Organic vs. Non-GMO: What's the Difference?

Organic vs. Non-GMO: What's the Difference?
We’ve talked in the past about organic foods. We’ve also talked about genetically modified foods. And that – of course – has led to a fairly obvious question:

What the heck is the difference between organic and non-GMO foods?

First, a quick refresher.

Genetically modified foods include foods that have been genetically engineered, chemically altered, or cross-bred in ways not found in nature. Not all genetically modified foods are terrible – wheat was genetically modified in India to alleviate famine, for example – but most people dedicated to healthy eating opt to stay away from them. We don’t know the long-term effects eating GMOs will have on us, and some doctors have raised concerns about increased allergic reactions and antibiotic resistance as a result of eating GM foods.

Organic foods are those that have met a stringent set of rules laid down by the USDA governing the growth, cultivation, and harvesting of produce, meats, and dairy. Organic farms do not use pesticides or chemicals, and 95 percent of a product’s ingredients must be organic for it to receive the green USDA-certified organic seal.

The primary difference between organic foods and non-GMO foods is the existence of a government organization policing the organic foods market. The USDA strictly monitors the national organic program, and conscious consumers dedicated to eating healthy can be confident that items advertised as "USDA organic" are, in fact, organic. No such guarantee exists for non-GMO foods. The U.S. government considers GMO foods to be "generally regarded as safe," so it makes no move to regulate them. Additionally, testing for the presence of GMOs in food is still a relatively new process, so the designation "GMO-free" cannot be backed up by tested, established science.

Still, if you’re looking for as much certainty as possible, keep the following in mind:

  1. If you want organic, USDA organic is the only designation you can count on. Organic labeling has come a long way since the 1990s, when the government first acknowledged the need for it. The National Organic Program has strict standards manufacturers must meet, so you can be confident that food stamped with the green USDA organic seal is, in fact, organic.
  2. USDA organic foods cannot contain GMOs. A National Organic Program rule established in 2000 listed GMOs as an excluded method and barred them from use in organic products. Because the genetic modification common in GMOs is not possible under natural conditions, the USDA considers GMOs incompatible with organic production. So aside from seepage between fields and pollen shifting from GMO crops to organic crops, problems that are in some ways unavoidable, consumers can be fairly confident that organic products are also GMO-free.
  3. Although the government doesn’t police GMOs in food (aside from organics), many consumers dedicated to healthy eating still want to know whether their food has been genetically altered, so manufacturers and food activists are stepping in. The Non-GMO Project has created standards for determining the presence of GMOs in food and offers certification to products that pass its tests. Many manufacturers, including Whole Foods, are voluntarily submitting to such tests in order to allay the concerns of health-conscious customers.
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