Agriculture and Human Values

, 26:351 | Cite as

No alternative? The politics and history of non-GMO certification

  • Robin Jane RoffEmail author


Third-party certification is an increasingly prevalent tactic which agrifood activists use to “help” consumers shop ethically, and also to reorganize commodity markets. While consumers embrace the chance to “vote with their dollar,” academics question the potential for labels to foster widespread political, economic, and agroecological change. Yet, despite widespread critique, a mounting body of work appears resigned to accept that certification may be the only option available to activist groups in the context of neoliberal socio-economic orders. At the extreme, Guthman (Antipode 39(3): 457, 2007) posits that “at this political juncture… ‘there is no alternative.” This paper offers a different assessment of third-party certification, and points to interventions that are potentially more influential that are currently available to activist groups. Exploring the evolution of the Non-GMO Project—a novel certification for foods that are reasonably free of genetically engineered (GE) material—I make two arguments. First, I echo the literature’s critical perspective by illustrating how certification projects become vulnerable to industry capture. Reviewing its history and current context, I suggest that the Non-GMO Project would be better suited to helping companies avoid mounting public criticism than to substantially reorient agrifood production. Second, I explore the “politics of the possible” in the current political economy and argue that while neoliberalization and organizers’ places within the food system initially oriented the group towards the private sector, the choice to pursue certification arose directly from two industry partnerships. Consequently, current trends might favor market mechanisms, but certification is only one possible intervention that has emerged as a result of particular, and perhaps avoidable, circumstances. The article offers tentative delineation of alternatives ways that activists might intervene in agrifood and political economic systems given present constraints.


Agricultural biotechnology Labeling Neoliberalism Non GMO Politics of consumption Third party certification Alternative agrifood system 



U.S. Food and Drug Administration


Genetically engineered


Global Food Chain Advisors


Genetic ID


Genetically-modified organism


Natural Grocery Company


Non-GMO Project


United Natural Food Inc.



This research was supported in part by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. I would particularly like to thank my confidential informants for their time and insights during my field research, and Geoff Mann, Harvey James and two anonymous reviewers for their comments on early drafts of this paper.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of GeographySimon Fraser UniversityBurnabyCanada

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