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


  • Robin Roff



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. Copyright Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Suggested Citation

  • Robin Roff, 2009. "No alternative? The politics and history of non-GMO certification," Agriculture and Human Values, Springer;The Agriculture, Food, & Human Values Society (AFHVS), vol. 26(4), pages 351-363, December.
  • Handle: RePEc:spr:agrhuv:v:26:y:2009:i:4:p:351-363
    DOI: 10.1007/s10460-008-9166-5

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Robin Roff, 2007. "Shopping for change? Neoliberalizing activism and the limits to eating non-GMO," Agriculture and Human Values, Springer;The Agriculture, Food, & Human Values Society (AFHVS), vol. 24(4), pages 511-522, December.
    2. Hallman, William K. & Hebden, W. Carl & Cuite, Cara L. & Aquino, Helen L. & Lang, John T., 2004. "Americans And Gm Food: Knowledge, Opinion And Interest In 2004," Working Papers 18175, Rutgers University, Food Policy Institute.
    3. Harvey, David, 2007. "A Brief History of Neoliberalism," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780199283279.
    4. Aimee Shreck, 2005. "Resistance, redistribution, and power in the Fair Trade banana initiative," Agriculture and Human Values, Springer;The Agriculture, Food, & Human Values Society (AFHVS), vol. 22(1), pages 17-29, March.
    5. Colin Hines, 2003. "Time to Replace Globalization with Localization," Global Environmental Politics, MIT Press, vol. 3(3), pages 1-7, August.
    6. Patricia Allen & Martin Kovach, 2000. "The capitalist composition of organic: The potential of markets in fulfilling the promise of organic agriculture," Agriculture and Human Values, Springer;The Agriculture, Food, & Human Values Society (AFHVS), vol. 17(3), pages 221-232, September.
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    1. repec:spr:agrhuv:v:34:y:2017:i:4:d:10.1007_s10460-017-9776-x is not listed on IDEAS
    2. Amaranta Herrero & Fern Wickson & Rosa Binimelis, 2015. "Seeing GMOs from a Systems Perspective: The Need for Comparative Cartographies of Agri/Cultures for Sustainability Assessment," Sustainability, MDPI, Open Access Journal, vol. 7(8), pages 1-24, August.
    3. Olson, Julia & Clay, Patricia M. & Pinto da Silva, Patricia, 2014. "Putting the seafood in sustainable food systems," Marine Policy, Elsevier, vol. 43(C), pages 104-111.
    4. Nurcan Atalan-Helicke, 2015. "The halal paradox: negotiating identity, religious values, and genetically engineered food in Turkey," Agriculture and Human Values, Springer;The Agriculture, Food, & Human Values Society (AFHVS), vol. 32(4), pages 663-674, December.


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