In a not too surprising display of conspiracy theorist tendencies, the Non-GMO Project tweeted a link to a fringe unverified story published last week about a humanitarian aid shipment of “GMO corn seed” into Haiti. (The tweet was later deleted following sharp criticism from scientists.) Bearing several hallmarks of a conspiracy theory, the article cited vague links to Bill Gates—a favorite Infowars target—and another unnamed business magnate. The story in the Haiti Sentinelcondemns the shipment of high-yielding seeds, which it claims makes “soil addicted to drugs.” Some comments on the article call for burning the shipments, while others point out that the details of the story are false.
In addition to the untenable denigration of humanitarian aid and the unsubstantiated and outlandish descriptions of the seeds, the article made a fundamental mistake—the high-yielding HUGO seed in the shipment was not GMO (genetically engineered). Dr. Kevin Folta, prolific communicator and professor and chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, Gainesville, thoroughly covered the flaws in The Haiti Sentinel story, so I won’t go into further detail. My question is, why are we allowing purveyors of hype to proliferate and thrive in one of the most mainstream of American institutions—the grocery store?
“American shoppers are surely familiar with the iconic orange butterfly logo. According to its website, retail partners report that Non-GMO Project Verified products are the fastest dollar growth trend in their stores, with total annual sales exceeding $19.2 billion. What the Non-GMO Project’s website doesn’t tell visitors is that its label tells us absolutely nothing meaningful about a product or its ingredients, including healthfulness, environmental impact, and working conditions for food workers and farmers. It doesn’t even tell consumers about a common objection to GMOs—whether or not a food product was derived from a patented crop variety.”
The organization certifies water, cat litter and salt as “Non-GMO” even though none of these contain anything derived from an organism, so there is no genetic material to modify. Given that the term GMO, which stands for Genetically Modified Organism, has infiltrated the popular vernacular and is plastered all over our grocery items, it can be surprising to learn how meaningless it is. Though it only denotes organisms engineered with modern molecular methods, “GMO” could apply to the vast majority of the foods we consume. Virtually all of our food has been genetically altered by humans in the field or in a lab, with very few exceptions. Yet even those with genetic mutations intentionally induced by chemicals and radiation can be sold as organic are are eligible for the Non-GMO Project butterfly, dubbed the “sanctity stamp” by critics.
Jennifer Doudna, biochemist based at the University of California, Berkeley and co-discoverer of gene-editing tool CRISPR, said recently that in addition to applications in human disease “there are many others arenas in which better gene-editing tools can promote global health, specifically by improving crops and sustaining a healthy microbial environment that has been shown to prevent illness, improve crop yields and nurture a balanced ecosystem. At UC Berkeley we have the expertise in plant science and microbiology research to make a real contribution by designing higher-yield, more pest-resistant crops that a large proportion of the world’s population depend on, and fostering the microbial populations critical to human health and the health of the planet.”
While governments grapple with how stringently gene edited crops should be regulated, or whether they will be subject to mandatory labeling laws, supporters of agricultural biotechnology argue that it’s not the technique that should be regulated, but the end product. Genetic engineering is more precise than older techniques, but none of these methods is inherently safer or riskier than others.
Not to be bogged down by the nuance of such sophisticated discussions, the quickly-growing Non-GMO Project, which strives to change the world by slapping its label on chewing gum and dog waste odor eliminator, has already made a decision on gene editing. Megan Westgate, the organization’s executive director, told me via email last year that “products produced with gene editing technologies are not in compliance with the Non-GMO Project Standard and are not eligible to bear the Non-GMO Project label.”
But what kind of “standard” can an organization uphold when it rejects humanitarian aid and beneficial traits like high yield seeds, no matter the breeding technique, based on vague fears of drug addicted soil? What kind of standard do consumers uphold when we allow peddlers of nonsense rather than the world’s leading experts to dictate the methods we use to grow our food?
As I said in May:
“Given the challenges we face to feed an ever-growing population while combating climate change and striving to produce food efficiently with minimal use of land and other resources, the Non-GMO Project’s vilification of safe technologies that can reduce food waste, reduce carbon emissions, and help fight food insecurity and malnutrition if we would only let it, is indefensible.”