When Does Non-GMO Food Matter?
We are so excited that our dog treats are finally here! That’s right: made-in-the-USA, vegetarian, Non-GMO Project Verified Dog Treats, made with a tasty peanut butter flavor that dogs love!
Why do we say “finally”? Anyone who has developed and launched new products knows that almost everything takes longer than expected. But one thing we didn’t anticipate was the lengthy process of getting our treats Non-GMO Project Verified. Here’s the inside scoop on why it was a difficult process and why it matters to us.
What is GMO food?
Understanding why we wanted our dog treats to be Non-GMO Project Verified requires some familiarity with GMOs (genetically modified organisms).
GMOs have been the topic of significant debate for decades. This type of science—bioengineering—is quite a fascinating field, if you think about it: can we make food grow faster, or bigger, or make it more resistant to disease, insects, and weeds? The intent has been noble, for the most part: let’s figure out how to make more food per acre of land to feed more people more efficiently. Farmers have been doing this on their own since the beginning, saving the seeds of those hardier plants to produce higher yields. (Watch the recently released movie Percy vs. Goliath, with Christopher Walken, to learn more about how the issue of genetically modified seeds has played out on farms!)
But GMOs are different from simply hybridizing plants. Indeed, the US Department of Agriculture defines GMO foods as those “that contain detectable genetic material that has been modified through certain lab techniques and cannot be created through conventional breeding or found in nature.” Scientists monkeying around with the genes of our food—nature—has led to a host of fears about GMOs.
Are GMOs safe for our pets to eat?
It’s safe to say that we, and our pets, have been unknowingly eating genetically modified food in almost every meal. Has that affected our health? Possibly, but the available research has not found much conclusive evidence. Food writer Russ Parsons, even while defending GMO foods, says, “You never know for sure, because you can’t prove a negative.”
One safety issue is the amount of glyphosate—the primary weedkiller ingredient found in Roundup—that is found in our food supply. The World Health Organization classifies glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen; at the same time, the EPA says that “there are no risks of concern to human health when glyphosate is used in accordance with its current label.” Confused? Read on.
What’s good about GMOs?
One of the keys to understanding the controversy around GMOs is that they are not all the same. McKay Jenkins (p. 23) writes that there are only four kinds of genetically engineered plants currently approved for agricultural use:
- Those (like Roundup Ready soybeans) that tolerate herbicides
- Those (like Bt corn) engineered to produce their own insecticide
- Those (like Plenish soybeans) made to have healthier nutritional components, and
- Those designed to resist viruses
It’s hard to argue against the cases where GMOs are truly beneficial: genetically modified papayas in Hawaii, for example, were developed to resist a deadly virus, and it is credited with saving the papaya farming industry on the island. But, as Jenkins writes (p. 196), “Indeed, for every plant scientist who sees GMOs as a powerful tool to feed the world, there is a scientist, or an activist, worried that the genetic technology will simply speed up the processes of industrial agriculture that are already in place.”
What’s the problem with GMOs?
For Project Hive Pet Company, it’s pretty straightforward: see #1 and #2 above. GMO crops use a ton of pesticides and herbicides, killing all things living except for the one plant that has been designed to resist those chemicals. Some of those “weeds” are habitats for pollinators. Some of those insects are bees. This Huffington Post article reports that glyphosate has been found in honey (honey made by bees). Our mission is to save the bees, so we want to make sure our treats do not support a system that is harmful to bees.
We also value and support transparency. For businesses and organizations to be truly sustainable, we need to look at our ingredients, manufacturing processes, packaging, materials, transportation, etc. and consider the impact of our operations on our ecosystem. We believe transparency empowers consumers to make better choices, and that’s why we continue to pursue trustworthy certification programs like the Non-GMO Project.
Where can I find GMO food?
GMO foods are everywhere! The FDA says that “it is very likely you are eating foods and food products that are made with ingredients that come from GMO crops.” According to the NonGMO Project, the following crops are labeled “high risk” for GMOs:
- Sugar beet
- Summer squash
Additionally, common derivatives of some of these crops are labeled as high-risk:
- Corn syrup
- Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
- Monosodium glutamate
- Textured vegetable protein
- Citric acid
- Xantham gum
- Vitamin C and Vitamin E
The next group is animals and animal-derived food. Much of the GMO corn, soy, and alfalfa grown is used for animal feed. These include:
Consumer advocates argue that one of the main problems is disclosure. Food companies do not let you know whether or not the food you’re eating has been genetically modified or “bioengineered.” That’s about to change, thanks to the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, passed in 2018.
Where can I find Non-GMO food?
If you want to avoid GMOs, the first thing to look for is the Non-GMO Project Verified label. Founded in 2007, the Non-GMO Project is “North America’s first and only third-party standard for GMO avoidance.” Their website offers this handy database of products and retailers. And it’s not just a one-time stamp of approval: the Non-GMO Project requires annual renewal, enhancing its credibility.
Another option is to look for the USDA-certified organic label, as the organic certification prohibits the use of GMOs.
Third, understand which crops and crop derivatives (found in processed foods) are primarily GMO from the lists above. If you want to avoid GMOs, choose different types of foods. Wheat, legumes, and nuts, for example, are generally non-GMO.
How do you get Non-GMO Project Verified?
We began this process in the early 2020 with an initial prototype of our line of five dog treats and worked closely with our manufacturing partner until we achieved certification on February 23, 2021. (Our renewal date is 2/22/22!) For more detail, the Non-GMO Project lays out the verification process.
Step 1: Find an Administrator. The first thing we had to do was find a technical administrator to provide unbiased product evaluations. Currently, four companies offer this service; we chose NSF International.
Step 2: Look at All Ingredients. The most important thing to know about Non-GMO Project Verification is that you can’t test a finished product; only individual ingredients can be tested (and many ingredients are not even testable). So, we couldn’t just send them our Hive Chew Sticks, Hive Chew Treats, and Hive Training Treats and ask them to say yes or no. We needed to break them into major ingredients (over 5%), minor ingredients (0.5% - 5.0%), and micro-ingredients (<0.5%). For example, about 3% of our treats are made of honey; the only way to ensure that honey is non-GMO is to source organic honey—which we did!
Step 3: Identify the Risk Level of Ingredients. This Non-GMO Project has identified a list of crops that are at high risk of being genetically modified. The higher the risk level, the higher the scrutiny. If the ingredient is not testable, we needed affidavits from third-party testing, such as a food scientist, to ensure compliance. Our major treat ingredients at high risk of being GMO include potato starch and canola oil, so the onus was on us to prove that these ingredients are not genetically modified. Depending on whether the ingredients are major, minor, or micro; whether they are testable or not; and whether they are high risk, monitored risk, low or non-risk, the Non-GMO Project provides an entire matrix of compliance demonstration…which leads us to…
Step 4: Demonstrate Compliance. This is the most time-consuming part: tracking down the suppliers of every ingredient and sub-ingredient and asking them to provide proof that each ingredient is not genetically modified. If we could not accomplish this, we had to substitute the ingredient. That’s where the art of food science comes into play. Making dog treats that are delicious, nutritious, hold together throughout the manufacturing process, and are shelf-stable, is not an easy task. We went through multiple rounds of prototyping to get it right. While time-consuming, detail-oriented, and sometimes maddeningly difficult, this process gave us a new appreciation for the Non-GMO Project Verified label and its overall trustworthiness.
Mark Fields, our Project Hive Team member who helped shepherd us through this process, says it has been eye-opening. “Getting Non-GMO Project Verified—you’d think it wouldn’t be a problem, but we live in a world of manufactured food. The unfortunate piece is that GMOs have become so prevalent that you have to go to this level of scrutiny to make this happen. It’s clearly a challenge to find non-GMO ingredients.” Now, given the prevalence of GMO food, he actively seeks out the Non-GMO Butterfly label—for his own consumption as well as for his adorable puppy, Kola!
In fact, our whole team has been impacted by this process. Now, as consumers, we wholeheartedly support other Non-GMO Project Verified brands. As a business, we hope that our work with our suppliers will help advance the prevalence of non-GMO food and supply chain transparency. And as advocates, we hope to #BuildtheHive towards a more sustainable future. Let’s make our planet thrive—one happy dog and countless bees at a time!
Research & References
Food Fight: GMOs and the Future of the American Diet by McKay Jenkins (Penguin, 2017)