The Bioengineered (BE) Food label is part of the new federal law that identifies some — but not all — products made with GMO ingredients. The law came into full effect in the United States on January 1, 2022, following years of grassroots organizing, state actions and federal counteractions.
The GMO-labeling movement that gave rise to the BE food label has seen overwhelming public support: 88% of Americans agree GMOs should be labeled. However, the BE label doesn't provide the clarity Americans deserve.
For 15 years, the Non-GMO Project has worked to protect and expand the non-GMO supply chain. The BE labeling law's limitations make the importance of a transparent and equitable food system obvious while emphasizing how nonprofits such as the Non-GMO Project can continue to serve the public interest.
The best way to avoid GMOs is still the Butterfly
Remember that poll we mentioned, in which 88% of shoppers agreed GMOs should be labeled? Imagine the same poll with slightly different wording. Instead of asking if GMOs should be labeled, what if pollsters asked if bioengineered foods should be labeled? With that question, we could expect a much different result. Many people — maybe even a good chunk of that 88% — would throw up their hands and say, "What's a bioengineered food?"
That's one example of how the phrasing of a question can shape the response — just like the design or words displayed on a label directly impact the person trying to understand it.
The term "bioengineered" is unfamiliar to most of us. By using obscure language instead of widely-understood terms like "GMO" or "genetic engineering," the BE label leaves the average shopper in the dark.
Through exemptions and loopholes, the law excludes most products made with GMOs, including:
- Most products made with new genetic engineering techniques such as CRISPR (more on those in a moment).
- Highly refined products made from bioengineered ingredients that no longer contain detectable modified genetic material, like sugar or canola oil. This rule focuses on detection rather than transparency, undermining the public trust in food labels.
- Animal-derived products such as meat, dairy and eggs will not be labeled, even though GMO commodity crops such as corn and soy end up in livestock feed.
By focusing on detection rather than transparency, the BE labeling law is unlikely to impact GMO agriculture at all. Under the BE law, most GMOs remain hidden from the person buying them. For example, someone looking for sugar, canola oil or ground beef wouldn't be aware that their purchase likely supports GMO agriculture.
Meanwhile, GMO agriculture goes hand-in-hand with destructive practices, including the overuse of pesticides and the corporate consolidation that has put 60% of the world's seed supply in the hands of just four mega-corporations. Both of these are good reasons why someone might want to avoid GMOs, but the BE label doesn't address either. That's why shoppers that want a more sustainable and equitable food system need to look for the Butterfly, not the BE label.
Are new GMOs taking over?
When the Non-GMO Project began in 2006, a few agri-chemical corporations dominated the GMO landscape with commodity crops. But the limited market had a massive reach. Today, those crops cover hundreds of millions of acres. We continue to protect non-GMO choices in major commodities while also addressing new techniques that are changing the biotechnology landscape faster than anyone imagined possible.
"New GMOs" are products made from novel genetic engineering techniques such as gene editing or synthetic biology ("synbio"). New GMOs are entering the market at an alarming rate, and they pose a unique threat to the supply chain because they are largely unlabeled (the BE label doesn't cover most new GMOs) and unregulated. Some new GMOs are even marketed as "natural" or "non-GMO"!
Clean labels like the Butterfly must simultaneously protect the non-GMO supply of commodity crops while also working against new GMOs. That's why we employ a dedicated research team that gathers information on companies, products and technology. The Non-GMO Project is the only independent nonprofit in North America that monitors existing and emerging GMOs and the companies that make them.
Our researchers have recently seen a dramatic increase in the number of biotech companies creating new GMOs. They are currently following more than 460 companies — a nearly 300% increase in only five years. "That number just keeps getting higher," says Executive Director Megan Westgate. "Also, the purposes for these companies have broadened."
"Animals are being engineered with human DNA for medical purposes, but then that meat is being approved for human consumption," Westgate explains. Synbio "heme" (the blood-like substance that gives the Impossible Burger its meaty taste) was sold to consumers before the FDA determined its safety. "Goats are being engineered to produce spider silk for cosmetics — and these examples really are just the tip of the iceberg."
Shoppers want non-GMO choices — and more!
GMOs aren't the only thing that's changing. Consumer priorities are shifting as well. Today's shoppers recognize the importance of the food supply and the need for systemic change. Megan Westgate shares her observations: "It's no longer just about knowing what's in their food," she says. "Consumer concerns regarding GMOs extend to farmers' rights, food security, social equity and the loss of biodiversity."
At the Non-GMO Project, our commitment to building and protecting the non-GMO food supply is unwavering. We protect your right to choose whether or not to buy and consume genetically engineered food. Together, we can transform our broken food supply into a regenerative system that serves everyone.