In Praise of the Non-GMO Project

Non-GMOProject-300x219There’s been some high voltage opinions darting about the blogosphere about the Non-GMO Project, which is the new third-party verifying organization for companies making Non-GMO claims. I have been watching and working with this organization for many years and I want to weigh in. I have unqualified support of the mission, tactics, and integrity of the organization. In fact, last year we made the requirement that for any product to be listed as non-GMO in our Non-GMO Shopping Guide or iPhone app ShopNoGMO, it had to be enrolled in the Non-GMO Project.

At some other time I’d like to share what I believe to be the pivotal role that the Non-GMO Project plays in coordinating the non-GMO activities of the natural products industry and in giving consumers reliable non-GMO choices. These are, in my opinion, extremely important for driving the tipping point of consumer rejection against GMOs—which is our Institute’s focus.

In this blog, however, I want to address the integrity of the leaders of the Project. It’s an important consideration, as those of us who avoid GMOs trust them to determine the validity of non-GMO claims.

It turns out we’ve already been placing trust in these folks for decades, as they are among the pioneers who created the natural food movement and the organic label, and have led the ever expanding push towards healthier products and socially responsible practices. They also have a long history of taking bold and sometimes unprecedented steps against GMOs.

This is by no means a formal biography. It’s just what I have learned from my years of interacting with them and why I’ve come to deeply respect them.

Craig Winter’s Short List

Craig Winters was a Non-GMO Hero. He was the founding leader of the Campaign for Labeling Genetically Engineered Foods and was a devout campaigner. He also was the main GMO activist who “worked” the natural food industry for years, disseminating materials, raising money, and rallying the troupes. In September 2003, at the Natural Foods Expo East, I launched my first book Seeds of Deception. Craig invited me to join a GMO meeting he had set up. He explained that he invited the very best industry leaders on the non-GMO topic. They were at the forefront, banging the non-GMO drum so that no one else in the industry could go to sleep on this issue. Furthermore they remained independent, carrying the real voice of the natural products consciousness in an industry more and more dominated by divisions of major food conglomerates. When I arrived at the meeting, I was introduced to a group that was to later comprise the majority of the board members of the Non-GMO Project. They are highlighted below.

The only retailer at the table was Bob Gerner. The Non-GMO Project was started at his two stores in El Cerrito and Berkeley California. Bob had been a pioneer of the natural foods industry. He was baking granola in Bay Area kitchens 40 years ago and had started Westbrae Organics. He then moved on to become the owner of the Natural Grocery Company. By the time we met at Expo East, he had made the bold move of selling the stores to his employees, sacrificing his personal finances to support his business ethics and ideals. The owner-employees funded staff time for socially responsible activities, among which was a Non-GMO Committee. It was this committee that recruited other retailers to collectively request/demand verified non-GMO products from vendors. This was the humble start of the Non-GMO Project in 2003.

Bob is a current member of the Board, as are two others representing the original retailers in the Project, Patrick Conner of The Big Carrot Natural Food Market, a worker owned food co-op in Toronto, and Mark Squire of Good Earth in Fairfax, CA. The Big Carrot Membership had already voted in 2001 to research the ingredients in every single food item in the store, in order to kick out products with GMOs. Devoting hundreds of labor hours in research, they learned first hand how valuable a uniform standard for non-GMO labeling would be and how urgently a standard was needed. Mark Squire of Good Earth had worked on the creation of the organic standards and applied his experience in helping to build the new standard for non-GMOs. Mark was also a leader in the successful ballot initiative that banned the planting of GMOs in Marin County, California.

At the Craig Winters meeting, Michael Funk was the unofficial ringleader. In fact, he had been organizing and funding natural food industry efforts against GMOs ever since I started on this issue in 1996. Michael is Chairman and founder of United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI), the largest natural foods distributor. He has distributed GMO books and films to his staff, hosted GMO speakers at company sponsored events, and provides industry updates on GMOs at the Expos. UNFI distributes our Institute’s Non-GMO Shopping Guide and GMO Health Risks brochures for free to retailers, and I have spent many hours in discussion with Michael configuring strategies and sharing updates.

Some of those discussions occurred in the fall of 2006. At the time, we wanted the Non-GMO Project to be embraced by the whole industry, but Michael knew that it first needed to expand beyond just a retailer initiative; other stakeholders needed to be represented. Selection of the new board members, he said, was key. They had to be leaders of high integrity, already committed to fighting GMOs, and able to rally the rest of the industry. That’s when the remaining members of Craig’s initial Expo meeting got tapped.

Arran Stephens, CEO and founder of Nature’s Path, was among them. In the preface of my book Seeds of Deception, Arran wrote, “We are now in the middle of the largest feeding experiment in history and we human beings are the guinea pigs.” His commitment to a non-GMO future is rooted in his spirituality, which is the mainstay of his life. For many years, Arran made sure that Nature’s Path products boldly proclaimed Non-GMO on their packaging. But when a giant Canadian food chain declared that they would not allow any products in their stores with such a label, Arran came up with a brilliant alternative. Although Nature’s path removed the sentence from the outside of their cereal boxes, they actually printed a complete advertisement against GMOs on the four inside walls! Bravo, Arran.

Nature’s Path has always tested their products for GMOs, and when the Non-GMO Project began and introduced even more stringent testing, the company signed up immediately. Nature’s Path has always been organic, always independent (for two generations now) and always a trailblazer.   (Dag Falck, Organic Program Manager at Nature’s Path, is now the current Nature’s Path representative on the Non-GMO Project Board.)

It takes about 60 seconds in the presence of Michael Potter, CEO of Eden Foods, to realize that he’s nobody’s yes man. Michael’s a radical, say-what’s-on-your-mind kind of guy, and has been the committed food cop at his company, making absolutely sure his products meet stringent standards—particularly non-GMO. Long before the Non-GMO Project came along, Eden Foods had a stringent, state of the art “Identity Preservation Program” in place, where they tested and documented the non-GMO status of all their ingredients. Michael was quite happy to see the Non-GMO Project come online, so that other companies with loose standards would have to tighten their act.

Grant Lundberg, CEO of Lundberg Family Farms, is a well-respected family farmer and businessman. He had been quietly educating other rice growers about GMO risks, who came to appreciate his foresight in 2006, after GM rice contamination caused hundreds of millions of dollars of damage to the US rice industry. Grant knows first-hand the need for tight segregation standards, and the cost of contamination.

The business card of Organic Valley’s George Siemon says CIEIO (say that out loud). George is the one who said no to Wal-mart. That’s right. He turned down the chance for his milk to continue to be sold in the largest retail chain because he wouldn’t have enough to sell through the smaller outlets that had grown up with his co-op. Organic Valley (OV) has been rushing to embrace all the best and greenest practices, including the complex task of verifying the non-GMO status of all the feed sources for all its co-op members.

I have spoken at company or company-sponsored meetings of every one of these board members. I have seen first hand that they are not only the vanguard of non-GMO food brands, but are also implementing a range of other policies and systems that walk their green talk. I’ve stood on the roof in UNFI’s Rocklin warehouse, for example, looking at a humongous solar panel system, which powers their huge deep freeze unit. Nature’s Path offers downsized packaging of cereals for a better eco-footprint. Organic Valley has implemented on-farm energy sourcing and asks its farmer members to implement a comprehensive list of healthy, green practices.

Three other board members who were not at Craig’s meeting but who are non-GMO pioneers include Whole Foods Market, John Fagan, and Megan Westgate.

Whole Foods Market’s seat on the Non-GMO Project Board is represented by Joe Dickson, the company’s Quality Standards Coordinator. I was first made aware of the company’s non-GMO position by Whole Foods Market’s Vice President of Quality Standards & Public Affairs, Margaret Wittenberg. She was an icon in the mandatory GMO labeling fight back when I started in 1996. She, along with Michael Funk, were at the forefront of organizing the industry to take a stand for labeling—working with the now defunct Mothers for Natural Law. Four years later, I witnessed the ripple effect throughout the natural food industry when Whole Foods committed to working with all of its own private label (store brand) products from non-GMO sources. They have since enrolled these products in the Non-GMO Project, which has meant that hundreds of their suppliers, co-packers, ingredient providers, and processors also got enrolled. Their multi-million dollar expenditure has made it much easier for smaller brands to also get verified non-GMO, since many of them use the same supporting vendors that are now enrolled.

Also on the board is John Fagan, PhD, whose integrity on the genetics issue was made clear to the world in 1994 when gave back NIH grant money worth over $1.32 million. This unprecedented move, which was trumpeted in media worldwide, was due to John’s concerns that his pioneering cancer DNA work would provide tools that could later be used to genetically engineer humans with inheritable “designer” traits. John also developed the first testing methods that could identify food and grain as GMO or non-GMO. This alone allowed countries and companies alike to finally say no to GMOs, and formed the basis for the continuing global fight.

In Megan Westgate’s previous role as the Outreach Coordinator at the Food Conspiracy Co-op in Tucson, she was in charge of a program that 95% of Americans say they are in favor of—labeling GMOs. Every single item in the store had a shelf tag that indicated the GMO risk for its ingredients. This monumental and very challenging task made it abundantly clear that a coordinated effort with a universal non-GMO standard was essential. When she learned about the Non-GMO Project, she saw it as the obvious solution. She became a volunteer, and is now the Executive Director. Megan has used amazing skill at accommodating diverse opinions on this hot topic. She not only fields input from a wide variety of stakeholders, she also has to reign in the board, the fiercely independent titan’s of the natural food industry. (I’m so glad I don’t have her job.)

As you can see, these board members ain’t too shabby. And now we are seeing the fruits of their labors, with thousands of products enrolled, and hundreds of retailers more engaged in GMO consumer education than ever before.

One of the best things about my job is that I get to meet some fantastic world leaders and visionaries, who are setting the trends for a healthier future. I’m glad to have taken this time to introduce you to a few of the gems I’ve found. And I hope that you, like I, can feel good that those at the helm of one of the most important food organizations of our time are worthy of your confidence.

Safe eating,