For a growing number of American consumers, a brand attesting to be merely “organic” isn’t enough anymore. These shoppers want to be sure the products they’re buying also are certifiably free of glyphosate, the active ingredient in the Roundup weed killer that many perceive as a health threat despite assurances of its safety by regulatory bodies including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Consumer concerns about glyphosate have opened the door to market opportunities that some companies, especially startups, are seizing. One Degree Organic Foods, for instance, became “first in the baking industry to set up glyphosate-free certification with a third-party, lab-certified testing protocol,” says Danny Houghton, co-founder of the brand. Since late 2019, the company has been selling sprouted rolled oats at Costco that are organic but also tout their “non-glyphosate” status prominently on the front panel of the package.
“We made ‘glyphosate-free’ a major part of our pitch to the Costco buyer,” Houghton says. “They recognized the relevance of the certification and said it was something that would be well-received by their customers.”
Overall, the U.S. Glyphosate Residue Free certification market reached $204 million in 2020, an increase of 58% year over year, according to SPINS, which provides purchase data on better-for-you foods in the United States. While 78% of North Americans aren’t familiar with the term “glyphosate,” once they’re educated, 93% of them are either “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about finding it in foods, according to a One Degree survey last year.
Glyphosate elimination is mounting into a significant new phase in the evolution of “free-from” products in the wake of Bayer’s $10 billion settlement with consumers over the allegedly harmful effects of Roundup, the most popular general-use agricultural herbicide around the world. Over the past several years, it has been blamed for many severe and minor health problems ranging from skin irritation to cancer, nervous disorders, and immune system breakdowns.
Agricultural and CPG businesses largely have supported glyphosate as nontoxic. But new attention to scientific concerns such as the pesticide’s potential for endocrine system disruption—as well as pressure by consumer and environmental activists and social media battering—have created at least the perception that glyphosate-free products are optimal.
“The issue has been in the news and in advertisements, and you want to steer clear of that,” says Bryce Lundberg, vice president of agriculture for Lundberg Family Farms, a major U.S. rice producer. “You want to be proactive.”
Helping out is the Detox Project, launched by a Welsh journalist to test and certify products as glyphosate-free. Now the certification covers nearly 5,000 products, including cereals, lentils, soybeans, wheat-based products, and spices sold in the United States, United Kingdom, India, Germany, France, Australia, and New Zealand.
Among the Detox Project’s customers are Oatly, Chobani, Once Upon a Farm, Jovial Foods, and MegaFood supplement company. They pony up a flat rate of $1,499 a year for glyphosate-free certification. “Interest in glyphosate just exploded,” says Henry Rowlands, director of the Detox Project.
Another brand that is putting glyphosate-free positioning front and center is Good Karma Foods. The maker of plant-based milks plans to place a “Glyphosate Residue Free” badge on all of its packaging by the end of the year. “This likely isn’t a topic or concern that will fade away, but rather one that will garner further attention in the years to come,” says Doug Radi, Good Karma’s CEO.
Organic certification isn’t enough for glyphosate-free advocates because of problems such as “overspray” of Roundup and water runoff from neighboring farms. While the federal government’s organic designation gauges what farmers put in their soil and on their crops, glyphosate-free certification starts at the other end—guaranteeing that whatever happened out in the field, the end product is free from the pesticide.
“We’re following a process that ensures clean end products rather than expensive [organic] certification that isn’t always the answer,” says Saskia Sorrosa, founder and CEO of Fresh Bellies, a maker of savory organic baby food. Sorrosa requires that ingredient suppliers test their end products for contaminants such as glyphosate.
What consumers want, of course, will rule. “There’s very little scientific basis for concern about glyphosates” and human health, says Cathy Kapica, principal of the Awegrin Institute, a public health think tank, and former global director of nutrition for McDonald’s. “But the perception part is a whole other ballgame. It’s based on beliefs. So who has the loudest voice on social media?”