Posted on December 3, 2019 by Sustainable Food News

Food certifier drops non-GMO equivalence 3 years after tolerance change

Non-GMO Project's Westgate says 'can’t afford to get distracted by what many of us in this work refer to as circular firing squad'

Sustainable food and agriculture certification group A Greener World (AGW) said Monday it will no longer accept equivalence with the Non-GMO Project’s GMO tolerance level for seeds used to grow livestock feed – more than three years after NGP had changed its standard.

Terrebonne, Ore.-based AGW, which is funded by public donations and membership, administers five food certification labels: Certified Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Grassfed by AGW, Certified Organic by AGW, Certified Non-GMO by AGW and the recently launched Salmon Welfare Certified by AGW.

Bellingham, Wash.-based NGP’s Product Verification Program is a third-party verification and labeling program. The nonprofit’s popular “Butterfly” seal is the fastest growing label in the natural products industry, representing more than $26 billion in annual sales, and more than 50,000 verified products under 3,000 brands.

AGW said the problem stems from the NGP’s decision in early 2016 to raise the GMO tolerance level for seeds used to grow livestock feed from 1.5 percent to 5 percent. AGW also said it takes issue with NGP permitting the “intentional dilution of non-GMO feed with genetically modified feed.”

AGW said its own standards permit contamination at 0.9 percent and forbids known contamination. AGW said “continuing to allow equivalence with a lower standard would put its integrity (and that of its certified producers) at risk.”

“As a nonprofit dedicated to transparency in food labels, we were disappointed with [NGP’s] lowered standards,” said Andrew Gunther, AGW’s executive director. “We recognize that contamination of non-GMO products is a challenge, but we’re never going to solve the problem by lowering our standards for what ‘GMO’ actually means. Where does that logic end? If an egg can be called ‘Non-GMO’ while the hen is knowingly fed GMO grains, this flies in the face of consumer trust and is out of sync with what people expect from a non-GMO label. We make this decision regretfully, but when the choice is between real change and the appearance of change, we will always choose the former.”

NGP founder and executive director, Megan Westgate, told Sustainable Food News on Wednesday that she is “a bit puzzled by the AGW announcement” given that NGP “has not changed our threshold for livestock feed since before AGW even launched their non-GMO certification in May 2016.”

Today, Westgate says the NGP’s “biggest concern right now is the proliferation of new GMOs that aren’t testable at all (i.e. for which an action threshold isn’t relevant and other certification mechanisms must be employed). At this moment, there are varieties of both GMO canola and soy that are being marketed and sold as non-GMO (including for use as animal feed), even though they have been created using biotechnology techniques like gene editing.”

Westgate said NGP is the “only certifier with explicit Standards requirements regarding products of new biotechnology techniques, we don’t recognize equivalency with any other programs.”

As far as AGW dropping equivalency with NGP, Westgate suggested industry stakeholders “with a genuine shared interest in preserving non-GMO supply chains need to work together to be educated and rigorous with regard to these new GMO products; now more than ever we really can’t afford to get distracted by what many of us in this work refer to as ‘the circular firing squad.'”

Meanwhile, AGW said it informed certified producers earlier this year of its new policy “and has worked since to smoothly transition away from relying on [NGP] equivalence.” New AGW applicants are also being made aware of the new policy.

A request was not immediately returned for more information from AGW regarding when it informed its certified producers that it would no longer allow equivalence with the Non-GMO Project’s standard and when the cut-off date for AGW certified producers to get compliant with the new policy.

The Certified Non-GMO by AGW label guarantees food is produced without the use of genetically modified feed, supplements or ingredients, “and ensures that at no point in the growing, processing or manufacturing of the product will GMOs enter the system,” AGW said. The Certified Non-GMO by AGW label is available to feed producers, packaged goods, and a range of other products at risk from contamination by genetically modified ingredients.

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