What it means
“GMO” stands for Genetically Modified Organism, and refers to plants, animals or other organisms whose genetic material has been changed in ways that do not occur naturally. The “non-GMO” claim means that the food is made without ingredients that were derived from genetically engineered organisms. For meat, poultry, dairy and eggs, the “non-GMO” claim means animals were not fed a diet containing genetically engineered crops.
For meat and poultry, the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires that companies meet a common standard when claiming to be “Non-GMO” but requires no on-farm inspection or annual paperwork audit.
For processed foods, plant-based foods, eggs, and dairy products, whose labels are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, there is no common standard that companies have to meet for this labeling claim, and no verification is required.
Look for assurance that the claim has been verified. The Non-GMO Project Verified seal, “organic” claim and the USDA Organic seal provide this assurance.
The bottom line: should you look for this labeling claim?
Yes, but look for additional verification.
“Non-GMO” is an important labeling claim because growing foods without GMOs has important environmental and sustainability benefits.
The “Non-GMO” claim isn’t always third-party verified, so look for additional information on the label for assurance that a third party verified the claim. The “organic” label provides this assurance, as do some certification programs like Non-GMO Project Verified.
Look for these seals, for programs with strong standards for Non-GMO:
Several seals that are verified and backed by standards can appear on the label alongside a “Non-GMO” claim. Look for these seals, because they provide assurance that the accompanying “Non-GMO” claim has been verified.
Don't rely on these claims and seals:
Variations of the claim you might see on a label:
Not genetically engineered
Non genetically engineered
Not genetically modified through the use of modern biotechnology
Not genetically modified
What this claim means
“GMO” stands for Genetically Modified Organism, and refers to plants, animals or other organisms whose genetic material has been changed in ways that do not occur naturally. A “Non-GMO” claim on food suggests that all ingredients were derived from plants, animals, or other organisms whose genetic material has not been artificially altered in a laboratory.
GMOs have been grown on a commercial scale in the U.S. since 1996. Today, the seeds used to grow the vast majority of corn, soybeans, rapeseed (to make canola oil) and sugar beets in the U.S. have been genetically engineered to be tolerant to a specific chemical herbicide, glyphosate. Also called herbicide-tolerant crops, these genetically engineered plants can survive the application of herbicides that would otherwise have killed the crops along with the targeted weeds. Due to the problem of weeds becoming resistant to glyphosate, genetically engineered varieties that are resistant to other herbicides have been developed.
Another trait that has been genetically engineered into food crops is pest resistance. These varieties have been genetically engineered with genes from a soil bacterium that produces a protein that is toxic to insects. The genes are modified and inserted into the genetic code of the plants, so that the plant manufactures its own pesticide.
Herbicide tolerance and pest resistance represent over 99% of traits in genetically engineered crops currently on the market.
When Consumer Reports tested processed foods with corn and soy ingredients in 2014, we found that almost all of the processed foods tested that were not labeled as Organic or Non-GMO contained substantial proportions of genetically engineered corn and soy.
Why it matters
Use of toxic herbicides
The most widely grown genetically engineered crop varieties have been engineered to withstand the application of the herbicide glyphosate. Glyphosate is a broad-spectrum herbicide which effectively kills or suppresses all plants, including grasses, perennials, vines, shrubs and trees. With genetically engineered glyphosate-tolerant crops, farmers can spray glyphosate directly on the crops, which would otherwise have been damaged or killed by the herbicide.
The widespread use of glyphosate has led to the emergence of weeds that are resistant to it. As of 2012, roughly half of farms contain at least one glyphosate-tolerant species of weed, with more than a quarter having two or more glyphosate-tolerant weed species. This has led farmers to spray more glyphosate, and spray other herbicides as well, such as 2,4-D and dicamba.
To address the continued development of glyphosate-tolerant weeds, chemical companies have developed a new wave of genetically engineered crops that tolerate the herbicide 2,4-D in addition to glyphosate. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the approval of genetically engineered, 2-4-D-tolerant crops would increase the use of 2,4-D by 200 to 600% by 2020.
Since glyphosate-tolerant crops were introduced commercially in 1996, glyphosate use has risen almost 15-fold globally. U.S. farmers increased herbicide use by an estimated 527 million pounds in the first 15 years of commercial use of genetically engineered, herbicide-tolerant crops.
The intensive and widespread use of glyphosate by farmers has led to environmental pollution with the chemical: researchers found glyphosate in 60 to 100% of air and rain samples measured in Iowa and Mississippi.
Glyphosate may also be harmful to human health. After an extensive review, the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organization classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” in 2015. The decision, which has come under fire from the chemical industry, is based on limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and convincing evidence that glyphosate also can cause cancer in laboratory animals. There is also strong evidence of the potential mechanism of action for how glyphosate may cause cancer, e.g., genotoxicity and oxidative stress. In addition, like glyphosate, 2,4-D has been classified as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
Environmental pollution of glyphosate also affects wildlife. Glyphosate, as an herbicide that damages or kills plants indiscriminately, kills the milkweed plant. Milkweed is the primary food source of monarch butterflies, whose populations have declined drastically over the past decade since the introduction of herbicide-tolerant crops. Studies have linked the decline of monarch populations to the vast increase in glyphosate-tolerant corn throughout the U.S. corn belt.
U.S. government does not require safety testing of genetically engineered crops
Genetic engineering has the potential to introduce allergens and toxins in food crops, change the nutritional value, and create other unintended changes that may affect human health. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require safety testing or safety assessments of GMO crops before they are grown and sold in foods. The FDA invites companies to provide data for a voluntary safety review, but does not require a premarket safety assessment, as is required in other countries such as member states of the European Union, Australia, Japan and China.
Ownership of seed
Biotech corporations can patent genetically engineered seeds and animals. That means corporations can claim ownership of the genetic code, and most important, ownership of the seed. That has eliminated the possibility of continuing the age-old practice of saving seed from this year’s crop for next year’s planting; instead, farmers are required to purchase new seed annually. If a farmer is the victim of “genetic pollution” (pollen from a genetically engineered plant drifts onto his or her field, or seed falls off a truck onto a farm field), it is considered “theft” of a company’s intellectual property, and the company can sue the farmer for patent infringement.
Vast majority of corn, soy, sugar beet and canola acres are planted with genetically engineered (GMO) crops
In 2016, 94% of soybean acreage in the U.S. and 92% of corn acreage was planted with genetically engineered varieties. Most corn and soybeans are used as animal feed, for beef cattle, pigs, chickens, and turkeys raised for food. Another animal feed crop is alfalfa, a perennial crop that is used to make hay as feed for dairy cows and beef cattle. 13% of U.S. alfalfa acres are planted using GMO seeds.
According to the most recent USDA data, 95% of U.S. rapeseed (canola) acres and 99% of sugar beet acres harvested in 2013 were planted with genetically engineered herbicide tolerant plants.
Can you trust the claim? Is it verified?
Sometimes. Government agencies that oversee food labeling allow voluntary “Non-GMO” labels and strongly encourage food manufacturers that voluntarily label their products as “Non-GMO” to have this claim third-party verified. However, this recommendation to have the claim verified is not legally enforceable.
When we tested processed foods with corn and soybean ingredients for GMOs in 2014, we found one product with an unverified “Non-GMO” claim that contained GMO corn at levels much higher than 0.9%.
Consumers should look for the following additional seals or logos accompanying “Non-GMO” claims for assurance that the claim has been verified: Non-GMO Project Verified and USDA Organic.
The foods we tested in 2014 with verified Non-GMO claims, including the USDA Organic seal and Non-GMO Project Verified logo, all met a non-GMO standard of less than 0.9% genetically engineered.
More on verification: