As more and more food products display the Non-GMO Project Verified seal, concerns are being raised about the value of the claim: “Is non-GMO sustainable?,” “Non-GMO still allows the use of toxic pesticides,” “The butterfly logo implies a ‘green’ image but what is the reality on the ground?” are a few of the concerns. These concerns are leading agriculture experts to debate the need for sustainability requirements—such as less pesticide use and more environmentally friendly practices—in non-GMO food production.
“There is a misconception among a lot of consumers that non-GMO is magically better for the environment,” says Mac Ehrhardt, president of Albert Lea Seeds, a supplier of non-GMO, organic, and GMO seeds. “In our area, many farmers who grow non-GMO corn use lots of insecticides that aren’t good for the environment.”
“Everything used to be non-GMO (before the introduction of GMOs), and we didn’t think that was sustainable,” says Jim Kleinschmit, director of climate and energy initiatives, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).
“You can ingest non-GMO food and have it be covered with herbicides and pesticides,” says Harn Soper, CEO of Sustainable Farm Partners.
It should be emphasized that about 50% of the products that are Non-GMO Project verified are also certified organic. These companies and their customers see the value of adding non-GMO assurance to their organic products.
Should a non-GMO standard have requirements for fewer chemical pesticides and fertilizers and more crop rotations and cover crops? Several experts think it should.
Right now, the Non-GMO Project standard is focused exclusively on GMO avoidance. In fact, that has been the purpose of the Non-GMO Project. According to Dag Falck, organic program managerat Nature’s Path, the Non-GMO Project was originally created to bring attention to GMOs in a way that the organic rules don’t and “it has accomplished that.”
To make non-GMO farming more sustainable, Soper says that it must integrate environmental stewardship, farm profitability, and prosperous farming communities. “The world would be better served if non-GMO came from a sustainable source,” he says. “This is a great opportunity to give some health value to non-GMO.”
Soper proposes a tiered system where farmers would receive increasingly higher premiums for using more sustainable farming methods. For example, a farmer would receive a $2 per bushel premium for using no chemical fertilizers, a $3 premium for using no chemical fertilizers or pesticides, and a $4 premium for using no chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. Such a system would be a “bridge” alternative between conventional and organic.
Soper thinks farmers would adopt such a system if there was a sufficient incentive.
“It doesn’t take much for a farmer to change his farming habits if he gets a premium,” he says.
He also says organic certifiers and inspectors could be trained to certify sustainable non-GMO as well.
In fact, Oregon-based Food Alliance already offers a voluntary third-party certification program that has sustainability standards that include a non-GMO requirement.
Soper thinks consumers would pay more for non-GMO that has fewer herbicides and pesticides. “It’s a higher value crop. People are willing to pay more for organic, why not for non-GMO grown sustainably?” he says.
Doubts about sustainable non-GMO system
Other experts doubt that such a tiered system could work. “I don’t think there is the financial incentive to come up with three levels of non-GMO and communicate that to consumers,” Ehrhardt says. “How many more labels can we put on products and have people understand them all?”
Still, Ehrhardt says it is worth it to encourage conventional, non-GMO farmers to consider adopting more sustainable practices.
Falck also has doubts about a sustainable non-GMO system. “I like the concept (of a bridge between conventional and organic) but I can’t see what a reasonable step would be between conventional and organic. It would be tied to the conventional model and entrench the use of pesticides. It doesn’t address the system,” he says.
A better idea, says Falck, would be to merge the Non-GMO Project into the organic rules. “Why not get the Non-GMO Project standard into the National Organic Program?” he asks.
While he doubts the possibility of a “sustainable non-GMO system,” Falck sees the value in the non-GMO label, describing it as a gateway to organic for many consumers. “Once people are exposed to the non-GMO label, they are then likely to see the organic label, which may lead them to learn more about organic. We should educate people that organic is the ‘gold standard,’” he says.
A better idea, says Falck, would be to merge the Non-GMO Project into the organic rules. “Why not integrate the Non-GMO Project standard into the National Organic Program?” he asks.
While he doubts the possibility of a “sustainable non-GMO system,” Falck sees value in the non-GMO label, describing it as a “gateway” to organic for many consumers. “Once people are exposed to the non-GMO label, they are likely to ask questions about the organic label, which may lead them to learn more. Organic is the ‘gold standard’ and that’s the message we need to share,” he says.
Courtney Pineau, assistant director of the Non-GMO Project, says the Project emphasizes that certified organic and Non-GMO Project verified together is the gold standard, adding, “The Non-GMO Project believes deeply in the importance of supporting a healthy sustainable food system.”
IATP’s Jim Kleinschmit says sustainability issues in non-GMO food production should be addressed “head on.” “There are real issues with problematic chemicals such as atrazine and neonicotinoids that are harming bees,” he says.
Kleinschmit says sustainable practices don’t necessarily have to be part of a non-GMO standard but thinks that companies may want to adopt them to differentiate themselves in the market. “My hope is that companies investing in this new market will want to get ahead of some of these sustainable issues,” he says. “Some companies could say they want ‘non-GMO plus’, which includes practices to use less chemicals and protect pollinators. It will help to make the non-GMO market stronger and more defendable.”
IATP has such a “non-GMO plus” agriculture system with its Working Landscapes Certificate (WLC) program. This provides farmers with a payment for growing non-GMO crops and following sustainability criteria around chemical selection, use, and handling, nutrient management, biodiversity and habitat conservation, among other areas of concern associated with farming practices.
The WLC program was originally created to support sustainability in the bioplastics sector, but Kleinschmit says that the program can be adapted to any non-GMO crop program for food and feed. “We’re excited about non-GMO opportunities with WLC. Farmers want to see it expanded to other crops.”
Kleinschmit agrees with Falck that organic is the ultimate goal. “We want to see non-GMO as a journey to organic,” he says.
With interest in non-GMO growing rapidly, now may be the time to talk about making non-GMO more sustainable. “Let’s take advantage of this new market opportunity to move agriculture farther along the sustainable path,” Kleinschmit says.