Honesty in GMOs With Megan Westgate
Megan Westgate is the founding director of the Non-GMO Project, a non-profit organization offering North America’s only third party standard and verification program for non-GMO foods. An avid baker, gardener and yoga practitioner, Megan’s mission in life is to ￼protect our food supply, and empower people to nourish themselves body, mind and spirit. She lives on a 5-acre homestead in Bellingham, Washington, where she and her husband Noah raise chickens, turkeys and lots of vegetables.
GMO labeling is mandated in 62 countries around the world — but not yet nationally in the United States. One solution for transparency is the Non-GMO Project’s third-party verification, which communicates to consumers what foods do not include GMOs. Megan Westgate gives her insight on the need for honesty in GMO products.
Douglas Gayeton: What are some of the challenges of GMO-free verification?
Megan Westgate: We specifically claim “Non-GMO Project” verified. This title means that we, as a third party, have verified the that this product meets our rigorous and processed-based standards. The challenge of staying GMO free is that it’s not a legally or scientifically defensible claim to promise that something has zero GMOs. This would require you to test that entire product. If you tested all of it, there would be nothing left to go back in the box. Therefore, claiming something is “Non-GMO Project” verified is the most accurate way to capture that there is the process in place.
The California ballot initiative Prop 37, which was designed to enforce GMO labeling practices in California, failed in 2012. Why do you think that’s the case?
The reason that Prop 37 didn’t pass was because it was outspent more than 5 to 1. If you look at the last election nationwide, in every contest where the results’ spending is 5 to 1 or greater, the money always wins. The “No on 37” campaign was spending one million dollars a day on TV ads for a month leading up to the election. The other side was a grassroots movement that didn’t have that kind of spending power. Unfortunately, a lot of the information being funded was misinformation. The public was misled about the implications of the labeling. Interestingly, none of the “No on 37” ads talk about GMO. It was an evasive and misleading campaign with $46 million behind it. In light of the massive outspending, it’s notable that the Proposition 37 only lost by a little over two points. More than 6 million Californians voted in favor of it, which set a strong foundation for future state and federal efforts.
Douglas: One of the arguments was that it would raise the cost of food. Is that true?
Megan: No. I think this is such an interesting argument because all that Prop 37 said was that food containing GMOs would be labeled. It costs hardly anything to change a label. Companies change their labels all the time, and the proposition allowed them 18 months to incorporate the new language on packaging. In that time span, most companies would be doing package redesigns anyway. The argument that change would increase food cost makes the assumption that if labeling were required, companies would formulate GMOs out of their products. The reason for this assumption is based on what happened in Europe. When GMO labeling was mandated, all the major conventional producers formulated GMOs out of their products. That’s where the cost would potentially come in: if the food companies decided they would rather have non-GMO ingredients than to have to admit they were using GMO ingredients. In that case, there would be extra costs, but Prop 37 wasn’t requiring that. It was simply requiring honesty on labels. The United States is one of the only developed countries in the world that doesn’t already have this. There are 62 countries with mandatory labeling, like China, Russia and Syria. It’s really outrageous we don’t have that same level of information about the food we’re eating and feeding our families in the United States.
Introduction to Labeling & Certification
Less than a generation ago, asking what’s in our food was unnecessary—back then, food was food. Today, the proliferation of industrial farming and the commercialization of our food supply has raised serious concerns about the ingredients in the products we are feeding our loved ones and ourselves.
Thankfully, many manufacturers and producers have responded to customer demand for transparency, traceability and accountability. There are a variety of certifications to shed light on our food—not only how it was made (Organic, Non-GMO Project Verified, Certified Humane, Demeter), but the core values behind the companies who made it (B-Corp, Fair Trade, Connected Markets, Veggie Libel Law). These seals are empowering consumers and adding credibility to conscientious food producers. By establishing clear quality standards, they provide identifiable differentiators, serve to ease market transactions and increase market efficiencies.
Third-party verification helps consumers navigate crowded grocery shelves, giving shoppers the information they need to trust their product choices. By providing standard setting (level of quality requirements), (objective measure of compliance), certification (evaluation of attributes) and enforcement (penalization of fraudulent claims), meaningful labeling programs streamline production with established requirements, providing reliability and consistency. Ultimately, meaningful certification programs have a positive impact on environmental and social causes and allow consumers to shop with greater confidence.