I’m standing in aisle 5, scanning for my favourite pasta shape (rigatoni, for the record), when it catches my eye.
World’s. Scariest. Butterfly.
What. Is it doing here?
Now I can’t help but notice it everywhere. In the produce section, in the frozen aisle, in every grocery aisle. And it’s multiplying…fast.
*squinty angry eyes*
…The Non-GMO Verified Butterfly
If you’ve stepped foot in any grocery store in the last couple of years, you’ve likely noticed the butterfly explosion too.
Is it something you should look for?
Will it help you make a meaningful decision about the food you’re buying?
Should you be skeptical of food that isn’t butterfly-approved?
Short answers…nope, no and nope.
Now, let me give you the long-ish answer.
What does the Non-GMO Verified Butterfly mean?
The label represents a certification from the Non-GMO Project which identifies food, personal care and cleaning products as being Non-GMO (This is not the same as GMO-free, which I’ll cover later). They claim to offer North America’s most trusted third-party verification. Today, companies have submitted upwards of 43000 products for verification.
Who is the Non-GMO Project?
The Non-GMO project is self-described as a mission-driven nonprofit organization dedicated to building and protecting a non-GMO food supply.
While they are a third party ‘independent’ verifier, it’s important to know who is behind it. The GMO Project’s board of directions (BOD) is made up entirely of CEOs, owners and high level employees of the organic or ‘natural’ food industry.
There is no one from a government agency or a scientific or educational institution. Not a single person with a science or health professional credential or background. There is a single farmer, a rancher, who manages a ‘natural’ beef business.
They say “When it comes to food labeling, third-party certifications are best because they ensure the claim is unbiased, rigorous and transparent”.
I wouldn’t call a third party certifier with an entire BOD standing to directly benefit from use of the label unbiased or transparent. But let’s move on.
Honestly, what IS a GMO?
Spoiler: many people don’t know what the acronym stands for let alone what it actually means.
To clarify, GMO stands for genetically modified organism.
These days it seems to be a catch-all term for all that is evil and immoral when it comes to our food system. And while lots of people think they should avoid them, most aren’t sure why.
While there is no agreed upon scientific definition, in agriculture it generally refers to a product that has been altered using genetic engineering. That means, the plant’s DNA, or genetic makeup has been altered in a specific way using technology rather than traditional plant breeding.
Genetic engineering allows us to target a specific trait we know we want to change rather than relying on chance (luck!) that a beneficial trait might express itself as a result of mixing genes randomly, as with traditional breeding, over time.
All breeding methods, including simple cross-breeding, alter a plant’s DNA, so technically speaking all agricultural products are genetically modified. They have been since the dawn of agriculture, thousands of years ago. Genetic engineering is simply a more precise and expedient method.
Some of the traits that have been developed using genetic engineering are drought tolerance, insect resistance and viral disease resistance. Things that really benefit food producers, and you in the end.
Great, what’s the big deal then?
Some of the main concerns of those who oppose GMOs are the safety and long term health effects of consuming GMOs.
The thing is, we now have evidence from over 2,000 studies (and no, they are not all funded by industry) and over 20 years of GMO consumption by humans and animals which have produced no evidence that GMOs represent a health risk. As in, not one single case of an adverse health event…ever.
Because of that, every major mainstream health and regulatory body in the world agree that GMOs pose no greater safety risk than their conventional counterparts. These include Health Canada, The World Health Organization, The American Medical Association, The British Royal Society and about 200 others.
It’s pretty cut and dry. GMOs are as safe to eat as their non-GMO counterparts.
So, why is this label EVERYWHERE?
People are more interested in where their food comes from than ever before and they’re looking for honesty and transparency in the food system.
THAT is awesome. We should be asking questions about our food. No one is asking us to blindly trust our food supply.
One of the big problems is most of us learn about our food through people who know very little about food. The folks who market it.
Sales of products labelled non-GMO are skyrocketing and today, they represent roughly $21 billion across North America, a 30% increase just in the last 2 years.
You better believe food marketers are hopping on that bandwagon. Paying for non-GMO verification has the potential to make a substantial impact on the bottom-line.
In other words, KA-CHING!
What is the Non-GMO label telling me, then?
Well, it is not used to better inform you as a consumer and it does not tell you anything about the safety, the quality or the nutritional content of your food.
They are used as a marketing tactic by an industry that understands today’s climate of fear around GMOs. Despite the overwhelming research around GMO safety, these labels work to scare consumers, and in turn demonize safe, nutritious food.
Consumers will make choices and pay more for ‘peace of mind’; even if they don’t understand exactly what it is they’re paying for. I’m a parent myself, so I completely understand this mentality. I want the very best for my child. Peace of mind is valuable.
Aren’t false labelling claims illegal?
While we do have regulations for food marketing and labelling in place through the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, this particular label seems to have slipped through cracks. It has been deemed acceptable since the label says Non-GMO rather than GMO-free.
My guess is the average consumer is not going to make a distinction there.
This type of label – one that identifies what’s not in a product, is called an absence claim. It works by having us believe that if it’s labelled non-GMO then GMOs must be undesirable.
Technically, if a product makes an absence claim, there must be a version of that product which contains the ingredient they are claiming is absent. Slapping a non-GMO label on something that would never contain GMO ingredients to begin with, is clearly misleading.
Yet again, the non-GMO label seems to get a free pass here, as there are a huge number of products carrying non-GMO labels when otherwise they wouldn’t be a source of GMOs.
For the record, the only GMO products approved for sale in Canada are:
Soy, corn, canola, sugar beet, alfalfa, Hawaiian papaya, squash, cotton and more recently, salmon.
So while GMO ingredients are commonly found in processed or packaged food which often use soy, corn, canola, sugar beet and their derivatives as ingredients, nearly all fresh, whole foods are not genetically engineered. Despite what dear old butterfly might have you believe.
Alright so what are the takeaways?
Don’t get me wrong, food and agriculture is an extremely complex topic. While seemingly in-depth, this post glosses over many of the very legitimate questions and concerns that exist about our food system. That being said, I hope I’ve been able to take away a little bit of mystery and help you feel more confident about your food choices around this one specific topic.
- Non-GMO Verified labels tell us nothing about the safety, quality and nutrition content of a food.
- They are a marketing tool that leverages the power of fear to guide us toward making emotionally charged food purchases.
- They are perpetuating false beliefs about the safety of GMOs and the amazing Canadian farmers and food producers that may use them.
- This deliberate deception adds to consumer confusion by undermining some of our important and valuable labels and labelling laws (allergen labelling and nutrition claims for example).
Are food labels and claims confusing to you? What kind of questions do you have about your food?