Certified organic equals non-GMO, right? Well, some 90% of organic consumers assume this to be the case—but as UNFI Chairman Michael Funk explained to a full ballroom during the 2010 Organic Summit in Boston, organic consumers are technically wrong in this instance. That's because the presence of genetically modified ingredients is not currently addressed in the National Organic Program (NOP). “Organic is still the best way to avoid GMOs, but organic products still need to be verified to the non-GMO process,” Funk said.

Thus began an at-times heated discussion about the non-GMO verification program and how this program fits or conflicts with organic certification. Funk, a member of the Non-GMO Project’s board of directors described to Organic Summit attendees a rather scary picture of how much genetically modified ingredients have infiltrated the U.S. food market—75 percent to 80% of conventional processed food contains GMOs, according to data from the Grocery Manufacturers Association—and urged the organic advocates in attendance to band together to halt the GMO contamination of additional organic seeds. “GMO wheat is on the horizon,” Funk said. “Imagine what [the introduction of this genetically modified product] could do to the organic industry. We need to raise awareness now to help fight future GMO crop introductions.”

An Unfair ‘Halo Effect’?

Although the organic industry as a whole is certainly against GMOs, some take exception to the fact that the Non-GMO Project’s verified logo can be used on both organic and conventional products. One attendee told Funk that she believes this unfairly extends the same “halo effect” to organic and non-organic offerings. “To make them equal [in the eyes of the Non-GMO Project] discounts the multiple benefits of organic,” the woman said.

Matthew Dillon of the organization Seed Matters also publicly rebuked some aspects of the Non-GMO verification program. By promoting yet another label logo, the Non-GMO Project is helping to further confuse consumers, Dillon said. He also noted that the organization’s current use of GMO contamination thresholds (a product needs to be 99.1 percent free of GMO contamination to earn the logo) is undermining the larger fight against GMO giant Monsanto.

Funk countered this argument with two points: First, the Non-GMO Project was necessarily designed not to verify that a product contains absolutely no GMOs but rather that it is verified to undergo a non-GMO process. The second is that the acceptance of thresholds enables “commerce to continue,” while the industry works to protect non-GMO seed and eventually achieve 100 percent non-GMO compliance.

The cost of the testing required to earn the Non-GMO Project Verified logo was also a hot topic during this Organic Summit education session. Depending on whether a product contains at-risk ingredients—such as corn, soy or sugar—the cost can be minimal or much more substantial, said Funk, who acknowledged that any added expense can be difficult to bear in the current environment. “We have all gone through a tough economic period and it’s tough to take on new costs,” he said. “But what will the cost be to not proactively keep GMOs out of the organic industry?”