What does a non-GMO label get you?

posted in: Food | 96

I’m all for voluntary non-GMO labels. They’re a market based solution that meets a niche demand. They provide diversity in the market without raising prices for everyone. Still, I prefer to avoid them (and thankfully in the US, I still have the choice to do so) in large part because I don’t think they’re accomplishing anything useful, especially considering that such products often cost more. That’s my personal choice, though I also don’t think these labels accomplish much for the companies that use them. I’ve got two examples that I recently noticed that don’t make sense to me – maybe you can help me untangle the issues.

Gluten-free waffle breakfast at Silver Diner. Image by Teri Centner via Flickr.
Gluten-free waffle breakfast at Silver Diner. Image by Teri Centner via Flickr.

The first example is non-GMO labels on two ingredients at Silver Diner. Silver Diner is one of my favorite restaurants. They’re a small, local chain that serves reasonably priced, locally sourced, interesting comfort foods. My husband and I went there at least once an month, and frequently took friends and family there. But we’ve since switched our brunch habits to other restaurants. Why? Because I’m frustrated with their marketing.

The Silver Diner menu lists all of the farms in the Maryland/Pennsylvania/Virginia area where they source ingredients, which I just love. I’m a bit busy but I’m excited at the idea that I could visit these farms if I wanted to. The food is fresh, the menu is interesting, they are supporting smaller farms, it’s great. It’s reasonably priced, too.

Some of Silver Diner’s marketing claims are a bit meaningless if not flat out wrong (all-natural, hormone free) and organic ketchup takes 63% more land than conventional, but I could overlook those relatively small and oh-too-common issues because their main goals were so great.

What I couldn’t overlook was the addition of two Non-GMO Project certified foods to the menu. They now serve non-GMO canola oil and non-GMO quinoa. Can you guess why this bothers me?

To my knowledge, quinoa has never been genetically engineered. So calling a particular brand of quinoa non-GMO could be viewed as false advertising (asbestos free cereal, anyone?). And no one in the DC area is growing quinoa – the climate is all wrong (too warm, too wet). Now, quinoa is a very nutritious “grain”, and gluten free to boot, so it makes sense to have it in healthier and allergen-free dishes on the menu. It’s also fairly low-input so could be considered a sustainable crop (although we’d have to look at yields compared to other grains to see if more land is needed, plus there’s the travel cost and energy compared to more local grains). Since there’s no GMO alternative, the non-GMOness doesn’t add anything here but price.

Canola also isn’t grown in the DC area – the climate is wrong (too warm) – so it’s not local either. A local alternative would be soybeans, which make a vegetable oil approximately equivalent to canola. Soybeans are arguably more sustainable than canola, with soybean having slightly higher yields with equivalent inputs, and soybeans fix nitrogen which helps reduce the amount of fertilizer that is needed. The only biotech trait in both soy and canola is herbicide tolerance. In both crops, this trait has allowed more farmers to use conservation tillage methods, which are arguably more sustainable than tilling to kill weeds, and have resulted in both a decrease in total herbicide use and a switch to a less harmful herbicide. In the case of canola, the herbicide tolerance trait may have led to an increase in herbicide tolerant weedy canola, but to call them “superweeds” is a bit misleading. Non-GMO canola doesn’t use any less or better herbicide, it’s just non-GMO. Here, the non-GMOness might have a slight advantage, but local soybean oil doesn’t (GMO or not) and soybeans would meet more of Silver Diner’s stated goals. Other good local options would be peanut oil or corn oil.

If Silver Diner truly chooses their ingredients based on commitments to local farming, neither of these products makes sense.

The second example is a non-GMO declaration on Florida Natural orange juice. I grew up in Florida, with no less than five varieties of citrus in my backyard – orange, yellow grapefruit, pink grapefruit, ponderosa lemons, and a weird tangerine hybrid, plus a neighbor had kumquats – small wonder I grew up interested in plant genetics! I haven’t done a blind taste test but my husband I both swear Florida oj is tastier than juice from Brazil or California. Florida Natural is one of few brands that sources 100% Florida oranges, so it’s always been our go-to brand.

orange juice label
Image by Anastasia Bodnar.

There’s no GMO oranges on the market (just some traits that are still in research), and Florida Natural’s only ingredient is oranges, so I was pretty shocked to see a non-GMO label on the back of the carton when I got it home from the grocery store. It said “NO GMO… oranges grown without the use of biotechnology”. I don’t obsessively read labels, I just idly read everything that’s put in front of me, and I noticed it while I was making breakfast. They seem to have added the label quietly, I can’t find any news articles about it and it’s not in their FAQs.

Why does this matter? As Amy Harmon so beautifully described in her New York Times article US citrus is in danger. Originally from China, citrus greening disease has invaded the US. Without drastic measures, the price of juice is going to skyrocket. And this Florida girl needs her oj! After years and years of research, scientists and many orange growers have concluded that a biotech approach really is the best solution. Even staunch GMO critic Tom Phillpott endorsed using biotech to stop citrus greening. A tiny genetic change can help stop the disease from causing trees to produce inedible fruit.

What is Florida Natural trying to say with this non-GMO label? That they would rather go out of business than consider a biotech solution? As with Silver Diner above, the label just doesn’t make sense.

GMO or not, most farms would still be big monocultures, with seeds (or grafts) bought from big seed companies, using modern agricultural methods including synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides. So I’m left wondering what such labels really accomplish. A restaurant that moves away from their stated values to choose non-GMO products is saying to me that they care more about a buzzword than about staying true to their values. An orange juice company that goes out of its way to state that it’s non GMO is telling me they care more about fanning customer fears rather than taking the time to help educate people so that we might be able to save citrus in the US.

I still support voluntary non-GMO labels but boy do they leave me scratching my head.

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Anastasia is Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes!