GMO vs. Organic: What’s the Difference?

Walk into any grocery story and eventually you’ll see a non-GMO and USDA certified organic food label. Ever wonder what the difference is?

First, what is a GMO?
A GMO is a genetically modified organism.

How is a GMO created?
A GMO is created by inserting the DNA from one species into the gene (s) of another, unrelated species. Creating a GMO involves a highly complex process of gene splicing that can only happen in a lab. It wouldn’t happen naturally.

Why were GMOs created?
Many of the GMOs we hear about today were developed to help farmers fight bugs and kill weeds. But they can also be engineered to make a product more desirable to consumers, farmers, or retailers. Some GMO crops may be more resistant to viruses and better able to survive drought. Others may not bruise easily or have extra vitamins.

Environmental Illness Network on Flickr @Creative Commons

Why do some people avoid GMOs?
1. Some of the most common GMO crops (soy, corn, cotton) were engineered to survive toxic chemicals farmers spay on them to control pests and weeds. Some people avoid GMOs so they can limit their exposure to chemical residues.

2. Others avoid GMOs because of unknown dangers to human health.

3.  Another reason some people avoid GMOs is the potential impact on the environment. Once introduced into the natural world, it can be difficult to predict how GMO crops will react or adapt.

4. There’s generally a corresponding pesticide or herbicide sold with a GMO crop and some worry about the escalating use of these chemicals and the potential harm they could cause to drinking water, human health, and the environment, including bees.

What are the most common GMOs?
The most common GMO crops in the United States are soy, sugar beets, canola, cotton and corn. Most of the corn and soy grown in the U.S. is produced for animal feed, but you’ll find it in other foods as well. Here are the top 10 most common GMO foods.

1. Soy (almost 95 percent of the soy grown in the U.S. is genetically modified) – don’t think you’re eating it? You probably are. It’s used to make soybean oil and found in a lot of prepared and frozen food. It’s even in some chocolate and candy. Look for soy lecithin on the label.

2. Sugar beets (about 95% of the U.S. crop) – granulated sugar comes from either sugar cane (grown mostly in Hawaii) or sugar beets (grown throughout the U.S.). More than half of all the sugar in the U.S. comes from sugar beets.

3. Cotton (about 90% of the U.S. crop is GMO) – cotton is used to make clothes, linens, towels, tampons, and cottonseed oil.

4. Canola (about 90% of the U.S. crop)- canola is used to make canola oil. Many restaurants and grocery stores cook with canola oil, which is a highly processed oil.

5. Corn (approximately 88% of the U.S. crop) – GMO corn is used to make high-fructose corn syrup and corn starch. GMO corn is found in processed food, soft drinks, fast food, prepared food and restaurant food.

6. Zucchini and yellow squash

7. Hawaiian papaya

8. Alfalfa – used mostly as hay for cattle.

9. Potatoes – GMO potatoes are less susceptible to bruising and black spots.

10. Apple – a new GMO Golden Delicious apple won’t turn brown after it has been sliced.

Are GMOs in the foods I eat?
Yes, most likely. GMOs can be found in restaurant food and many of the processed, prepared and frozen foods in conventional grocery stores.

Will the label tell me if the product contains GMOs? 
Not yet. The U.S. is expected to implement a mandatory GMO labeling law, but the details aren’t finalized. One criticism of the new law is that it doesn’t require food manufacturers to label highly refined foods that contain GMOs, such as canola oil, corn syrup, and sugar.

How can I avoid GMOs?
The best way to avoid GMOs is to look for a label from an independent, 3rd party organization like Non-GMO Project Verified or USDA certified organic.

What DOES the “Non-GMO Project Verified” label tell me? Unknown
When you see this label, it means the food contains no more than 0.9% GMOs.

What DOESN’T the Non-GMO Project Verified label tell me?
The Non-GMO Project tests for GMOs and that’s it. It doesn’t test for pesticide residues, animal welfare, or sustainable farming practices.

unnamedOrganic means non-GMO & more
The USDA certified organic label verifies that the food contains little to no GMOs, but it includes a lot more.

Organic means your food is natural

 No artificial preservatives

No artificial flavors

Minimally processed

All the ingredients are certified organic

No synthetic pesticides or herbicides were used

All the ingredients are listed

USDA certified organic promotes sustainability
Organic means the soil has not been exposed to harsh chemicals for at least 3 years.

Organic seeks to preserve biodiversity by prohibiting chemicals that can harm living things in our environment like soil microorganisms, earthworms, insects, butterflies, bees and some types of birds.

Organic farmers must use sustainable farming practices.

USDA certified organic supports animal welfare

Animals are fed 100% organic feed and forage

Animals are not given antibiotics or hormones

Animals are not fed GMOs

Animals are free to roam and graze on pasture as they would naturally

Animals are treated humanely

BOTTOM LINE: USDA Certified Organic vs. Non-GMO Project Verified

Non-GMO Project Verified = little to no GMOs.

USDA certified organic = little to no GMOs, no synthetic chemicals, sustainable farming practices, no artificial ingredients, healthy soil, and animals were treated humanely.

Learn More
USDA – Organic 101: What the USDA Organic Label Means”
Non-GMO Project – http://www.nongmoproject.org
USDA – “Organic 101:Can GMOs Be Used in Organic Products?”
The New York Times –Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops”
The Cornucopia Institute – “New Study by USDA Proves It Was Wrong About GE Alfalfa
The Cornucopia Institute – “GMOs, Herbicides, and Public Health
The Huffington Post  FDA Suspends Testing for Glyphosate Residues in Food
Newsweek – “The FDA Will Begin Testing Food For Glyphosate, The Most Heavily Used Farm Chemical Ever”
EcoWatch – “Alarming Levels of Glyphosate Found in Popular American Foods”
Time – “These Charts Show Everyday Genetically Modified Food People Already Eat in the U.S.”
Rodale Institute – “Chemical cotton” 

Feature image photo courtesy Veronique Debord-Lazaro on Flickr @Creative Commons

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