The USDA Organic seal and the Non-GMO Project seal are prevalent on many food labels, but what exactly do they mean and what is the difference? We’ve outlined the differences below, so that you’ll have more clarity the next time you go grocery shopping.
Let’s start with GMOs. The Non-GMO Project states that “A GMO, or genetically modified organism, is a plant, animal, microorganism or other organism whose genetic makeup has been modified in a laboratory using genetic engineering or transgenic technology. This creates combinations of plant, animal, bacterial and virus genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods.” Simply put, the Non-GMO Project verified seal only confirms that a product contains no genetically modified ingredients. It is still unclear if the modification itself is a concern. However, one of the biggest reasons GMOs were created was to engineer crops to be herbicide- and pesticide-tolerant. The Non-GMO Project states that more than 80% of all genetically modified crops grown worldwide have been engineered for herbicide tolerance. This means that when you buy something with GMOs in the ingredients, you are most likely consuming herbicides as well. The most widely used herbicide is glyphosate, which the World Health Organization’s (WHO) cancer agency claims is “probably carcinogenic”. There are currently only ten crops sold on the market that are GMOs: sugar beets (any sugar that is not labeled cane sugar comes from sugar beets), corn, soy, and canola, cotton, golden rice, potatoes, tomatoes squash, and papaya. When you are buying products containing these ten ingredients, finding the ones labeled Non-GMO is recommended. Unfortunately, because food labeled Non-GMO only means the food isn’t genetically modified, it could still have herbicides and pesticides on it.
It’s also important to look out for products labeled Non-GMO that aren’t even GMO products, to begin with. They are most likely using the label as a marketing ploy. One big example of this is oats, which often have the Non- GMO Project seal on their labels but they aren’t a GMO product. Yet, they contain some of the highest levels of glyphosate because the spraying of glyphosate as a pre-harvest drying agent is a common practice. So, in order to avoid glyphosate from oats, you have to buy organic.
Regarding the USDA Organic seal, all USDA Organic food is Non-GMO but not all Non-GMO food is organic. The USDA states that “produce can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest. Prohibited substances include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides”. For organic meat, they say, “regulations require that animals are raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors (like the ability to graze on pasture), fed 100% organic feed and forage, and not administered antibiotics or hormones”. When it comes to processed foods, the USDA states that “regulations prohibit them containing artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors and require that their ingredients are organic, with some minor exceptions. For example, processed organic foods may contain some approved non- agricultural ingredients, like enzymes in yogurt, pectin in fruit jams, or baking soda in baked goods”. Essentially, if you buy organic, your food will be free of artificial dyes, artificial sweeteners, artificial flavorings, glyphosate sprayed directly on crops, added hormones, antibiotics, GMOs, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides and they are farmed to maintain soil and water quality and conserve biodiversity.
Tips for Buying Organic:
Use the EGW “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” lists that they publish every year. The “Dirty Dozen” is a list of the top 12 fruits and vegetables the nonprofit organization claims have the highest amount of pesticides when grown conventionally versus organically. The “Clean Fifteen” is a list of produce from conventional growers that generally has less pesticide residue. Using these lists can help you decide where it’s worth putting your money.
Compare the organic and conventional produce and meat prices side by side. You’ll be surprised how it doesn’t cost much more to buy organic.
Think about what your family consumes regularly and buy organic. If you or your family drinks a lot of milk, for example, it might be a good idea to buy organic milk.
Buy a CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) share or join a Co-op.
Shop produce that is in season because it’s usually more affordable,
tastes better and is higher in nutrients.
Grow your own organic food.
Buy in bulk from local farmers.