At the Sustainable Food Summit in San Francisco, I had the chance to sit down with Kenneth Ross, CEO of Global ID Group, Inc., a global leader in the testing and certification of non-GMO through its Genetic ID and Cert ID subsidiaries. Ross talked about Global ID’s Non-GMO Project, the challenges of GMO testing and future trends, like “crowd-certing.” Not sure what that is? You’ll have to read on to find out.
Triple Pundit: Can you tell me about the Non-GMO Project and what the label entails?
Kenneth Ross: The Non-GMO Project is a consortium of people in the natural and organic product industry that got together and really looked at the issue of the creeping contamination of organic products with GMOs and the idea that there were some gaps in the [USDA] National Organic Program standards – for organic particularly – that allowed for accidental contamination of products. The net result is that over the last 10-15 years even though people were trying to be good practitioners of organic, in many cases contamination was creeping into the supply chain. So everyone got together and we formed a multi-stakeholder project – farmers, feed suppliers, retailers, manufacturers – and created standards for a much more rigorous definition of what non-GMO would actually mean. One of the issues was that there were something like 200 non-GMO claims in the industry with nothing standing behind them; no one knew what they were based on or if there was any verification to those claims. … It took several years to get that [program] up and running and today we have about 4,000 thousand products enrolled and about another 4,000 we’re expecting in the next year so I think you’re going to start to see more and more of the non-GMO project verified seal on products and you really know what that means – that that product went through a very, very rigorous evaluation.
3p: What challenges do you face regarding the accuracy of testing for GMOs?
KR: Well there is a limit of detection, which is 1/100th of 1% – you really can’t test below that so you can never actually call a product fully GMO-free. We can test up to the point of one seed in a group of 10,000 we can tell whether it’s GMO or not but below that, we can’t, but that’s pretty good. So for the most part we can tell if things are clean or not. But several big issues are coming up in terms of technology. One is that lesser developed countries are developing GMOs now and those countries don’t follow even the fairly weak processes of biotech companies in more developed countries. For example, there are GMOs being released in which the company’s not telling anyone what the gene sequences of those GMOs are so you need that in order to develop a test for it. There are ways – and we’re working on doing that in our own R&D department – but it’s very time consuming and expensive to find it. One issue is the proliferation of the technology to develop GMOs and then less standardization of them and cooperation, letting people know what’s out there in the marketplace. Today, we can test for every known, commercialized GMO in the world but we’re not sure if we’ll be able to do that in the future. There’s one more issue I’d mention and that’s something called stacked trait. In the past, GMOs would tend to have one trait like herbicide resistance and most GMOs have what’s called a promoter gene or a terminator gene and if you found that promoter gene, and you knew exactly what it looked like, then you could be sure you had a GMO. But stacked traits can have as many as 6 or 8 different GMO traits in a single plant and, unless you know what you’re testing for, you’re going to see a lot of these promoter genes and it’s going to look like there’s a lot more GMO content which is going to make it much harder to figure out the percentage of GMO contamination.
3p: What technology trends do you see impacting the food industry in the next decade?
KR: There are two general categories: there’s new technologies that can test things that we couldn’t test before. So something called isotope ratio analysis that allows you to do things like: distinguish between farmed and fresh fish; it can tell you if juice was diluted with water or syrup; it can potentially tell whether a piece of food is grown with chemical or non-chemical fertilizer; and it can also tell which region of the world things are grown in so we can use that to verify certain claims about the food that you have. That’s one thing. Another thing is the whole world of information technology, access to databases of ingredients and what those ingredients really are, what they mean, what research is there to say this is possibly carcinogenic, allergenicity…things like that. It’s just going to be pervasive so it’s just a matter of time – my prediction is 3-5 years – before everyone has access to just total information about a product, including social practices behind the ingredients, where they’re made, tracing it back to the farm level. Really knowing “is this something I want to be eating or not?” way beyond “is this organic?” It shifts the power back to the consumer because the consumer always had the power with their purchasing decision to implement what stores will carry or not carry, but they didn’t have the information to make as informed choices as they might soon be able to.
3p: Can you speak about the concept of crowd-certifying or “crowd-certing”?
KR: Yes, I think that as mobile devices become pervasive, not just in the developed world but also in the developing world where there’s something like a billion cell phones out there today – and very big in India and China – there will be people on the ground in places where things are made and things are grown and the idea that you’re going to be able to keep secret practices like slave labor or child labor or overuse of pesticides…it’s going to be very easy for anyone to snitch on you. Given what’s happening with social media and everything else that’s going on, it’s just a matter of time before you just have to assume that there are people watching you and that there are lots of people watching. So basically the world becomes a certification body and you have a standard and you say this is what I do and this is what my principles are and people are going to confirm – outside of your control – whether you’re living up to what you say.
If Ross’ predictions are right, we’ll soon be crowd-funding isotope ratio analyses on all of those products we’ve always second-guessed. I predict that harder than raising the funds will be determining where to start.
Ali Hart is a sustainable communications and engagement strategist with a passion for life’s essentials: food, water and storytelling. Her background in the Entertainment industry, penchant for humor and MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School are Ali’s secret weapons in her quest to master the art of behavior change and to make sustainability inconveniently fun.