For years Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have been quietly mixed into the US conventional food supply at alarming rates, their existence unknown to most consumers. 2013, however, marked a monumental year when mainstream Americans began to literally wake up and look at the ingredients in their breakfast cereal, and other conventional processed foods, with a more critical eye. Today, according to a recent study from Hartman Group, 33% of mainstream American consumers state that GMOs are one of the top three ingredients they look to avoid when grocery shopping, an increase of 18% since 2007. Marketplace Milestones.

In response to consumer demand, this January, Cheerios, America’s most popular breakfast cereal, declared it would be removing GMOs from its original formula. Post’s GrapeNuts is going a step further and undergoing the Non-GMO Project verification. In fact, more than 15,000 products in the US have now become Non-GMO Project Verified, and sales of these items topped 5 billion last year. Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and Target’s private label line have also joined the non-GMO bandwagon. With the big announcement in March 2013 that Whole Foods will require all GMOs to be labeled by 2018, this rapid growth trajectory is sure to continue.  

The GMO wake up call was sounded via passionate grassroots efforts combined unprecedented media coverage on statewide and national GMO labeling initiatives and hundreds of non-profits and organic companies who helped spread the word. The 102,300-plus members of the consumer activist group GMO Inside were instrumental, posting over 50,000 comments on Cheerios’ Facebook demanding they drop GMOs. “The victory with Cheerios, like the Berlin wall, is symbolic of the beginning of the fall of US consumer acceptance of GMOs,” says John Rulac, co-founder of GMO Inside and CEO and founder of Nutiva. Political Milestones.

On the political side, there was a disappointing loss with the ballot initiative battle in Washington State, but several other positives in the last year. Connecticut and Maine passed GMO labeling legislation (however, other states must also pass similar legislation before these are enacted). Hawaii, which has been a major testing ground for the biotech industry, has passed a ban on the Big Island to prohibit new GMOs from being grown. At the federal level, last April the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, a federal mandatory labeling law, was introduced to the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives. Big Food and Biotech’s Lame Legislative Move.

 All this awareness has made some folks nervous and recently in a desperate attempt to maintain its power hold, the Grocery Manufacturers’ Association circulated a bill which would prohibit state labeling laws and give ultimate power to the FDA to decide on a case by case basis whether or not each new GMO would require federal mandatory labeling. However, since the FDA has refused to label any GMO in the past, what would make them change their mind and start labeling because of this bill? This scheme would also require GMO feed be allowed for dairy products making non-GMO claims. And, even more preposterous, the bill calls on the FDA to regulate the term “natural” and states that this new definition must include allowances for GMOs. “This ‘Hail Mary’ pass comes too late,” says Scott Faber, executive director of Just Label It (JLI), the federal labeling initiative. “Two states have already given consumers the same rights as consumers in 64 other countries, and 20 more states are poised to pass labeling legislation. Now is the time for food companies to work with JLI and others to craft a national mandatory labeling system, not make desperate moves to block states from protecting their consumers from misleading “natural” claims or to tie FDA’s hands in red tape.” Organic = Non-GMO—Plus a Whole Lot More.

Another side effect of this rise in awareness around GMOs is consumer confusion. While all the news about GMOs has led many to seek organic as a non-GMO alternative, other newly conscious consumers are opting for conventionally grown, Non-GMO Verified products versus organic because they don’t realize that organic is required to be grown without GMOs. “With all the interest in GMOs, we want to make consumers aware that organic has always been non-GMO—but that non-GMO alone doesn’t address all their concerns about the food system,” said Laura Batcha, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, at the Sustainable Food Summit in San Francisco. “Non-GMO is just one piece of what organic offers including avoidance of toxic and persistent pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and unbridled synthetic additives.”

In response to this issue, the Organic Trade Association has formed a task force focused on organic as “Non-GMO Plus.” Recent clarifications from the department of Agriculture have also strengthened the US organic industry’s non-GMO claim by extending the random testing requirement for pesticides to now also include testing for GMOs in high risk ingredients. Although consumers still need to be educated on the issue, the fact is that there is a powerful resistance to GMOs building in mainstream marketplace. As America continues to awaken from its GMO food coma, many others will begin to opt out of the GMO experiment and join the conscious consumer movement.