It’s taken more than a decade, but the topic of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) may finally be getting its due in this country. And one person who is happy to hear this is Jeffrey Smith, the executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology and the Campaign for Healthier Eating in America, and author of two books, Seeds of Deception, and Genetic Roulette. He recently shared some of his thoughts concerning the controversial topic with me.
The number of nationally branded companies labeling their food as “GMO-free,” Smith says, is a clear indicator just how much consumer demand has grown. His information shows the term “GMO-Free” was the fastest growing brand claim in 2009 and this year its Nielsen’s fifth fastest among all health and wellness claims.
He believes that consumer rejection of GM bovine growth hormone (rbGH or rbST) is another indication the topic is growing in importance to consumers, noting that the drug has been kicked out of Wal-Mart, Yoplait, Dannon, Starbucks, and most dairies. As Smith explains, growth hormones stimulate the production of IGF-1, another hormone, and several studies have linked high levels of IGF-1 to an increased risk of cancer. Given the mounting consumer disapproval and medical evidence, he believes U.S. manufacturers will soon be compelled to eliminate GMOs all together-something that has already occurred in Europe Canada, Japan, and Australia, to name a few.
All of this led me to ask him just how many conscientious non-GMO eaters it would take to create a tipping point in the U.S. and Smith’s answer was not as many as you may think. “The risks outweigh the benefits, to which there are none proven. Even if only 5% of the population, just 15 million people or 5.6 million households spoke up it would put enough pressure on manufacturers to replace their GM derivatives from crops such as soy, corn, canola, and sugar beets.”
So how does a company go non-GMO? Until recently, companies determined their own definitions and methods with some using rigorous testing protocols while others just described it in their ingredient spec sheet. Now, notes Smith, companies have another option with the introduction of the Non-GMO Project, a third party verification program with a strict (but achievable) uniform standard for making non-GMO claims. “The Project has gone gangbusters in the natural products industry and beyond. Silk, the leading U.S. soy milk brand, which probably uses more food-grade soybeans than any other U.S. company, is one of thousands enrolled,” says Smith. “But perhaps those benefiting the most from the Non-GMO Project are consumers, who soon will simply be able to look for the Non-GMO Project Verified Seal to ensure their favorite products are GMO-free.”
To promote the Non-GMO Project and increase consumer awareness, more than 600 retailers and manufacturers are celebrating October as Non-GMO Month and 10-10-10 as Non-GMO Day. Non-GMO Project verified brands are getting special treatment through shelf talkers, promotional circulars, and priority placement. Stores are hosting speakers, films, and other events. And numerous media outlets are giving special coverage on the concerns that consumers have about GMOs and how to avoid them.
Looking ahead, Smith says one thing is certain – there are many myths surrounding GMOs that still need to be corrected. “For example, most people think the FDA approves GMOs. In reality, they don’t. They allow the manufacturers to determine if the foods are safe. The agency doesn’t require a single safety study, and doesn’t even have to be notified if a GMO is introduced. The non-GMO trend is taking hold. It is up to the food manufacturers to decide whether they will risk getting stuck with unpopular ingredients, quietly change to non-GMOs just-in-case, or become a non-GMO champion for trend-setting consumers. I’m hoping for more champions,” Smith said.