The food industry entered a new era today, when President Obama signed a bill into law requiring anything containing GMOs (genetically modified organisms) to be labeled. Regardless of what side of the GMO debate you’re on (and there’s fresh evidence on the GMOs-are-okay side, thanks to this recently released study), most of us love transparency. Why wouldn’t you want to know what you’re putting into your body?
But as GMOs are moved to the forefront of the food conversation now more than ever, many questions loom: Why exactly is buying non-GMO important? How hard is it to for a product to get the trademark butterfly seal indicating it’s non-GMO? And is it harder for some products to get certified than others?
We took all our GMO questions to Megan Westgate, the executive director of the Non-GMO Project, the non-profit that bestows the certification.
The butterfly label launched in 2010 and it has since become one of the fastest-growing food labels. There are currently about 2,900 brands in the program with over 36,000 products, representing $16 billion in annual sales. So it’s a pretty big deal.
Westgate recently sat on a panel at press event for Dannon, praising the company for its recent commitment to start selling non-GMO products—a huge overhaul. We caught up with Westgate after the event to talk more about GMOs.
Keep reading for everything you need to know about GMOs.
Why buying non-GMO is important
“There are many reasons why consumers choose to avoid GMOs—the environmental impact of GMOs, the patenting of life, farmer sovereignty, the potential off-target effects of genetic modification,” Westgate says.
She particularly praised Dannon’s switch to non-GMO products, since it means 80,000 acres of GMO corn will now be non-GMO corn—no easy feat. Even the dairy cows will be fed non-GMO feed. “This movement will create a ripple effect in the supply chain,” Westgate says.
How products get certified
So, how hard is it for a food manufacturer to earn that butterfly seal? Westgate says the whole process takes between three and six months. “There are two main parts to the evaluation: inputs and facilities,” she says. Every single ingredient must be verified as non-GMO, and the facilities must pass an evaluation.
Where this gets the trickiest? Anything containing corn, soy, canola, or animal products, according to Westgate. These high-risk ingredients require testing to ensure they are truly non-GMO. And for anything from an animal (meat, eggs, milk, cheese…), the animals cannot have been fed genetically modified feed.
“According to the USDA, about 45 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. is destined for animal feed, which can make it difficult for farmers to transition to non-GMO feed and difficult for manufacturers to find compliant sources of animal products,” Westgate says.
How to start shopping non-GMO
If you’ve never shopped non-GMO before but are suddenly all about it, maneuvering the grocery store may seem daunting, but Westgate highlights the resources The Non-GMO Project offer to make it a little easier.
First, keep an eye out for that butterfly label.
“We also have a very popular shopping app (for IOS and Android) that allows you to scan a product right in the aisle to be sure it is Non-GMO Project Verified,” she says. You can also search food by type or brand on their website (nongmoproject.org) to see if it has a butterfly seal or not.
With today’s signing of the GMO transparency food bill, you can bet that in the not-so distant future, many more food companies will follow in brands like Dannon’s footsteps and make an effort to offer non-GMO products to consumers. And then, shopping will be even easier.
Want to learn more about GMOs? A documentary gives a close look at what’s in our food. And if you missed the huge change the FDA is making to food labels, get the lowdown here.