Debate: Are “Non GMO” labels deceptive?


The Non-GMO Project is a non-profit organization that provides “North America’s only third party verification and labeling for non-GMO (genetically modified organism) food and products.

You may have seen its seal on various products in supermarkets, particularly at Whole Foods.The organization works with three companies or technical administrators including SCS Global Services to evaluate if products comply with its standards. Most recently, it has expanded its labeling services to include restaurants and delis.

The Non-GMO Project claims to verify more than 20,000 products. “We currently have more than 2,200 participating brands, and are receiving an average of 70-80 new verification inquiries every week,” says Megan Westgate, Executive Director of the Non-GMO Project, was recently quoted as saying. The organization claims sales of its verified products tops $7 billion annually.

For those concerned about consuming GMOs, this voluntary label, together with products that exist under the USDA’s organic label, provides many options. For those who oppose mandatory labeling of GMOs, the label provides an example of how voluntary labeling can work without imposing costs on others.

However, a seemingly grey area exists when a product is labeled as non-GMO, yet a GMO counterpart does not exist. For example, should an avocado be labeled as non-GMO if GMO avocados don’t exist? What about salt? Crushed tomatoes? A recent article highlighted that some brands of popcorn are advertised as not containing genetically modified corn when there is no genetically modified corn of the popcorn variety on the market. Some people might argue that such labeling practices are misleading and dishonest; others don’t have a problem with it. This article provides opinions from both perspectives.

Labeling as GMO-free is disingenuous – Jennie Schmidt

It seems to me to be disingenuous to label foods as “non-GMO” when the counterpart GMO food doesn’t exist. The “Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1966” directs the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission to regulate labeling of foods and consumer commodities to “…to prevent unfair or deceptive packaging and labeling of many household consumer commodities.” I consider “non-GMO” labeling to be deceptive when the equivalent GMO product doesn’t exist in the marketplace. It’s akin to the claim that peanut butter is cholesterol free. Since cholesterol is produced in the liver and peanuts don’t have livers, peanut butter has always been cholesterol free. To advertise it as cholesterol free is deceptive because it wasn’t there to begin with.

Likewise, it’s deceptive to advertise dairy products as “hormone free”. Lactation is biologically impossible without hormones, therefore all milk must have hormones. If those who support a “hormone free” label on milk are really trying to claim that the animal was not treated with recombinant bovine somatrophin, a genetically engineered version of naturally produced BST, that’s what the label should read. A 3 oz portion of milk has the same nanograms of estrogen from treated and untreated cows and the difference in the milk isn’t detectable, but some people hang their hat on “hormone free”, which is nothing more than deceptive labeling. In the case of pork or poultry, the “hormone free” label is particularly deceptive because federal law prohibits the use of hormones on these animals. The use of any hormone free label on pork and poultry products is intended to mislead consumers into thinking that the product is different and therefore worthy of a higher price.

So non-GMO. There is no such thing as a “GMO food” because genetic engineering is a plant breeding process and not a food process so I disagree with it as a premise to begin with. Furthermore, “GM” stands for genetically modified, in which case, all methods of plant breeding create GMOs. The practice of seed saving by selection of a superior ear of corn or tomato and replanting that seed or crossing that plant with another superior variety is genetically modifying the outcome in the next generation of that crop. The domestication of our food supply means that every food has been “GMO’d” at some point over the last 10,000 years. Non-GMO food labels then are singling out a particular plant breeding process and disregarding the fact that traditional or mutational breeding used by organic and conventional plant breeders also create “GMOs”.

But here we are, singling out genetic engineering as the only process to be labeled. There are 8 crops that have been genetically engineered that are on the market: corn (field and sweet), soybeans, cotton, canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, papaya and squash. So there exists a counterpart in these 8 crops that is non-GMO and can be truthfully labeled as such using the non-GMO voluntary verification process.

What deceives the consumer is the use of non-GMO in products that are not created through genetic engineering, things like peppercorns, olive oil, parsley, basil, millet, barley, tomatoes, flavor spritzers, coconut milk, sushi, shiitake mushrooms, sunflower seeds, arugula, quinoa, Himalayan pink salt rock, chia seeds, and a host of other products that are pricier than their equivalent counterparts that are also and have always been non-GMO. Advertising what was never there to begin with is a deceptive practice. Non-GMO labeling already exists; it’s called “certified organic”.

To be fair and to ensure that consumers are fully informed, shouldn’t all foods be labeled by their plant breeding type? I would submit to you that organic foods created by chemical or radiation mutagenesis plant breeding techniques should be labeled as such. After all, doesn’t the consumer have the “right to know” this? Or isn’t it hypocritical to want to know one but not the other?

Labeling as GMO-free is acceptable – Layla Katiraee

There are several reasons the practice of labeling items as non-GMO, when the GMO counterpart doesn’t exist, is OK with me. The first is that I advocate for voluntary labeling of GMOs. I don’t think I can be annoyed when companies exert that right, as misleading as their labeling behavior may be. The label is factual—the item is GMO-free—but it’s just “gimmicky”.

Second, there may be a point in time when a GMO counterpart to the product may exist, such as apples should the GM Arctic Apple be approved. If an applesauce company has its GMO-free label already in place, it will be ahead of the market.

Third, I consider it the buyer’s responsibility to be informed. If customers are willing to spend extra on GM-free strawberries when there aren’t GM strawberries on the market in the first place, they aren’t being smart shoppers. In the same way that you spend time researching which cell-phone plan you should select and reading all the reviews, shouldn’t you do the same research when it comes to your food, particularly if you’re committing to buying your everyday groceries under a label that costs more?

The final, and most important reason in my mind, is that I consider the entire premise of the label to be misleading, so this is a minor issue to be concerned with. To elaborate on this later point, I encourage you to visit the Non-GMO Project’s website, particularly its section outlining the “facts” surrounding GMOs. It includes numerous misleading statements in an attempt to convince consumers that the GMO-free label is necessary:

  • None of the GMO traits currently on the market offer increased yield, drought tolerance, enhanced nutrition, or any other consumer benefit.“ I think that farmers in Hawaii whose papaya crops have been saved through biotechnology would disagree.
  • Most developed nations do not consider GMOs to be safe.” Major scientific organizations in developed nations disagree, including scientific organizations from European Union, USA, Australia, and the WHO.
  • Some ingredients that seem low-risk may have less-visible high-risk ingredients.  Take, for example, dried fruit. Raisins and similar fruit are sometimes packed with a small quantity of oil to keep them moist. This oil, when used, is sometimes high-GMO-risk.” This statement highlights how misleading the whole premise of GMO-labeling can be. Refined oils do not have the transgenic protein or DNA. As such, there is absolutely no difference between oil derived from a GMO or from a conventional crop. So why would this product require labeling? Because there’s opposition towards a processing technique? If so, then why aren’t plants derived through mutagenesis labeled? It makes no sense…

The list goes on and on, including “facts” about superweeds, Agent Orange pesticides, lawsuits against farmers, etc. With so much disingenuous information that needs to be clarified, I think that the labeling of a banana as GMO-free is the least disingenuous of all, because after all, it’s true. I consider it analogous to worrying about the paint on a wall that is crumbling down.

Jennie Schmidt, MS, RD is a registered dietitian & farmer. She farms with her family on a 2000-acre, third-generation diversified grain, fruit and vegetable farm in Maryland. Jennie holds a master’s degree from the University of Delaware in human nutrition with thesis research in Food and Agricultural Biotechnology. She is an active agvocate and is on Facebook and blogger as The Foodie Farmer and tweets from @FarmGirlJen

Layla Katiraee, contributor to the Genetic Literacy Project, holds a PhD in molecular genetics from the University of Toronto and is a senior scientist in product development at a biotech company in California. All opinions and views expressed are her own. Her twitter handle is: @BioChicaGMO




  • Loren Eaton

    Interesting post,
    ‘The Non-GMO Project claims to verify more than 20,000 products.’ Where do they get the primers for this testing? How much does it cost and who pays? And who is liable and answering to the FDA if/when they screw up?

    • RobertWager

      Good questions Loren

    • The tests are carried out on known GM events. The manufactures pay via fees charged by the Non-GMO Project. It is my understanding the costs vary by product and I am not sure how often it is reviewed/renewed, if at all. The actual testing is typically done by Genetic ID, the company founded and run by anti-GMO activist and J. Smith Maharishi cohort, J. Fagan. Fagan is also a leading voice of

      • Loren Eaton

        All very comforting:-( My point is that (without making a quality judgment on anyone’s product) if you SAY it is GM free…it better be GM free.

  • rick

    “There is no such thing as a “GMO food” because genetic engineering is a plant breeding process and not a food process so I disagree with it as a premise to begin with.”
    Agreed. We utilize the term GMO as a shorthand means to refer to an organism having one or more traits acquired by recombinant DNA methods. We have not “transformed” the plant, we have merely added a piece of genetic information in addition to, not in wholesale replacement of, the underlying genetic endowment of the plant variety that we continue to improve through conventional breeding. Also, the term “GMO Food” is merely a shorthand means to refer to a food item that is derived from, or contains one or more ingredients, derived from the harvested portion of an organism characterized as having one or more traits acquired through recombinant DNA methods.
    Unfortunately, the use of this shorthand terminology has been coopted to imply “GMO” or “GMO food” is an artificial, synthetic replacement of the original and familiar crop species or food product, that is either the purpose or effect of choosing ge methods to instill desirable traits. Those who work in genetic engineering see a variety of a crop with genetic information supplied through rDNA methods as just another variety. And most of the time, that genetic trait is for agronomic advantage, something that aids the husbandry of the crop, and in such case, it is not desired and even in the commercial self interest of seed companies, their customers and end users that there has not been any material change in the composition and qualities of the harvested product.

    It is easy for us here to understand that assessments of harvested and consumed seed or fruit of a variety like the Rainbow Papaya show that the fruit is within normal parameters for nutrients, anti-nutrients, toxins etc. that occur in non-ge traited varieties. In fact, there is emerging work in omics analysis showing that composition of food products varies much more from variety to variety and from growing season to growing season, than any alteration of composition theoretically resulting from unknown collateral changes due to genetic engineering. In other words, compositional differences between a conventional variety of corn grown in Iowa and the same variety grown in Minnesota will be far more pronounced than compositional differences if any between that same variety of corn and a ge traited version of the variety.

    I don’t know what term could substitute that more accurately but efficiently conveys the distinction, and unfortunately “gmo” has been a term of convenience used by all sides. I prefer the term ge traited varieties instead of gmo and I avoid using the term GMO food at all.

    • Jennie Schmidt MS RD

      I like all those acronyms! If consumers have the right to know which foods are sourced from various plant breeding methodologies, then they need ALL the information and not just one plant breeding method.

      • Ben L

        I’m not sure that right to see the labels should exist. What is the laypublic doing with that information? They do not know how to interpret what that means in any salient context, so it becomes labeling for labeling’s sake. Much the same as ‘organic’ food has been demonstrated to have no better nutrition, taste, etc. from conventionally-farmed (non-organic, GMO) food (cf. Stanford University) but is still being purchased and requested.

        • Jennie Schmidt

          I concur which was the premise of what I wrote in the article. But IF labeling of one planting breeding technique is demanded, then all plant breeding techniques should be labeled. It is hypocritical to want to know one and not the others since they all alter the DNA sequence of the crop.

          • Judy Nonarchi

            Yes; let’s have labeling for organic & other seeds that have been produced by mutagenesis, in case I have irrational paranoia about chemical-blasting of seeds, or irradiation of seeds (which mutagenesis is). Otherwise, it IS entirely hypocritical, like Jennie says.

        • Judy Nonarchi

          A person’s perceived “right” to a gmo label violates my “right” to have labels actually mean something in terms of nutrition, ingredients, etc. Especially when every single one of the various labeling initiatives have been misleading; they all would have required labeling of foods that have NO gmos (sugar) and would have totally exempted 2/3 of the food sold that may or do have gmos.

  • FosterBoondoggle

    Personally, I think anyone who’s willing to get taken in by “Organic, GMO-free Himalayan pink sea salt” deserves exactly what they get at $8/oz. Seriously, though, this seems exactly parallel to the situation with Kosher and Halal. Cans of Coke are labeled with a kosher certification, even though there’s no ingredient in them that could potentially make them forbidden. To the orthodox, it’s worth having the rabbinnic certification in order to be sure.

    Fear of GMOs is pretty much a religious purity issue without darkened rooms, incense and 3000-year-old language. The pseudo-scientific fear mongering that goes with it for some people is just cargo cult science — more deity-free religiosity. Just as we say “live & let live” about adherence to recognized faiths, we should do likewise about this one. And if we agree on the parallel, that clarifies and strengthens the argument against mandated labeling.

  • Tom

    Since the folks that want GMO labels generally want to avoid GMO-containing foods, does that mean that I can demand labels on organic food items even if I have no desire to buy them? How about a label guaranteeing that the food item in question has been tested for all the major food pathogens (enterobacteria, hepatitis etc) and their toxins (including bacterial and fungal toxins)? Unlike a GMO label, this label would actually save lives. And it would cost a lot to test all the food items for this. But hey, it’s my right to know what’s in the food that I have no intention of buying.

  • pro labeling

    Thanks for the link to the Non-GMO Project website — I just signed up.

    I was on the fence about the whole thing — but I just got pushed over by the hostility of the pro-GMO crowd toward the pro-labeling crowd.

    Monsanto doesn’t seem to have the best track record (Agent Orange, PCB’s & contaminating an entire town, the Canadian bribery scandal, etc.) and their lack of transparency along w/the number of lawsuits against farmers does not

    speak well for them. It also does’t make any sense why Monsanto was
    for labeling in Europe & against it here in the US. The amount of money they spent in CA to defeat the labeling bill was staggering & now they are suing Vermont over their labeling law using the First Amendment?!

    I do not like the way Monsanto does business & I really do not want to support Monsanto at all nor any of their products.

    And, exactly how does monoculture farming help the environment?
    And requiring farmers to purchase seed vs saving seed help starving
    populations? Just asking.

  • Judy Nonarchi

    I emailed ConAgra about why they label Orvel Redenbacher popcorn as “non-gmo” when there is NO popcorn that is gmo.

    Their lame response:

    “We understand there is a lot of discussion around this topic and we do appreciate hearing from our consumers and would be happy to share your feedback. You are correct regarding popping corn being Non-GMO. We call this out on the label, as not all consumers are aware of this fact. ”

    And I’m sure they are more than $ati$fied to bring this “over$ight” to the attention of their potential consumers.

    I’m not buying it anymore; either the “non-gmo” fake label for foods that have no gmo counterpart, or Redenbacher popcorn. Disingenuous to the max.

    • In the case of that particular product, many may be concerned that popcorn could be contaminated by GMO corn. People who don’t grow popcorn would not know whether or not sweet corn could cross with it.

      The Non-GMO Project website indicates that potentially GMO inputs to products are tested periodically to ensure they are not contaminated by GMO.

  • Alex Mitchell

    One of my biggest concerns with the “non-GMO” labeling is the potential price markup on those products (as you mentioned) have no alternatives. In some stores you can’t find organic items and without the Non-GMO labels. I’m in favor of food production that could reduce the agricultural reliance on pesticides and growth hormones but now I have to pay extra for no added benefit.

    The quest of health living is often met with a price – a price many cannot afford but will be criticized for seeking treatment for the consequence.