What's With All of the Non-GMO Labels on my Vegan Food?

Walk into any supermarket and take a look at the vegan meats and other vegan options. Interestingly, you'll likely see a lot of labels that proudly proclaim the product as "non-GMO" or "no genetically modified ingredients". But why are those labels there, and what makes those types of labels appealing to consumers?

This blog post is not meant to discuss the issue of GMOs, which are nuanced and multifaceted, but rather it is to illuminate the psychology behind labeling and why many vegan food companies have decided to embrace the non-GMO label.

The first step is to better understand the nature of the vegan food market and meat avoiders. This is the key market that vegan meat and vegan product companies are marketing to. According to Veganomics, which summarized research about motivations for going vegan, the two mains reasons for going vegan or vegetarian are animals and health.

When we consider the idea of health, which is a very large reason why many vegans decide to transition their diets, then the connection to GMOs becomes clear. Despite their being no evidence that genetic engineering is any more risky than conventional breeding or mutagenesis (a type of plant breeding in which a seed is bombarded by radiation or mutation-inducing chemical compounds, and which is the source of many seeds that organic and conventional farmers use), GMOs certainly have a bad rap when it comes to health issues. Evolutionary psychology can provide insights on why many people are concerned about the health risks of GMOs. One paper, titled "Disease-threat model explains acceptance of genetically modified products" suggests that concern for ones health predisposes one to be wary of GMOs. So it makes sense that health-vegans would have psychological mechanisms making them wary of GMOs, and thus the non-GMO label on vegan products appeals to that market.

But to come back to the ethical vegans. Are there underlying psychological mechanisms and beliefs that would make the non-GMO label appealing to them? One paper, titled "Food and values: an examination of values underlying attitudes toward genetically modified- and organically grown food products" suggests that a belief in "power" can be connected to positive attitudes towards GMOs. This belief in "power" also connects to animal exploitation. People who have a stronger belief in "power" are more in favor of animal use. Thus vegans would presumably be lower on the "power" scale, and have more values like harmony and benevolence. So for someone with those types of beliefs, genetic engineering seems like a needless use of power over nature.

For both health vegans and ethical vegans, the non-GMO label is appealing on a psychological level. It makes sense then that food marketers are using our own psychology to better sell their products. Either way, whether you decide to avoid GMO products or not, it's worth examining how our psychological biases affect how we interact with the food we eat.