Are you pro-GMO or anti-GMO? What if I told you that’s a trick question because, scientifically, there’s no definition of or category for “GMO”?
That one fact, which is repeated regularly in the scientific community and in academia, should be enough to inform every decision that’s made about how GMO labels are used on our food system. It has also raised alarm bells with a nonpartisan scientific think tank that believes the Food and Drug Administration needs to do more — a lot more — to ensure honesty on our labels.
Perhaps no group is more in the spotlight on the topic of labeling than The Non-GMO Project, whose monarch butterfly logo has become increasingly pervasive in the half-decade since it was created.
On Sept. 24, the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, an organization that has been rated by the University of Pennsylvania as the most authoritative science and technology think tank in the United States, released a citizen petition to the FDA challenging the use of The Non-GMO Project’s logo, saying that it “deliberately deceives and misleads consumers in violation of the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.”
“They make the presumption that genetically modified organisms are a category that makes any sense at all,” said Val Giddings, who, along with Robert D. Atkinson, co-signed the ITIF petition. “The term ‘genetically modified organisms’ is a nonsense term — it has no scientific precision or clarity.”
Giddings, a passionate environmentalist, has been in the ag biotech space for decades. He talks sincerely of his desire to preserve wilderness and enhance biodiversity and of leaving a world where his grandchildren can enjoy the outdoors the way that he does. For him, it is not a large leap to realize that if society is going to optimize the future for the better, we have to do that by reducing the land needed for farming and by growing our food in a way that’s as sustainable as technology allows.
“I am not a proponent of biotechnology in agriculture, per se,” he said in a phone interview with AGDAILY. “I’m a proponent of things that have good results for reducing the footprint of agriculture. And biotech tools are at the top of that list.”
Giddings has a son with a life-threatening allergy to peanuts and believes in the need for informative, relevant, and fact-based food labeling. He says consumers have a right to know things that are material to the health and safety of the foods they eat — and they have a right not to be misled.
That’s where his concern with The Non-GMO Project, and its labeling system that “wrongly stigmatizes so-called GMOs,” comes into play.
“The Non-GMO Project label is not accurate, not informative, is misleading, and clutters labels up with red herrings that cannot fail to mislead consumers. They are clearly in violation of the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act,” Giddings said. “I think the FDA should crack down on it and make The Non-GMO Project clean up its act. And if it can’t be cleaned up, I think it should be euthanized.”
Giddings went to great lengths to document the label’s scientific shortcomings. For him, marketing and activist definitions of “GMO” — which, in essence, center on something that is created in glass in a lab that is different from something you could get by natural recombination that takes place outside the laboratory — are scientifically unsupportable and therefore intrinsically misleading.
“Every technique that scientists use in the lab to move DNA within or between organisms, and the enzymes we use to do that, are things that we have discovered in nature and figured out how they work,” he said.
The 11-page petition delves deeper into the butterfly logo, offering a thorough dissection and devaluation of what the label stands for. It cites the label’s use on blueberries and other products that don’t have biotech counterparts on the market, and it mentions the logo’s now-famous appearance on Himalayan Pink Salt, a product that doesn’t even have genes to modify.
The petition notes that much of what The Non-GMO Project says on its website about crops and foods improved through biotechnology, and the processes used to make them, is false and contradicted by data. The petition also includes a critique of what the logo conveys based on the Project’s website statements, whether overt or implied, about the health and safety of foods containing the logo vs. those that do not.
“In fact, authoritative group after authoritative group, over 300 of them over the past few decades, have all found that the safety differentials between foods derived through genetic modification processes and those that are not have favored the so-called GMO foods as being safer,” Giddings said.
In light of that, for The Non-GMO Project, “We want to show that on no level is the label defensible,” he said.
So what value, if any, does The Non-GMO Project bring to the table? It’s easy to get lost amid the advocacy and the cult-like following the Project generates (the Project’s Facebook page has over 1 million Likes). While the scientific community frequently expresses disdain for the Project’s vilification of genetically engineered foods, many people in the “non-GMO” supply chain — from the labs that do the verifications (there are four of them) to the distributors and food companies that can charge a premium for the non-GMO claim — there is a lot of money tied up in that little butterfly logo.
Of course, many scientists fear that that money is being made off of the public’s ignorance of genetic engineering and the disconnect from modern agriculture. And according to the standards posted on the Project’s website, the Action Threshold for food, ingredients, and supplements that contain “GMOs” as it defines them is nearly 1 percent. So, products given the green light by the Non-GMO Project aren’t even necessarily “non-GMO” by its own definition.
Currently, more than 4,300 brands have products verified by The Non-GMO Project.
It has been revealed that many companies seek out The Non-GMO Project’s label not because of health perceptions or an ideological stronghold, but rather, it arises purely from a marketing push. One example is a recent letter sent from pasta-sauce and olive-oil giant Bertolli, in which the food company said that the decision to add the butterfly logo came from its marketing division.
— Kevin Folta (@kevinfolta) October 11, 2018
The Non-GMO Project, for its part, is comfortable with its business model and, in an email to AGDAILY, stated that, “The petition to the FDA, filed by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a biotech-backed think tank, is based on errors and misrepresentations. While it’s not surprising that this organization opposes the public’s right to know whether or not their food contains GMOs, the petition is factually inaccurate and fundamentally biased. We do not expect the petition to gain traction with the FDA.”
When asked to specify what those “errors and misrepresentations” were — as well as to elaborate on the manner in which the ITIF allegedly was opposing the public’s right to know — no response from the Project’s media representative was given. Of note, the ITIF has repeatedly stated that its goal is to make the process of labeling as transparent and accurate as possible, encouraging the public’s right to know and understand labeling.
“ITIF strongly supports the consumers right to know what is in their food,” Giddings said. “It is a fact that ‘genetic modification’ is a process of seed improvement, not an ingredient. ITIF also strongly supports FDA enforcing the law that requires food labels to contain information relevant to the health, safety, and nutritional status of foods (to which GMO/Non-GMO status is irrelevant), and that such information be accurate, informative, and not misleading; all criteria against which The Non-GMO Project label fails, as we document in our petition.”
The law requires the FDA to respond within 180 days, but the law also allows the FDA to “pause” the clock if something of a higher priority or more urgent tasks emerge. There is also the possibility of the solicitation of public comment on the topic.
If the FDA doesn’t respond in a timely manner, it can be sued. The guidance that Congress has given the FDA to administer its responsibilities under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act are to rectify any label that is fraudulent and deceptive — to the point that even if a statement that happens to be true is put on a label and used in a way that misleads consumers about the health and safety value of the food, those true statements are themselves fraudulent and subject to corrective action.
“There’s a towering irony here,” Giddings notes. “The Non-GMO Project uses a logo of a monarch butterfly. Scientists have discovered that monarch butterflies have themselves been genetically modified by viruses that are specific to lepidoptera, which have inserted viral DNA into those monarch butterflies in their past evolutionary history, making them, by any rational definition, genetically modified with foreign DNA.”
Ryan Tipps is the managing editor for AGDAILY. He has covered farming since 2011, and his writing has been honored by state- and national-level agricultural organizations.