GMO Protest
An environmentalist dressed as a eggplant participates in a protest, outside the Department of Agriculture office in Quezon City, Metro Manila, against the invasion of genetically-modified organisms, or GMO, to mark World Environment Day on June 5, 2012. Reuters/Cheryl Ravelo

Genetically modified organisms are either going to solve world hunger or kill off the human race, depending on who you ask. The words “Monsanto” or “GMO” engender strong reactions in people around the globe, as governments, scientists, advocates and consumers are finding themselves adopting strong stances either for or against the new technology.

But a number of new crops and vegetable varietals being marketed as non-GMO are hitting the market, and experts say that the companies introducing them to farms and grocery stores may be onto something.

“In the last year, we have seen a surge in the shift to non-GMO offerings,” Mary Beth DePersio, vice president of marketing at the sales, marketing and distribution company World Finer Foods, Inc., said. “If your question is what is driving companies to come up with non-GMO solutions, I believe it's the desire to be successful in the industry. This may not be the most ethical reason, but the end game is a healthier environment and healthier food consumption.”

That idea that non-GMO food products are better for the health of humans and the Earth is a powerful motivator for many consumers, and one that has been tapped by a growing list of companies and researchers.

Later this fall, the first new vegetable to hit America shelves since 1998, British firm Tozer Seeds’ kalette, a hybrid of the Brussels sprout and kale, will make its U.S. grocery debut. Though the firm undeniably selectively crossbred two existing plants to create the kalette, the fact that it used “traditional breeding methods” to do so has helped to make the new veggie palatable to many in the anti-GMO camp.

“[I]n case you’re wondering, hybrid vegetables are not the same as genetically modified crops,” Kimi Harris, a blogger for the Mother Nature Network, wrote. “While genetically modified vegetables have been changed or tampered within their DNA, hybrid vegetables are created by simply cross breeding compatible plants.”

Whether or not you buy that assertion, the fact is that many GMO critics will likely look more kindly on the kalette than they would a new vegetable created by transferring genes from one organism into another. This despite the fact that research on the impacts of the kalette on human health is no more intensive than the research on many genetically modified products, and that it took the company 15 years to perfect the vegetable. The difference is that Tozer is able to cast it in different terms than those surrounding GMOs, and that’s a distinction many companies will be able to use to their advantage in coming years.

“Did u know that hybridization is a traditional breeding method that’s been practiced for thousands of years in agriculture?” the company tweeted this summer responding to a Twitter user concerned about how kalettes were developed.

Researchers are also taking steps to improve processes for tinkering with plants in ways that can be couched as beyond the purview of genetic engineering. A Washington State University team announced earlier this month that they have found “the most famous wheat gene” that clears the “way for non-GMO breeding.” But the fact is that even by utilizing the new discovery, breeders would still be transferring “valuable genes from other plants to wheat,” a process many describe as genetic modification.

“Crossing one species of plant with another species of plant is still genetically modifying an organism,” international business lawyer and author Kenneth Eade said. “Just because they aren't injecting the genes of a goose into the genes of a corn cob doesn't mean that it’s not GMO.”

Still, selling products as non-GMO is a winning strategy, according to Dr. Kath Gruver, a prominent alternative medicine practitioner and author.

“Let's be honest, companies want to make money. And the way to do that is to fill a demand, give the consumer what they want. When the labeling started to fail, many companies started labeling that things were NOT GMO,” she said. “They are catering to a market, [that] for good or bad, is anti-GMO. I think these companies with the new non-GMO products will be met with great success.”