Ken Roseboro was born in 1954 in Camden, New Jersey. He is editor of The Organic & Non-GMO Report and The Non-GMO Sourcebook, member of the Iowa Organic Association, member of the design team of the Regenerative Supply Working Group and board member of Soil Technologies Corporation. Ken is an expert on the organic and Non-GMO United States market.
Since the first edition of your work in 2001, how did the non genetically modified (Non-GMO) food perception evolved?
The perception and consumer awareness of non-GMO has grown tremendously since 2001. When I first started The Organic & Non-GMO Report in 2001, non-GMO was not a well-known term. It was familiar to the food industry and consumers in Europe and Japan but not in the United States. The average U.S. consumer was not at all familiar with the term “non-GMO.” A few organic and natural food companies in the U.S. were using the terms “non-GMO” or “GMO-free” but they were the vast minority.
Since the early 2000s, awareness of non-GMO has grown tremendously as more U.S. consumers raised concerns about GM foods
Today, the Non-GMO Project butterfly logo is seen on mainstream U.S. food products. The Project logo is so widely used now that according to one survey 76 percent of Americans saying they either look for it when buying foods, are familiar with it but don’t consider it when buying foods, or have seen it but don’t know what it means.
Which were the motivations behind the publishing of The Organic & Non-GMO Report?
I was motivated to start The Organic & Non-GMO Report by my passion to stop GM foods. I had worked at a GMO testing laboratory in Iowa in 1990 writing articles for trade magazines about the lab’s GMO testing services. I learned a lot about GM foods and non-GMO certification working at the lab. But at one point, the lab was cutting back, my contract working for the company ended and I was laid off. I was unhappy about that because I felt a sense of mission working for the lab.
But getting laid off turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it led me to start the publication, which was a much better and more fulfilling career path for me. My background is in writing and journalism and I put those skills to good use publishing my Report. At first, the publication was called The Non-GMO Source but a few years later I added “organic” to the title because organic is closely aligned with non-GMO in that the organic rules prohibit the use of GMOs.
We have been publishing The Organic & Non-GMO Report for 19 years now and have helped increase U.S. consumer and food industry awareness of GM foods and the importance of non-GMO foods. I think we’ve played an important role in driving the demand for non-GMO foods.
We also publish an annual directory called The Non-GMO Sourcebook. This contains suppliers of non-GMO and organic seeds, grains, ingredients, animal feed, and food products. It is the only “farm to fork” directory of non-GMO products in the world. This has helped farmers find non-GMO seeds, food companies find non-GMO grains and ingredients. The Sourcebook puts all the non-GMO suppliers in one convenient directory and an online searchable database.
Why Non-GMO is so important in the US?
Non-GMO is important because it gives consumers who want to avoid GM foods options to buy non-GMO. According to a 2018 survey by the Hartman Group, 46 percent of Americans avoid GM foods. So they are looking for non-GMO options. A more recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 51 percent of Americans think that GM foods are worse for your health than non-GMO foods.
Clearly, a large percentage of Americans consider non-GMO important
And the fact that major food brands and companies such as Danone, General Mills, Frito Lay, and others are getting products Non-GMO Project Verified shows they know that consumers think this is important.
Isn’t the same as organic but it’s a big step for farmers and consumers, right? (Comparing to Europe where Non-GMO it’s now not so known / used).
Yes, non-GMO is not the same as organic. Non-GMO focuses on one thing, eliminating GMOs while organic is a holistic food production system that also prohibits pesticides and addresses other aspects such as soil health, water quality, and biodiversity.
Non-GMO is a big step for farmers and consumers. U.S. farmers are struggling these days with low prices for grains such as corn and soybeans. There is also the trade war with China, which caused farmers to lose their biggest market for soybeans. Farmers can grow non-GMO corn or soybeans and earn a premium price. The cost for non-GMO seed is about one-half of the cost of GM seed so this saves farmers money.
While GM seeds still dominate U.S. corn and soybean production, many U.S. farmers are growing non-GMO seeds to earn more money and cut costs
For consumers, as I mentioned before, non-GMO gives them clear options to buy foods without GM ingredients. Many U.S. consumers value this option as evidenced by the growth of the Non-GMO Project.
What have been the most relevant trends for organic the past two years in the US? Are they different for Non-GMO?
One of the biggest trends for organic that I’ve seen is major food companies trying to get more farmers to grow organic grains. For example, General Mills, which is one of the largest U.S. food companies, aims to double the organic acreage it buys grain from. The company also purchased a 34,000 acre (84,014 hectares) organic farm in 2018 that it plans to convert to organic. Major U.S. wheat miller Ardent Mills also aims to double its organic wheat production. Last year, brewing giant Anheuser-Busch announced an initiative to increase its production of organic barley for the company’s popular Michelob Ultra Pure Gold beer brand. In February, Anheuser-Busch launched another initiative to help increase organic farming in the U.S.
These initiatives are starting to produce results because the amount of organic field crop (corn, soybeans, wheat) acreage in the U.S. increased 13 percent in 2019. There were also 14 percent more organic field crop operations in 2019.
This trend is different for non-GMO. The amount of land for production of non-GMO corn and soybeans has remained the same for several years. GM corn and soybeans account for 90 percent of the corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. each year. So non-GMO corn and soybean production is about 10 percent of that, and that number has been steady for several years.
Unfortunately, it is sometimes hard for farmers to buy non-GMO seeds because some major seed companies only sell GM seeds. So, in some cases, farmers have no choice but to buy the GM seeds. Though there are some smaller seed companies that have emerged to sell non-GMO corn and soybean seeds for farmers.
And which ones do you expect to be booming this 2020?
The biggest trend I see in agriculture and food in the U.S. is regenerative agriculture, which focuses on soil health. A growing number of conventional U.S. farmers are adopting practices such as no-till or no ploughing, cover crops, and diverse crop rotations to build soil health.
Research is showing that these regenerative or conservation practices help to sequester atmospheric carbon to mitigate climate change
This is a big trend in both conventional and organic agriculture. With growing concerns about climate change, science is discovering that healthy soil can play a big role in mitigating climate change. There are efforts underway to encourage farmers to adopt regenerative agricultural practices. Major food companies such as Danone and General Mills are stepping up to increase the adoption of regenerative practices by farmers and to conduct research on how regenerative practices increase soil health.
Of course, organic farmers already employ soil health practice such as diverse crop rotations and cover crops. A new certification program, Regenerative Organic Certification, has emerged to encourage organic farmers to take further steps to build soil health. Some organic farmers and food companies have begun to be certified through this program.
Conventional and organic farmers have often been at odds and disagreed about their practices over the years. There’s been some tension there. But soil health is something that both types of farmers can literally find common ground on. It’s a very good thing.
I’ve seen some conventional farmers move toward organic using regenerative practices. They didn’t intend to go organic but now that they are almost organic some have decided to go all the way and transition.
Regenerative agriculture is a big trend I see continuing this year and for the next few years. I think it will be a long-term trend that farmers in other countries adopt, which I think is already happening.
How different are the Non-GMO and the organic market in the US?
I would say there are similarities between the two. The markets attract people who want healthier food without GMOs and pesticides.
The two markets converge also. I believe that about one-half of the Non-GMO Project Verified products are also certified organic. So many people look for both labels.
In fact, a recent survey by Linkage Research found that USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) Organic and Non-GMO Project Verified are the two most recognized seals by U.S. consumers. This is by far.
Unfortunately, there is some tension between the two markets, particularly with supporters of organic food who say that the non-GMO label hurts sales of organic food. That if a consumer is given a choice between an organic product and a non-GMO verified product, they may choose the non-GMO product. This is because many organic consumers don’t know that the organic rules prohibit the use of GMOs, which is surprising.
Some U.S. organic certifiers have developed logos that say “Organic is non-GMO and more” to help educate consumers
Meanwhile, supporters of the non-GMO label say that non-GMO is a “gateway” to organic, that it will lead more consumers to buy organic. A consumer will buy a non-GMO product but then may want foods with a more comprehensive certification such as organic.
The Non-GMO market works more similar to the organic market or to the natural?
I would say that non-GMO is a more specialized market like organic. But while organic in the U.S. is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program, the Non-GMO Project is a private initiative that is not regulated by the government. Some industry members think that non-GMO should be regulated by the government as organic is but that hasn’t happened and isn’t likely to. Organic has a national definition or standard while there is no national standard for non-GMO. The Non-GMO Project has become the defacto national standard for non-GMO because it is by far the most widely used non-GMO standard.
The natural market is not regulated at all and there is no certification for “natural” products
Food companies make natural claims on products that aren’t natural at all but they can do this because there is no regulation. The term “natural” means nothing and more consumers are becoming aware and skeptical about products labeled “natural.”
There have been lawsuits against companies that make natural claims so some companies may stop using natural claims to avoid being sued.
Do specialized natural & organic retailers play a key role in the US food market? Why / How?
Yes, specialized natural and organic retailers play a key role in the U.S. food market. They provide an important source for the millions of Americans who buy organic and non-GMO foods. According to a survey by Nielsen, 82% of Americans have bought organic foods.
Specialized natural and organic retailers were the first stores to offer organic and natural products and they continue to offer them. Natural and organic retailers fill the important niche.
Organic and natural food stores have helped grow the market for organic, natural, and non-GMO foods, particularly national retail chains like Whole Foods Market, Sprouts, and Natural Grocers.
But interestingly, large U.S. conventional supermarket chains like Kroger’s, Safeway, and others also sell a lot of organic foods. Some of these chains have their own organic and natural brands such as Kroger’s Simple Truth brand, which includes 1,400 organic, natural, and non-GMO products. Sales of Simple Truth products topped $2 billion in 2018.
The Organic & Non-GMO Report
Since 2001, The Organic & Non-GMO Report has been the only monthly news magazine focusing on threats posed by genetically modified foods and the fast-growing trend toward non-GMO and organic foods. The Organic & Non-GMO Report helps educate consumers about health and environmental risks of GM foods and offers information and resources on non-GMO grains, ingredients, animal feed, and foods.
- Check out The Organic & Non-GMO Report website: non-gmoreport.com
Another publication, The Non-GMO Sourcebook, is the world’s only “farm to fork” directory of non-GMO seeds, grains, ingredients, feed, and food products. The annual publication features more than 750 suppliers of non-GMO and organic products along with related services and product.
- Check out The Non-GMO Sourcebook website: nongmosourcebook.com
Author: Oriol Urrutia, Co-Editor.
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