The Non-GMO Project is a nonprofit organization with the aim of providing consumers with digestible information on whether or not commercial products contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The project issues a non-GMO seal that food producers can incorporate in their packaging. The seal indicates compliance with the standards set by the project. According to the Non-GMO Project, as of September 2013, the sales of Project Verified products exceeded $3.5 billion. This represents a more than 300% increase from the same period in 2012.
The Non-GMO Project created quite a buzz in the food biotechnology space when it published the latest version of its standards two weeks ago, in which it states that “any product or process of synthetic biology” disqualifies a food product from obtaining its non-GMO seal. Thus, food ingredients made using synthetic biology techniques – such as Evolva’s GM yeast-derived vanillin – do not qualify for the Non-GMO Project Verified stamp. The ruling has been accused of being unfair and confusing for producers trying to navigate the GMO labeling minefield. In Evolva’s case, for example, strictly speaking, Evolva’s vanillin is GMO-free as the GM yeast used to produce it only serves as a processing tool and is absent in the final product. The absence of any GM ingredients in the product means that Evolva’s vanillin would not require a GMO label in Europe. However, as the vanillin’s production process incorporates synthetic biology steps, the vanillin does not pass the stricter requirement stipulated by the Non-GMO Project.
As can be expected, Evolva did not react favorably to the development. In an article in Food Navigator, Stephan Herrera, VP of Strategy & Public Affairs at Evolva, is quoted saying that he was not surprised by the Non-GMO Project’s decision. He stated, “Well, I guess this decision removes any remaining doubts about whether their certification is based on food politics or food science. The vanillin molecule we are making is chemically identical to the vanillin already on the market, so why would it present a unique health risk?”
At Lux, we identify with the broad scientific consensus that food products on the market today derived from GM crops pose no greater risk to human health than conventional food. However, as we reported previously, the genetically modified food suffers from a corrosive image problem, exacerbated by the public’s lack of knowledge in the field. According to a poll done by ABC News, in the U.S., barely more than a third of the public believes that genetically modified foods are safe to eat, with more than half (52%) believing such foods are unsafe.
In the long run, the public may gradually understand that GMOs and GM foods are not the evils their opponents paint them to be. However, a change in public opinion will be a sluggish process, and until then, food products that are obliged by law to put a “GM” stamp in their packaging risk suffering from a certain degree of public rejection. As such, we urge clients to ensure that their products meet the non-GM standard stipulated by the governing health authorities, while at the same time share the tasks of educating the public about the pros and cons of genetic modification.