A Food Supply Safe from GMOs
11 Mar, 2012
A lot of us are worried about GMOs in the food supply. One enterprising woman who was fighting that same fight from a retail level several years ago banded together with a number of other like-minded individuals, seriously stepping up the game, and the result is the Non-GMO Project—which not only has set a firm non-GMO standard for products, but has now labeled some 3,000 of them so that shoppers are clearly informed.
“I was working as the outreach coordinator at the Food Conspiracy Co-op in Tucson, Arizona,” Megan Westgate, executive director of the Non-GMO Project, told Organic Connections. “We had a lot of shoppers there who were concerned about GMOs and were trying to avoid them. We would go through every product on our shelves, look at the ingredient panels and check suppliers’ statements; we would then compare those with a list of GMO-risk ingredients and try to label accordingly.
“At the same time we were doing that, there were many other natural food stores across the US and also Canada where shoppers were having similar concerns. A couple of stores in the Bay Area [around San Francisco, California] and another store in Toronto started thinking about an idea of actually having third-party verification and labeling on products. From my perspective of what we were doing at the co-op in Tucson, it just made so much sense. We spent all this time going through all the products and putting shelf tags in the little panel strips, then someone would come in and remerchandise and nothing would match up anymore. I realized that there really was no standardized definition of non-GMO, there were no third-party standards, and it was all very confusing for the public.
“This idea was starting to come together in 2005 and 2006. In 2007 we formally incorporated the Non-GMO Project as a nonprofit organization, began this process of creating third-party standards, verification and labeling, and launched a couple of years later.”
Since the Non-GMO Project’s 2009 launch, the organization has greatly expanded its reach and efforts, garnering continued public interest. “We’re growing at a phenomenal rate,” Westgate reported. “We now have well over a billion dollars in annual sales of Non-GMO Project–verified products; we have more than 3,000 verified products and close to 400 companies that are participating. Those numbers just keep shooting up month by month. I was actually speaking to one of our participants this morning and he said everyone that he is talking to is asking for no GMOs. That’s a big change just in the movement in general. A lot of traction has been gained in the last couple of years, and a lot more people are aware.”
Labels Required Outside the US
Remarkably, the activities of Westgate and her organization would not even be needed in many other countries around the globe. “Because much is still not understood about how GMOs affect both human health and the environment, close to 50 other countries around the world require mandatory labeling,” Westgate said. “In every country in Europe, for example, if a food has more than .9 percent GMO, it has to be labeled. We basically decided that if our government isn’t going to require mandatory labeling, we can at least label the foods that are produced without GMOs and give consumers an informed choice.”
Actually fulfilling a function that the USDA should be performing, the Non-GMO Project has created a robust methodology. “We have a team of technical consultants who work with our participating companies,” Westgate explained. “We start with a full ingredient audit and, if they have high-risk products, an on-site inspection. We require that for any high-risk ingredient going into a product—anything that’s derived from corn, soy, cotton, canola and so on—that there is ongoing testing in place.
“Every risk ingredient has to be tested prior to use and has to be below an action threshold of .9 percent, which lines up with the EU law. Our technical consultants look at the whole system. It’s not just about testing a finished product once or testing an ingredient once; it’s about making certain that the ongoing mechanisms are in place to ensure all of the standards are
“Then there is an annual renewal process, in which our technical consultants look at all of the information and make sure everything is still compliant. If someone changes suppliers, or does anything else that might affect their compliance mid-year, they are required to report that as well.”
Despite the incredible lack of coverage from major media, an ever-increasing number of public are now becoming aware of GMOs. “I think definitely that grassroots and the power of social media are huge factors in the public becoming more informed,” said Westgate. “We have over 60,000 fans on our Facebook page, for example. And perhaps even more significant than the number of ‘likes’ that we have on our page is how active our fan base is. People are very passionate about this issue; they come back day after day, and they share the videos and news stories that we post. We have a really high percentage of our fans that are actively using the content.
“There are now different labeling efforts, like the Just Label It campaign on a national level and the labeling initiative in California, that are helping to raise awareness too. A lot of people still don’t know what GMOs are, but once they learn about them they’re shocked to find out that this is something that is labeled in most other countries. They, on the other hand, are eating them every day without even knowing.”
For Westgate the battle is far from over—and personally, she knows she’s in exactly the right place doing the right thing. “I am so grateful I can do work that is meaningful to me and that I feel makes a difference,” Westgate concluded. “My husband and I are getting ready to start a family, so that’s a huge motivation for me. I really want to ensure that there’s safe, healthy food for my future children, as well as for everyone else’s children
“I believe that GMOs are very experimental, and I think that as more research comes out it’s going to become an obsolete technology. I want to make sure that when that happens we have adequately preserved a viable, safe, healthy food supply.”
Find out more about the Non-GMO Project at www.nongmoproject.org.