Non-GMO Coffee — What It Is, And What It Means

Non-GMO coffee cherries

Customers are increasingly seeing products with labels like non GMO coffee. This labeling is part of a general GMO vs non-GMO debate that’s been raging on for a while now. You’ll find people voraciously defending one side and attacking the other. 

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Plenty of modern foods come from genetically modified crops. This includes (but is not limited to) popular foods like corn and soy. Any product that has genetically modified ingredients is also considered modified. 

As an example, the aforementioned products like corn and soy are genetically modified. Livestock that feeds on these products, and honey made using nectar collected from their flower would also be genetically modified. 

But our concern is coffee, so let’s get to that!

What Are GMO Free Coffee Beans

To be clear, all commercially available coffee in the market right now is non GMO coffee. There is no genetically modified coffee available at the moment. However, there do exist variants that are genetically modified and are prepared for production. There is, however, no clear information on when/if these will find use.

So Why Is Non-GMO An Important Label?

Plenty of food products use genetically modified crops. As mentioned, these include popularly used crops like corn and soy. Some people aren’t quite happy with the use of genetically modified crops and would rather stick to the original version.

Foods that don’t use genetically modified crops, therefore, have the non-GMO label. It’s a simple and straightforward way of addressing the concerns of these people. 

To be fair, genetically modified crops aren’t anything new. They’ve been used for a long time and offer some tangible benefits. These include increased production/yield of the crop, making them more resistant to pests and disease, and more resistant to environmental factors like drought. 

While all of these advantages sound great, they also bring problems in tow. These include some industries monopolizing agriculture, possible environmental impacts, natural sustainability of crops, and several others. There’s also a debate on whether these genetically modified foods are as healthy and nutritious as their original, organic counterparts. 

Naturally, some people don’t want to encourage or use these genetically modified foods. The movement is strong enough to have resulted in the creation of labels that identify a product as non-GMO.

As we know, all commercially available coffee falls in the non-GMO category. However, several coffee beans, especially those that claim to be healthy options, feel that it’s necessary to advertise their origins. After all, genetically modified food is prevalent everywhere. According to these roasters and sellers, it makes sense to let consumers know that their products are non-GMO.

A Look At The Timelines Of Coffee And GMO

While GMO Coffee beans may not be commercial, they certainly do exist. It is this continuous development of these beans and the possibility of them entering the mainstream coffee market that keeps the news cycles running. Here are some of the major developments in this arena:

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  • 1999: University of Hawaii received a patent for genetically modified coffee. The development immediately came under criticism as they had used a chemical spray to induce all cherries to ripen at the same time. 
  • 2006: Food giant Nestle gets a European patent for genetically modified coffee. The first company to do so.
  • 2008: Hawaiian Kona Coffee farmers issue a public objection to genetically modified coffee. The farmers believe it will negatively affect the purity of their coffee, whether intentionally or not.
  • 2014 and onwards: Several developments in genetically modified coffee. These coincide with a more organized resistance to using GMO coffee. 

With the continuous news of the development of genetically modified coffee, consumers have been more curious about these developments. It has also resulted in a greater interest in GMO free beans, which are seeing greater interest from buyers.

GMO And The Risk Of Cross-Contamination And Cross-Pollination 

One reason for the push against GMO coffee beans is that once the genome is out in the open, it cannot be contained. Honeybees and other insects will carry pollen between GMO and non-GMO plants, causing cross-contamination. This can also happen due to several other factors, including wind carrying the pollen.

This interaction is bound to change the nature of the affected beans and seeds. If the cherries come from cross-pollination, it is possible that the produce from a non-GMO plant no longer qualifies for the non-GMO label. Additionally, this also affects other labeling like USDA organic. 

The beans so grown and the plants themselves may no longer be considered non-GMO. Similarly, if the affected green beans were used as seeds, they wouldn’t qualify as non-GMO either. Additionally, there’s the possibility that the plant so grown would have questionable yield.

There have been reports of farmers faring very well thanks to the use of genetically modified seeds. Similarly, there have been reports of farmers losing their USDA Organic and similar certifications because cross-pollination rendered their produce non-organic.

As such, organic farmers who would otherwise get a higher value for their produce found all their effort down the drain.

Specialty Coffee And GMO

There has been considerable debate on how specialty coffee would be impacted by the arrival of genetically modified beans. Specialty coffee beans too face the risks of cross-contamination and similar issues. However, some experts believe that specialty coffee beans are better positioned and can hold their own against genetically modified beans.

Taste and flavor are the key parameters that make specialty coffee so special. These are impacted by several environmental factors including temperature, elevation, soil quality, processing, region of growth, roasting, and a lot more. 

It is argued that GM coffee is unlikely to be able to create the same complex flavors and tastes that make specialty coffee so special. But that view is questionable too since it is apparent that some genetically modified agricultural products might indeed be capable of being flavorful like their original counterparts. 

In any case, all of this is largely speculation rather than cold, hard facts that move the needle. There are respectable educated guesses on either side of the equation, but for now, guesswork and speculation is all that it is.

What Is Hybrid Coffee?

Truth be told, we humans have been modifying our crops and their behavior since forever. Farmers have been trying to get their produce to have more desirable characteristics for a very long time. It’s just that the image of a laboratory producing these characteristics unnaturally is off-putting for many people. This fuels the distrust against GM products.

Hybrid coffee, for example, is created through controlled cross-pollination, to breed more desirable characteristics. Hybrids are often achieved using traditional techniques and can take several years to develop. Many of the beloved coffee varieties are hybrids. 

Labeling That Identifies Non-GMO Products

There are only a few coffee products that carry non-GMO labeling. Again, this is because all commercially available coffee at the moment is, by default, non-GMO. That’s why several brands and roasters see no reason to go into this labeling. 

However, in the world of general agricultural products, genetically modified products are common. As such, many brands take on non-GMO labeling to define their product. Since this is common for agricultural products, it is applicable for coffee products too. Two common labels in this category are the following.

1. Non-GMO Certified

The Non-GMO Project intends to educate and encourage users to find what’s in their food. As they say, “Everyone has a right to know what is in their food and deserves access to non-GMO choices.” The organization places a very high premium on the “integrity of our diverse genetic inheritance”. 

Getting this certification has several steps, including verification of the product. While some coffee labels carry this certification, obviously, many do not.

2. USDA Organic

USDA Organic is perhaps the most influential certification for organic food products. It is prominently seen on the best organic coffee products and is generally accepted as a good indicator of overall quality. A USDA Organic certification involves several steps, including visits and verification of the crops to ensure they’re in line with the required standards.

There are several steps to the USDA Organic certification. The product in question also has to be non-GMO to receive this certification.

Lay Your Worries About Non-GMO Coffee To Rest

It is obvious that consumers are concerned about the quality of the food they eat and what goes into it. There has been a substantial rise in genetically modified food products and several consumers are uneasy with this development. Conventional thought would extend the same concerns to coffee too.

However, there isn’t a need to worry about non-GMO coffee. Well, at least for the near future. There aren’t any genetically modified commercially available coffees available at the moment. Besides, several high-quality brands are determined to preserve the originality of the beans. 

As such, these brands are already preparing for the eventuality and are determined to stay on route of non-GMO and organic coffee.