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Is non-GMO hurting organic?

By Ken Roseboro
Published: February 26, 2015
Category: Non-GMO Project

Some natural food retailers have concerns about non-GMO label but say it’s necessary for consumer choice

While some natural food retailers are concerned about the impact of Non-GMO Project verified products on sales of organic foods, most believe that—without mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods—the non-GMO label is needed to give consumers a choice in the marketplace.

Non-GMO could hurt organic sales

Organic foods prohibit the use of genetically modified ingredients, but many consumers don’t know that and are turning to Non-GMO Project verified products. Is this hurting organic food sales? Some organic industry members think this may be the case. (The Organic & Non-GMO Report, June 2013)

Some market data backs these concerns. Research by marketing firm Mambo Sprouts found that 56% of consumers say that non-GMO was key to brand buying compared to 52% who cited organic.

Is this true in natural food retails stores and cooperatives?

It could be, says Jimbo Someck, owner of Jimbo’s…Naturally, based in San Diego, CA. “There is good and bad in this situation,” he says. “Putting another label on a product can create confusion. Customers are looking for non-GMO but may not know that organic is non-GMO. But the demand for non-GMO speaks strongly to the fact that consumers want to know what’s in their food.”

Sean Balsley, general manager at Nature’s Food Patch in Clearwater, FL, also cites a lack of consumer knowledge. “People are not educated about standards for organic—that organic foods by definition do not contain GMOs,” says Balsley, whose store has committed to full GMO transparency.

In fact, a survey by the Hartman Group found that only 8% of core organic consumers understand that certified organic products cannot contain GM ingredients.

Melanie Bettehausen, marketing and membership director, North Coast Co-op in Arcata, CA, also sees more consumer focus on non-GMO. “What we noticed in our shoppers was a shift away from organic and toward non-GMO, which was concerning because the focus was no longer on sustainable practices, but rather on individual health,” she says.

Non-GMO complements organic

But at Whole Foods Market, non-GMO and organic are complementary labels that “are necessary for each other,” says Errol Schweizer, the company’s executive global grocery coordinator. “We see customer preference for both labels.”

This is backed by Whole Foods’ sales data, which shows that products that are organic, Non-GMO Project verified, and products that have both labels are all exceeding sales of other products sold in the company’s stores.

“That indicates to us there is no conflict,” Schweizer says. “There is a huge customer preference for (GMO) transparency and for the multiple attributes that organic products provide such as no pesticides and sustainable practices.”

Several other retailers also don’t see a problem. “Non-GMO Project verified products aren’t taking market share from organic products,” says John Wood, co-owner of Green Grocer, Portsmouth, RI. “There is a complement there, and consumers enjoy seeing that choice.”

The same is true at Everybody’s Whole Foods Market in Fairfield, IA, according to co-owner Nathan Garnet. “I don’t think the Non-GMO Project label is hurting sales of organic. Our customers really want and appreciate (the non-GMO label),” he says.

Claudia David-Roscoe, owner of Health Foods by Claudia, in Toledo, OH says the issue comes down to different customer types. “Our older customer base gets that the organic label already means ‘no GMOs’; for them the Non-GMO Project label is not an issue,” she says. “But the newer customers don’t have that knowledge.”

In her store David-Roscoe doesn’t see a conflict between the two labels. “It’s because we are educating our customers about the difference,” she says.

At Dean’s Natural Foods in Ocean, NJ, customers prefer organic products, says store owner Dean Nelson. “They acknowledge that organic is the gold standard. Non-GMO adds an extra boost,” he says.

According to market research firm SPINS, about 50% of all Non-GMO Project verified products are also certified organic.

Non-GMO Project focus solely on GMO avoidance

A big concern among organic supporters is that consumers will perceive more value in the non-GMO label than in the certified organic seal.

“The Non-GMO Project logo identifies products that lack ingredients produced in agricultural systems that depend on glyphosate and artificially mutated seed genomes. That’s all it does,” says Alan Lewis, director of special projects at Colorado-based Natural Grocers. “It does not attempt to address critical issues associated with industrial farming, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, or the vertically integrated control of processing and marketing.”

Supporters of the Non-GMO Project say it was launched by natural food retailers and organic food industry leaders solely to address concerns about the GMO contamination threat to organic foods.

The non-GMO label’s sole focus may be why it is so successful. “The reason the Non-GMO Project label is so appealing is because there is only one, it is easy to identify, and it means one thing: no GMOs,” Bettehausen says.

Another concern is that consumers may think that products that don’t have the label will contain GMOs. “My concern is that the non-GMO label muddies the water, giving the impression that that label ensures everything good about the product,” says Balsley.

“The label implies that anything without the label has GMOs, which isn’t the case, especially if it is organic,” Bettehausen says. “Most consumers don’t know the difference between all of the certified organic labels either. Food labeling in general is confusing.”

Consumer education important

Retailers say that consumer education is needed on differences between the two labels. “The onus is on the retailer to educate consumers on what the label means,” Someck says.

“The industry needs to articulate and strengthen the message that how food is grown matters,” Lewis says.

“We realized that we needed to be clearer in our messaging that non-GMO does not inherently indicate sustainable practices, as does organic, and that we can’t lose focus on the benefits of organic on the health of the planet,” Bettehausen says.

Bettehausen recommends that organic companies focus on non-GMO as the primary message. “Hook them with GMO-free and then regale them with all of the other amazing benefits of organic,” she says.

The Organic Trade Association has promoted organic as “non-GMO and much more.”

The National Co+op Grocers also emphasizes that the organic seal is “the gold standard” to help consumers avoid GMOs.

“I think we can all come together as an industry to help educate the public,” David-Roscoe says.

Without GMO labeling, non-GMO label necessary

Despite concerns about the Non-GMO Project label, natural food retailers agree that it is needed to give US consumers non-GMO choices especially without mandatory GMO labeling in the United States.

“It absolutely has value,” Someck says. “It really speaks to a potentially different consumer and has raised awareness about the GMO issue.”

“Yes, it’s helpful to customers—it’s a good intention,” says Balsley.

“We still don’t have a GMO labeling mandate from our government,” Bettehausen says. “Until we do, the Non-GMO Project label will be needed.”

Schweizer thinks the industry should focus on bigger issues. “Creating a division between non-GMO and organic takes us away from the discussion about GMO transparency and from the need to transition non-GMO farmers to organic,” he says.

© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report, March 2015