Organic, Non-GMO, or GMO: What Does It All Mean?

While we all seem to agree that organic foods are better for us, the question still lingers: are they really? What’s the real difference between organic produce, non-GMO (i.e. conventional) crops and GMO crops—beyond what seems to be a tactical segmenting of the market? Let’s take a step back and break down just what these terms and methods mean so we can make more informed decisions, both at farmers markets and in grocery store aisles.

Do you buy organic or conventional produce when you shop for groceries? Is it important to you to know whether your produce is raised organically or if the farmer used genetically modified seeds? Let us know in the comments below!

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Organic

Organic farming is a method of both livestock and crop production that, first and foremost, does not use any synthetic input—meaning no fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, growth hormones, or antibiotics. It’s a holistic and regenerative farming method that works to maintain the health of the soil and ecosystem using natural or traditional techniques which include: animal manures as fertilizer, cover crops (intermittent crops that are planted purely to enrich the soil rather than for harvesting), plant rotation (planting different crops throughout the seasons so the soil stays rich in different nutrients), and intercropping (planting a combination of plants to control pests).

Some complain that organic produce and animal products are simply too expensive (both to produce and to buy), while others argue organic products taste far superior. Scientists note that organic products might actually, truly be better as organic product contains higher levels of phenolic acids and organic livestock and dairy contains more omega-3 fatty acids than their conventional counterparts.

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GMO

GMO stands for genetically modified organism, meaning that the animal or plant in question has had its genes altered in some form or another. Historically, farmers have always bred to select and alter the qualities of goods, allowing more desirable traits to shine through; whether it be redder apples, sweeter peaches, or more pest-tolerant strains of corn. But genetic engineering goes one step further, moving the process along more quickly by taking the DNA of one organism and physically putting it into another.

As of 2016, 26 countries worldwide produced GMO crops, including the USA, Australia, Canada, China, Spain, Portugal, India, Brazil and South Africa. Though in 2010 the European Commission found that “GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies”, widespread dissent by the European public means GMO farming has not generally been adopted—with the exception of Spain, Portugal, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s completely GMO free—the vast majority of EU countries import GMO crops like maize or soy beans as livestock feed. You can check your country’s GMO status via this infographic.

Despite the controversy surrounding the use, ingestion, and labelling of GMOs, advocates think it’s the solution to produce insecurity and worldwide hunger. Of course, detractors think just the opposite, that increasing our reliance on a singular strain of seed could create weeds and pests that are resistant, potentially leading to a new super-pest that could wipe out a whole crop in one fell swoop. Only time will truly tell.

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Non-GMO

Just like Goldilocks and the three bears, think of non-GMO products, or ‘conventional produce’ as your ‘somewhere in-between’ choice. They’re not organic or GMO—and they often don’t have any particular labels. But where does that leave it?

Non-GMO means that food labelled as such has been tested to ensure that it has not been genetically modified in any way. But unless it is labelled as organic, it is still farmed using conventional farming methods, meaning that it’s likely produced with synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or antibiotics. More on that below.

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Safety

Is there any evidence to indicate that consuming the residual pesticides, herbicides, and antibiotics found in food grown via conventional farming methods dangerous or unhealthy for humans? Is manipulating an organism’s genes an unsavory risk, or is it simply a fear of technology and modern advancements that scares us?

While it is generally agreed upon in the scientific community that GMOs are just as safe as regular food , what is less clear is the toxicity of pesticides and antibiotics used in the production of those foods. Proponents of conventional farming argue that governmental bodies closely regulate the small quantities we consume, and that consuming such tiny quantities is safe. However, critics argue that a continued exposure to chemicals, whose purpose is to kill or enhance organisms, is not considered in the monitoring guidelines and therefore makes their potential long-term effects unknown.

There are really no hard and fast rules or answers to the question of organic, non-GMO, or GMO. Deciding what’s best for you based on what you truly care about is the best you can do, and we hope that we’ve given you all the information you need to choose wisely.