A Series about Certifications, part 4 – Non-GMO

Posted on January 13th, 2021

If you’re curious about certifications, this series is for you: Over the course of several blog posts we’ve been exploring some of the existing certifications that are available for specialty green coffee, including taking a look at their mission, standards, and whatever auditing or other requirements that are important for you to know. You can read the previous posts about organicFair Trade/Fairtrade, and Rainforest Alliance by visiting cafeimports.com/blog. 

This fourth post covers the Non-GMO Project Verified Product certification. While this is not a common certification for coffee products, Cafe Imports has held Non-GMO Project certification since 2016 and we thought it might be valuable to share our reasoning and the requirements for this particular mark.  

Non-GMO Project Certification at a Glance  

  • GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are plant and/or animal material that has been genetically altered using biotechnology, outside the bounds of what would be naturally possible.
  • Agricultural products, raw materials, inputs, additives, livestock and animal feed, seeds, and consumer products are eligible for certification, including (but not limited to) corn, soybeans, papaya, canola, cotton, spices, fruit and vegetables, dairy and meat cows, poultry, and both natural and artificial flavorings. 
  • There are no known GMOs in the coffee sector at this time, but coffee may receive Non-GMO Project certification as a low-risk product. 
  • The Non-GMO Project was established in 2007 and formalized in 2010 in order to provide a reputable, reliable, and third-party-verified labeling system for consumers; it has become one of the fastest-growing certifications in the food and beverage commercial market.
  • Verification, certification, and auditing is available for producers, manufacturers, handlers, and retailers, and is overseen by third-party technical administrators. 

What’s a GMO? 

GMO stands for genetically modified organism, and is a term used to describe any organism that has had its genetic material biotechnologically changed in a way that could not naturally occur, and/or in a non–naturally occurring combination.  

“Biotechnology” means that the genetic alteration cannot and would not occur in nature and so is impossible without human intervention, and takes several different forms. One of the primary areas of this type of modification is the combination of cells and DNA material from separate taxonomic families—for instance, using synthetic genes to enhance the production of soybeans, or inserting a gene from rice into tomatoes to create increased tolerance to drought and cold weather.  

While there is cross-breeding and hybridizing done in the coffee sector, this work has not yet crossed taxonomic families, and there are no commercially available GMO coffees on the market. Hybrid coffees are not considered GMOs. Research on GMO coffee has been conducted in limited capacityand those efforts have not resulted in the influx of GMO coffee that some have feared.

The Origins of the Non-GMO Project 

The Non-GMO Project was established by two grocery stores in 2007 as an effort to encourage clear and consistent labeling for consumers with regards to GMO food and other consumer products. At that time, interest in and concern over GMOs had reached a new height, and the companies behind the Project—the Natural Grocery Company in California and the Big Carrot Natural Food Market in Toronto—led a campaign to demand that food and beverage products that contained GMOs were clearly and accurately labeled.

This grass-roots initiative became the Non-GMO Project, and that same year the new nonprofit organization had teamed up with the country’s premier non-GMO product verifying technician service, FoodChain ID, in order to draft a comprehensive set of standards. These standards as well as the Non-GMO Project “butterfly” logo were released in 2010, and the certification has been one of the fastest-growing third-party verified seals in North America, currently associated with more than 50,000 products.

What You Need to Know 

First and foremost, we need to reiterate that coffee is a product with low risk for contamination from GMOs, and consumers will not likely accidentally consume GMO-created coffee, period. The research in that field is still relatively young, but the value of the certification here is in transparency, traceability, and accountability for the coffee sector as well as for the world of commercial agriculture at large.  

High-risk products include commodities such as cotton, soy, corn, canola, sugar beets, and potatoes, among others. Livestock and poultry products are also considered high-risk because they are often fed GMO corn, soy, alfalfa, and other modified products. Wheat, rice, flax, tomatoes, and mushrooms are considered monitored-risk inputs, which require careful attention paid in order to prevent supply-chain contamination. Some of the GMO-derivative products that are commonly found are corn syrup, aspartame and other artificial flavors, MSG, and xanthan gum.  

According to the Non-GMO Projects Standards, products submitted for verification are evaluated by their composition, including any ingredients and/or inputs that are used to create them. These products are assessed based on the percentage (by weight) of various ingredients and inputs in them; the likelihood that any of the products’ components are derived from a GMO; and whether there is a precursor that can be tested against the existing product. The products must maintain their status through continued testing and auditing. 

Products that can be verified include (but are not limited to): seeds and other propagation materials such as seedlings, livestock and poultry, consumer and wholesale goods that are for use by humans and pets, over-the-counter medications and homeopathic treatments, and even products and goods that are non-risk items, such as unflavored packaged beverages (like still and sparkling water) and goods made entirely from salt.  

Additionally, inputs and ingredients that require verification in order to achieve certification include flavorings, seasonings, herbs, seeds, animal-derived products like wool and eggs, and packaging for products that are available for human consumption—including coffee, along with tea and soup. (Remember that organic-, Fair Trade/Fairtrade, and Rainforest Alliance certifications all come with a prohibition on GMO seeds or any other GMO inputs on certified farms.) 

The Project also has strict standards about handling along the chain of custody, and requires traceability for particular activities along that chain, such as product segregation, quality assurance, cleanout, etc.  

Project Verified Products—those which carry the Non-GMO Project seal—must be properly labeled, have systems in place for quality-assurance maintenance, be subject to frequent testing, and have clear traceability along the chain. 

Cafe Imports has held Non-GMO Project certification since 2016 as a way of signaling our position against the use of genetically modified organisms in food development, standing by the statement of the non-GMO project that “the integrity of our diverse genetic inheritance is essential to human and environmental health and ecological harmony.” 

We were the first green-coffee purveyor and are now one of many several coffee companies that has opted to receive and maintain this certification despite the lack of GMOs present in the coffee sector today. Our primary reasoning for this is not only to provide a guarantee to our customers about our rejection of GMOs in coffee, but also to push back against what we see as unfair efforts by the GMO-food industry to block non-GMO labeling in order to confuse, mislead, and take advantage of consumers. 

We commit to never knowingly buy or sell coffee that is classified as GMO, and to maintain our high standards of traceability and integrity with our partners all along the supply chain. Joining us in our efforts are many of our closest producer and export partners, who have also verified their rejection of GMO coffee and help us maintain our certification and the verification of the products we trade together.      

Becoming Certified  

In order to achieve certification, companies must complete registration and submit documentation to a third-party technical administrator, such as FoodChain ID or NSF International, who will review and run any necessary tests on the products being evaluated. This process can take between three and six months, followed by annual audits, at minimum. 

Cost for the certification will vary, but are generally higher for high-risk ingredients (e.g. soy, corn) than with lower-risk ones like coffee. The Non-GMO Project’s administrative costs for product verification are $70 per product.  

Is Non-GMO-Certified Coffee Better? 

There is no quality difference whatever between certified and non-certified coffees in this area, because, again, there are no known GMO coffees. The certification may or may not carry weight with your customers, or integrate into your company values, however; these are more personal decisions. There are many opinions and voices on both sides of the GMO question: Are they beneficial, or are they dangerous? This post is not the place to delve into those conversations, but we encourage our customers to investigate the advantages and drawbacks of GMO development on their own.   

Can I Sell Non-GMO-Certified Coffee? 

The good news is that you’re already selling non-GMO coffee, even though the certification is another story: In order to use the Non-GMO Project’s butterfly logo or to describe the coffee as “certified,” your company would be required to register and comply with the Project’s standards.  

Still have questions? We’re always happy to talk about this or any other certification and compliance! Feel free to reach out to your sales representative or e-mail info@cafeimports.com for more information.