’s Search for Justice, a new book by investigative journalist Carey Gillam. The book tells the story of Lee Johnson’s landmark lawsuit against Monsanto alleging the company’s popular weed killer causes cancer. 

Join the Non-GMO Project July 13 at 4:00 p.m. PST on Facebook Live for our first Speaker Series featuring Carey, and enter to win a copy of The Monsanto Papers!

The Monsanto PapersJoining Forces

It was a winter day, and Aimee was ensconced in the firm’s cavernous conference room, poring over research about Monsanto and its long history as a purveyor of chemicals, when she saw a notice of Mike Miller’s first case filing, the Kennedy lawsuit he had brought in Missouri. The notice caught her by surprise; she had not expected The Miller Firm’s fast entry. Aimee’s friend and fellow mass tort attorney Robin Greenwald of the New York City firm Weitz & Luxenberg had just filed a similar case, and the two women had already agreed to join forces in what they expected would become a large Roundup MDL. Like Aimee, Robin was a highly regarded attorney—she was former assistant chief of the US Department of Justice’s Environmental Crimes Section. Robin had honed her skills suing petroleum companies for environmental contamination, but she had no experience in the world of farm chemicals and pesticides.

Aimee knew Mike and Nancy Miller from crossing paths with them on medical device litigation, and she quickly gave Mike a call, explaining that she was planning to move for MDL status for the Roundup litigation and would like his firm to be part of the team she thought would be necessary to take on Monsanto. There was power in numbers, and even though Aimee had never litigated against Monsanto, she felt intuitively that it would take the top legal skills of many seasoned plaintiffs’ attorneys working in concert to win against the century-old company. 

Roundup brought in roughly $4 billion a year in sales for Monsanto and was the linchpin to so-called Roundup Ready seeds, which the company had genetically engineered so that crops such as corn and soybeans would not die when hit with Monsanto’s herbicides, though any weeds threatening to crowd the crops would die. The special crops were a hit with farmers and amounted to many more billions of dollars in sales each year for Monsanto. Additionally, the company marketed its glyphosate-based weed killers to farmers to spray on non–genetically engineered crops such as wheat and oats shortly before harvest to help dry them out. Both practices were known to leave weed killer residues in the food made from the sprayed crops. If the public understood that Monsanto’s herbicide could cause cancer, regulators would be called upon to limit its use, and Monsanto’s herbicide and seed businesses could be decimated.

This was not just one product, Aimee realized. This was Monsanto’s billion-dollar baby, and she knew the company would do whatever it could to fight to keep it. “We are taking on their biggest product,” she told Mike. “We need to work together.”

Unaware of the strategy being plotted by Aimee, Mike, and Robin, Los Angeles attorney Michael Baum was doing his own research on the potential for Roundup litigation. But he wasn’t looking at cancer; he was looking at butterflies. There was mounting evidence that widespread Roundup use was contributing to a marked decline in the monarch butterfly population, and environmental scientists were warning that the monarch could disappear almost entirely by 2036. He wasn’t sure, but Michael thought there might be a lawsuit in the situation. 

He did not really need a new case to chase. Michael was managing partner of Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman, a firm so large it sprawled across the ninth and tenth floors of a Wilshire Boulevard office building, and he was on the back side of a career that had brought him wealth as well as the respect of his peers in the plaintiffs’ bar. He was sixty-three, drove a Jaguar, and owned a home in the tony beach community of Malibu, and when he was not working he often could be found trying to balance his lean five-foot-eleven frame on a boogie board in the ocean. He liked to match dark business suits with colorful striped socks, and underneath the cuffs of his crisp white dress shirts Michael wore couplets of braided leather bracelets more commonly seen on surfers than on lawyers.

His office was a reflection of the fact that Michael was one part harried lawyer and one part aging hippie. Asian artwork, including a praying Buddha sculpture, was scattered among the furnishings, as were books and postcards from exotic travels. A faded leather sofa sat underneath floor-to-ceiling windows that offered a view of waving palm trees and a hint of the distant ocean. One entire wall of Michael’s office was covered with framed certificates of recognition, including a National Association of Distinguished Counsel certificate ranking Michael among the “Top One Percent” of members. Another touted both his legal skills and his ethics. A University of California law diploma, as well as his undergraduate English degree diploma, hung near a framed sign that read, “In every job that must be done there is an element of fun.” A dartboard affixed to the back of his office door offered distraction from the stacks of legal files surrounding his long, black glass-topped desk. 

Baum Hedlund’s focus was on representing people with personal injury and wrongful death claims, primarily stemming from pharmaceutical product dangers and commercial transportation accidents—aviation disasters were the firm’s specialty. Pesticide problems, such as Roundup’s danger to monarch butterflies, would be new territory for the firm, and it wasn’t clear who the plaintiffs would be. But Michael believed that practicing law came with a larger duty. He described his view to outsiders as striving to “make money delivering blows against the empire” in whatever form that came.

On the wall just outside his office hung a large framed quote from anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

In his quest to explore how his firm might help save the butterfly, Michael had been working closely with one of Baum Hedlund’s newest and youngest attorneys, Brent Wisner. Brent was the son of a longtime family friend and had been contemplating joining a corporate defense firm before Michael lured him to join the plaintiffs’ side instead.

Brent was barely thirty years old and still new to the profession after earning a law degree at Georgetown University and clerking for two years for a federal court judge in Hawaii. He had grown up in Topanga, a community situated in the Santa Monica Mountains between Los Angeles and Malibu, known as an enclave for a bohemian lifestyle and populated by artists, filmmakers, and musicians. Brent’s father was a screenwriter, and as a child Brent had tried his hand at acting, an experience that made him adept at working a courtroom much as if it were a stage. In Michael’s eyes, Brent was the epitome of the “Topangan” legend, someone who cared about more than personal success, who shared his desire to use the law in pursuit of the sort of justice that lived up to the Margaret Mead credo.

Neither Brent nor Michael was familiar with the details of Lee Johnson’s story, but they knew Mike had filed Lee’s lawsuit just a few hours’ drive north of them, in San Francisco, two months prior. Mike let Michael know he had a meeting with Monsanto’s lawyers coming up at the end of March. They should probably meet before then and start to craft a plan of attack. The ball was rolling, and there was no time to waste.

With Michael and Brent on the West Coast and Mike and Nancy and their team on the East Coast, it made the most sense to meet in the middle, so they all gathered in Denver at Aimee and Vance’s firm for two days of strategizing about who would take which depositions, how to coordinate and share document reviews, and how best to shepherd the several thousand potential cases they believed were inevitable. Aimee’s colleague Robin Greenwald flew in from New York to round out the group.

They were an unlikely and eclectic team—a combination of LA flash, New York sophistication, Southern stubbornness, and midwestern salt of the earth. None had any experience with the pesticide industry, and none had ever challenged Monsanto, a company known for its ruthlessness in legal matters.

But they all were standouts in the plaintiffs’ bar, and by joining forces they thought they had a good shot at winning enough cases to at least cover their costs and possibly secure damages for some of the many cancer victims, such as Lee Johnson, who believed their lives had been shortened because of Monsanto’s products. It remained to be seen if they had the skills, the brains, and—most important—the evidence to take on one of the world’s biggest chemical and seed corporations.

From The Monsanto Papers: Deadly Secrets, Corporate Corruption, and One Man’s Search for Justice by Carey Gillam. Copyright © 2021 Carey Gillam.
Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C. https://islandpress.org/books/monsanto-papers

In the past 25 years, genetically modified organisms have transformed the agricultural landscape, figuratively and literally. The greatest impacts have come from some of the earliest and most widely adopted GMO crops, which now take up over 90% of U.S. cropland. While the trend toward crop uniformity did not start with GMOs, this technology has certainly accelerated it, posing severe threats to biodiversity, food security and human health.

Why is biodiversity important?

Millions of years of evolution and cohabitation have left an extraordinary abundance of life on this planet. The word "biodiversity" includes all of Earth's living organisms — plants and animals, soil microorganisms, bacteria and fungi — plus all the genetic variation within those species and the ecosystems that are home and habitat to all of this life. These ecosystems can be incomprehensibly complex. The presence — or absence — of a single organism can ripple outwards to affect the whole. 

A great example of this is shown in a short PBS video about wolves' reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park. While the wolves were gone, dynamics between the plants and animals had fallen badly out of whack. Not even the scientists who planned the wolves' re-entry imagined the far-reaching effects: improved water quality, more pollinator habitat or stronger amphibian populations. With biodiversity restored to Yellowstone, there are more — and healthier — species in residence. 

In the last century, human activity has devastated global biodiversity. Due to unsustainable resource use, habitat destruction and a changing climate, species are disappearing much faster than at any other time in the last 10 million years. The impacts aren't restricted to national parks or faraway lands, either — the loss of biodiversity poses dangers to both food security and human health.

How do GMOs impact biodiversity?

"Agriculture is this ironic field that requires genetic diversity to persist, but also is always reducing this diversity down. That reduction has to do with our modern system, with technology and the fact that you need uniformity in the field to make industrial-scale agriculture happen." researcher Colin Khoury to Civil Eats

Industrial-style agriculture focuses on standardized processes, efficiency and resource extraction. It was already in place by the time GMO crops came on the scene. The practice of "monocropping" — cultivating a single crop, year after year, on the same land — might seem efficient, but it ultimately decreases both biodiversity and soil health. Monocropping also increases insect pests because, as Colin Khoury puts it, "If you have the same plants in the field, it’s a lot easier for a pest to 'unlock' that variety and eat it all. Diversity enables agriculture to deal with pests and diseases."

The most common traits engineered into GMO crops make these problems worse, such crops that generate pesticides within the plant cells. Sold as targeted tools that killed only particular insects, in practice, these GMOs have far-reaching impacts: The toxins can be far more potent than expected, and they never wash off.

Farmer spraying a fieldMost GMO crops are engineered for herbicide resistance, so fields can be sprayed liberally with weedkillers that eliminate everything but the cash crop. Weeds are a huge problem for farmers — they compete with cash crops for nutrients, water and light. But diverse plant life also protects the soil from erosion and nutrient loss. It supports the pollinators and other beneficial insects that do so much of our agricultural labor. While "welcoming the weeds'' isn't a practical solution, neither is wiping out plant life with toxic chemicals. Between herbicide tolerance and built-in pesticides, GMOs are a double-decker biodiversity-wrecker. 

For more on alternative, non-GMO farming systems, check out this recent blog

GMOs are widespread in grocery stores, with an estimated 80% of processed foods containing GMO ingredients. Given their ubiquity, it's surprising that fewer than a dozen widely cultivated GMO crops dominate North American agriculture. Of these, only 3 GMOs occupy most U.S. cropland, an area estimated in the hundreds of millions of acres. These 3 GMO crops — corn, soy and cotton — are herbicide-tolerant, pest resistant, or a combination of the two. They possess all the destructive traits that accompany traditional GMOs, and 3 of anything isn't enough to support biodiversity

Of course, there are more GMOs in development and several crops are being added to the Non-GMO Project's high risk list within the year, but genetic modification will never provide the kind of diversity needed for a truly robust ecosystem. In the industrial model, diversity simply isn't the goal — uniformity is. "Sameness" is seen as the driver of productivity, even as surpluses of low-nutrient crops drive prices down and commodity agriculture leaves farming communities struggling to feed themselves.

Going non-GMO for a diverse and plentiful future

Perhaps the greatest folly of the industrial-style, GMO-reliant food system is that it so persistently tries to overthrow the laws of nature. The more humans try to monopolize the landscape, the harder nature pushes back to restore balance — it does this through weeds and pests and diseases. Changing our approach is no small thing. Simply accepting that change must occur requires accepting that stewardship and regeneration of the land have value that is equal to, if not greater than, the resources we draw from it. 

If this seems difficult to take in, remember that we depend on biodiversity, soil and ecological health for our very existence. A system of extracting resources that fails to restore what is taken will ultimately fail to produce anything at all. Regenerative, non-GMO agriculture is the future. 

We can choose to leave more life for future generations — that's what biodiversity is all about.

 

"Okay, you see this little bean that destroyed itself and gave you a new sprout?... Put that in the soil so you can get a hundred other ones, and then put one of those in the soil so you can get a thousand." Ron Finley, educator, activist, gangster gardener

Seeds are magical things. Each seed contains all the information it needs to grow into an entire plant, providing food and shelter and even producing "offspring" in the form of next season's seeds. Over the years, seeds adapt to their environment, the changing weather cycles and soil types, becoming better candidates for success in their little corner of the world.  

The crops we grow today are the product of millions of years of natural selection, as well as millennia of human stewardship around the globe. During the last century, private interests, corporate consolidation and some very questionable court rulings have changed how seeds are grown, saved, shared and sold. 

In the early 20th century, plants and seeds were considered natural creations. As products of nature, not of man, they could not be patented. Since that time, a lot has changed. Today, restrictive seed patenting is the norm, and 60% of the world's seed supply is owned by just 4 chemical companies. This has major implications for farmers who have traditionally saved seed from year to year. When it comes to GMOs, Jack Kloppenburg remarks in his book First the Seed, "farmers no longer buy seeds, they rent that seed." 

How did we get from there to here?

Who owns plants?

"It would be 'unreasonable and impossible' to allow patents upon the trees of the forest and the plants of the earth." U.S. Commissioner of Patents, 1889

Patents are a kind of intellectual property right meant to promote and protect innovation. They provide legal ownership to the inventors of new and useful discoveries for a limited period of time. Different classes of patents apply to different types of inventions. The largest category is "utility patents," which can apply to "any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof." Many of the appliances, gadgets and gizmos that we use in modern life would have been covered by utility patents when they were invented. 

Ownership of living organisms like plants, however, was viewed differently at the beginning of the last century. Living organisms were considered products of nature and not eligible for patents. The work of plant breeders and seed producers is unique: It's a combination of the products and processes of nature and human intervention. 

In time, provisions were made to offer some protection to plant breeders. Plant patents were first introduced in 1930. However, seed varieties — which reproduce sexually and include many of our common food crops — were not eligible for plant patents. It wasn't until the Plant Variety Protection Act of 1970 (PVPA) that seed breeders had some protection for the varieties they produced. The PVPA walks a fine line: While it offers protection to seed breeders, the Act acknowledges that continued innovation depends on the plants and seeds being shared. To keep the practice of plant breeding moving forward, neither plant patents nor plant variety protections provide the kind of exclusive power that utility patents — which we mentioned above in relation to appliances and gadgets — do. According to legal scholar Malla Pollack, the laws that protect plant breeders have two significant exceptions: "one allowing farmers to save seed for later planting and one allowing research. " 

Under the PVPA, seed varieties can, in some instances, be shared. Other researchers can build on the earlier work, and farmers can save seeds for planting the next year — a practice that bolsters their autonomy and builds a supply of regionally-adapted seeds that offer some of the best genetic traits for resilience and high yields.

Genetically modified organisms and the techniques used to create them are eligible for the much more restrictive utility patents. This classification prohibits farmers from saving or breeding the seed and keeps the genetic material private for the duration of the patent. 

The legal basis for this decision is all thanks to General Electric, an oil spill and a genetically engineered bacteria.

How GMOs changed the landscape 

In the 1970s, microbiologist and General Electric employee Dr. Ananda Chakrabarty created a genetically engineered bacteria capable of breaking down crude oil. Dr. Chakrabarty saw a potential use for this bacteria in cleaning up oil spills. His quest to patent his invention inadvertently set the stage for the privatization of the seed supply. 

Dr. Chakrabarty's GMO bacteria was initially denied a patent because bacteria is a living organism. Living organisms were considered a "product of nature" by the U.S. Patent Office. The only patent class that permitted living organisms was plant patents, and the GMO bacteria didn't fit in there. Ultimately, the Supreme Court decided the GMO bacteria qualified as a "new composition of matter" — one of the clauses describing a utility patent — because of the genetic modification. The genetically engineered bacteria was a living organism, but because of the modification to its DNA, it was no longer in a state of nature. 

This decision established human-made organisms as patentable, and just as importantly, patentable under the restrictive utility class. The restrictions of utility patents are why the genetic material is held privately — unavailable for public research — for the duration of the patent, and why farmers cannot save GMO seed.

Protecting GMOs with utility patents also reveals a kind of duplicity in the rhetoric of the chemical companies that create them: To investors and patent offices, companies emphasize the novelty and innovation of GMOs to secure funding and utility patents, while to regulatory boards and the general public, they argue the opposite, marketing GMOs as an extension of traditional breeding techniques. 

To one audience, they cry, "It's totally new!" 

To another, "It's totally natural!"

It's no wonder chemical companies face a skeptical public.

Privatization and monopoly in the food system

"The courts and the PTO [Patent and Trademark Office] have given a few large businesses the power to close down most independent research on basic food crops." Malla Pollack

For all the resources deployed to develop GMO crops and the fortunes made from marketing them, there are at this time a limited number of commercially available varieties owned by a handful of corporations. This small group casts a vast shadow across the agricultural land of North America — 90% of U.S. cropland is dedicated to just 3 commodity GMO crops (corn, cotton and soy). From there, GMO crops are processed and find their way into an estimated 80% of the conventional processed foods. This produces a very unbalanced kind of control of food and resources: 

This monopolization means that our food systems — and the ecosystems they rely upon — are based on a limited number of crops. The more reliant we are on that limited number of crops, the more our fates are tied to theirs. As the effectiveness of herbicide-tolerant and pest-resistant crops fail, it's well past time to diversify our food system portfolio. Monopolies do not foster innovation, and chemical corporations show no signs of loosening their grip.

Some of the most powerful corporations in the world routinely harass farmers, seed savers and breeders around the globe as they try to operate outside the monopolized and privatized seed supply. Harassment can come in the form of legal action, as has been extensively reported by the Center for Food Safety. There are also cases of casual intimidation, such as when a major corporation mailed baseless patent infringement notices to small seed companies across the U.S.; or in another instance when good faith efforts by small farmers to resolve GMO contamination risks were rebuffed by corporate lawyers

What you can do

Promoting seed sovereignty and biodiversity are essential to creating a truly resilient and healthy food system that works for everybody. There are many organizations — including the Non-GMO Project — working to restore farmers' rights. An obvious first step is to avoid GMOs by looking for the Butterfly — after all, we can choose how our food is made. Here are some additional resources:

For all our craftiness and innovation, it's worth remembering that the seeds didn't start with us, nor will they end with us. We hold them in our hands for a while. If we're truly lucky, we watch them grow.

Farmers

The term "non-GMO food system" is, on its own, a little vague. It identifies most clearly what it is not. Genetic modification is used to engineer a specific trait in an organism to achieve a particular outcome, such as crops that are tolerant to herbicide applications. But the practice fails to take into account the unintended consequences and peripheral damage those traits can cause. What might truly comprehensive and inclusive solutions look like in our food system?

Replacing GMOs means embracing a variety of systems and approaches — finding new‚ or in some cases, very old — methods to reverse the harmful effects of monocropping, monoculture and monopolization that come with the use of GMOs in our food system. When you choose non-GMO, you're supporting a diverse and holistic approach to food production — one that respects farmers' rights to save and grow crops of their choice.

A non-GMO approach to weed control

The earliest GMO crops were engineered to resist herbicide application. That way, farmers could apply chemicals to their fields that eliminated weeds but left their cash crop — GMO corn or soy — unharmed. In the short term, farmers saw a benefit from this technology, but 25 years later a host of harmful consequences have become obvious. 

Since the introduction of GMOs, the use of the herbicide that most often accompanies them has increased 15-fold. Weeds have become resistant to these chemicals, and desperate farmers apply greater quantities and even more toxic formulations to try to get ahead of the problem. Killing weeds with such brutal efficiency has devastated beneficial insects populations and reduced biodiversity. 

What seemed like a silver bullet solution was actually a game of whack-a-mole, causing a cascading series of problems for farmers.

Read more about the impacts of herbicide tolerant GMOs here

Adam Chappell was one such farmer. Chappell was growing conventional cotton, corn and soy when herbicide-resistant superweeds threatened his family with bankruptcy. With the high costs of GMO seed, pesticides and fertilizers already devastating his family's finances, Chappell took a bold step in an entirely new direction: regenerative agriculture. He planted cover crops to suppress weeds, diversified the crops that he grew and eventually welcomed cattle onto his land. The benefits were obvious: Weeds couldn't get a hold in the fields and the soil was protected during the rainy season from erosion and nutrient loss. Fertilizer costs went down, too, as the cover crops supplied some of the nourishment the soil desperately needed. A few years later, the soil is healthier and Chappell's operation is profitable again. 

Perhaps the most important part of Adam Chappell's story is that he isn't now — and never has been — staunchly anti-GMO. He's a practical man, using what works for the land and for his bottom line. He changed how he did things because GMOs weren't working for him. Through outreach and his work with the Arkansas Soil Health Alliance, Chappell is sharing that story with other farmers who are facing the same challenges. 

That's just one regenerative success story. There are many more out there, from Florida's citrus groves to Gabe Brown's regenerative revolution in North Dakota, networks of farmers sharing their experience and knowledge.

A non-GMO approach to insect control

Another trait of early GMOs was resistance to insect pests. These crops were engineered to generate their own insecticide, so pests that came for a feast found a mouthful of poison in every bite. These GMOs were greenwashed as an environmentally-friendly way to reduce pesticide use. In practice, the GMO approach to insect control has proved just as short-sighted as weed-control.

Integrating insecticide into the structure of the plant has significant impacts: The insecticide doesn't degrade like an external application would. It cannot be washed off. This ubiquity ultimately reduces the effectiveness of the insecticide. It's in the plants all the time, persisting in plant residues and impacting soil microorganisms (tiny impacts that can have massive consequences). And, just as superweeds have evolved to outpace herbicide-tolerant GMOs, targeted pests have begun to show resistance.

Read more about the impacts of insect resistant GMOs here

What might a non-GMO approach to insect control look like? While specific choices rely on the type of crop, the region and the life cycle of the insect pest, there are innovations taking place around the globe. At an organic orchard in the Pacific Northwest farmers work with the physical environment, adapting the shape of the fruit trees so they can easily use protective cloth during the months when flying and chewing insects would be a threat — no sprays necessary. Crop rotations and interplanting can disrupt the monoculture that invites pest infestation, with the added benefit of improving biodiversity and soil health.

Healthy soil can do that!

A lesson we have been learning — or more accurately, failing to learn — for millennia remains true today: Our crops are only as healthy as the soil from which they grow. Soil fertility is mostly found in the topsoil, the uppermost layer of nutrient-rich soil upon which the entire world's agriculture relies. In the last 150 years about half of the world’s topsoil has been lost. 

Read more about the magic of soil here

Degraded and diminished soil invites a host of problems: crops tend to be weaker, more susceptible to disease and insect infestation, and less resilient in the face of extreme weather events which are becoming the norm.

Healthy soil holds water more efficiently, offering protection from droughts. As Adam Chappell's story demonstrates, cover crops can protect soil from erosion during heavy rainfall while adding nutrients to the soil they protect. While big biotechnology corporations invest in genetic engineering to address unique agricultural issues — such as citrus greening disease or black Sigatoka in bananas — a far more powerful and economical solution is right beneath our feet: 

Healthy soil grows better crops — more resistant to pests and diseases and more hospitable to the billions of microorganisms that we rely on to support our topside world.

"Mono" no more

There is no single solution, but that's kind of the point. Nature works consistently to disrupt a monopoly. Look out your window and you might see birds nesting under the eaves of buildings, greenery pushing up through concrete, or — if you are very lucky — a tree canopy bolstered by dense undergrowth and unseen life cycles. 

When we look at a field, an orchard or a community garden, it's tempting to focus on which plants we wish to gain from it. "This is my cotton field. This is my apple crop. This is my veggie plot." The paradigm shift comes in recognizing that we're never growing just that one thing. The planet doesn't work that way. Crops will attract insects, whether we consider them as beneficial or not. Those insects will attract wildlife that feed on them. The wildlife makes its own marks on the land — building habitat, leaving droppings that will be incorporated into the soil. And there's an entire universe beneath the soil line. That is where the epic scale of activity really happens. For us to claim our narrow share of the bounty, we need to support all those other things.

GMOs are based on an inherently reductive — and ultimately destructive — view of agriculture. They are part of an industrialized agricultural model that has proven to be remarkably inefficient at producing food, while eroding the natural resources future harvests rely upon. Even at its highest point of success, GMOs only support a fragile and brittle system based on band-aid solutions, and we're already seeing the damage they cause. 

Embracing the complexity of the land we occupy, working with nature's infinite diversity rather than against it, is the basis of a healthy food system for all. 

 

Non-GMO vanilla
Many of the processed foods that we see on grocery shelves today bear an ingredient label that says “artificially flavored.” Due to the prevalence of artificial additives in the marketplace, one of the questions we are asked most frequently from savvy shoppers is: “Why did I see the word artificial in the ingredients of a Non-GMO Project Verified product?”

Similar to how the word “modified” does not mean genetically modified when referring to modified corn starch or similar products, “artificial” does not inherently mean an ingredient is GMO. “Artificial flavor” is a term used by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to classify flavorings not found in nature or derived from natural elements (plants or animals). Artificial flavors are produced through synthesis in a lab to mimic the taste and chemical makeup of a natural counterpart. They are often used to cut costs for food producers. While this production process can be achieved without any genetic engineering—no GMOs required—some producers do choose to use GMOs.

It’s important to recognize that while artificial does not inherently classify ingredients as a GMO, some artificial ingredients do come from GMOs—especially GMO microorganisms. Those are the types of artificial ingredients that are addressed in the Non-GMO Project Standard.

The best way to avoid GMOs when you shop is to look for Non-GMO Project Verified products.

What Makes A Flavor

Flavors are added to food primarily for their taste rather than nutritional value. Think of strawberry jam—while the strawberries in the jam are flavorful, they wouldn’t be considered a flavor in that product. However, in a product like strawberry gum,.strawberry would be considered a flavor because it is present solely for taste.

In the US, flavors are regulated by the FDA, which enforces the Food Additives and Amendment Act of 1958. Under this law, the FDA is responsible for ensuring the safety of new food additives, including flavors, before they can be used in food products.

The FDA categorizes flavorings as either natural (e.g., vanilla bean extract, almond extract), artificial (e.g., synthesized vanillin, benzaldehyde), or spices (e.g., basil, cumin seed, or paprika). While artificial flavors are those not derived from natural elements, natural flavors are the processed and concentrated form of the plant or animal they came from. Spices are simply dried vegetables with no added flavoring. Ingredients traditionally regarded as foods, like onions, garlic, and celery, must be separately disclosed on a product’s ingredient list because they are not considered spices by the FDA.

Where We Come In

With thousands of flavoring substances in use today and varying methods used to produce them, it is impossible for consumers to tell if a product contains GMOs. That’s why the Non-GMO Project includes special provisions for evaluating microorganisms, including those used to produce artificial flavors, in our Standard. In many cases, this process goes all the way back to the growth medium the microorganism was grown on. Just like the milk from a cow that's raised on GMOs can't be Non-GMO Project Verified, a microorganism can’t eat GMOs and then produce Verified flavorings.

The next time you reach for that artificial vanilla flavor, Look for the Butterfly so you can be sure that product is non-GMO, right back to any microorganisms involved. Non-GMO Project Verified products are third-party tested and backed by our rigorous Standard to help take the guesswork out of shopping for you and your family.

Find Non-GMO Project Verified products

This content was originally posted on 5/28/2019.

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