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What Is the Difference Between GMO vs. Organic?

GMO and organic foods are not new to the market, though confusion between the two still often exists. Find out what qualifies foods GMO, non-GMO, and organic foods here!

What Is the Difference Between GMO vs. Organic?


The grocery aisle can turn into alphabet soup once non-GMO and organic enter the supermarket scene. So what does GMO stand for? What about non-GMO and organic?

Read on to learn everything important about organic, GMO, the pros and cons of each, and more!

What Does GMO Stand For?

GMO stands for genetically modified organisms. While it may sound like science fiction, this method of modification has actually been around for decades.

Genetic engineering technology was developed in the 1970s, and scientists soon found ways for it to make food production more efficient.

From Traditional to Technology-Based Breeding

Odds are, most people have consumed a GMO whether they know it or not. In fact, certain types of GMOs can improve quality of life. For example, human insulin, a medication used to manage diabetes, was the first GMO product for human use created using genetic engineering technology.

Food products followed shortly after. During the last few decades, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other national regulatory agencies worked closely to create regulations. They established policies to ensure GMO plants met the same safety standards as traditionally bred plants.

GMO Pros and Cons

Simply stated, the major upside of GMOs is that they can be produced more efficiently. GMO crops and foods may contain even more nutrients than would occur naturally during traditional methods of breeding. On the flipside, loopholes in regulatory policy mean that producers can quickly benefit financially from less nutritious products.

GMOs and respective modified foods can be a double-edged sword, making awareness of these products even more crucial for consumers.

Pros of GMOs

Genome editing allows scientists innovative possibilities for the future of crops. New plants and animals can be created while avoiding the disadvantages of traditional breeding systems.

GMOs mean that beneficial traits can be standardized, such as:

• Higher levels of nutrition
• Drought tolerance
• Resistance to insects or disease

This technology is absolutely incredible from a scientific perspective. Slight alterations in a sequence of genes could mean less harm to the environment while making plants more nutritious for consumers. GMOs are not inherently dangerous, but the problems arise when the biotech industry has blurred intentions.

Cons of GMOs

In the issue of GMOs, the term is used to define any organism to which genetic engineering technology is applied. This can make it difficult to discern if the product has been changed for the better or altered for the worst. To complicate matters further, some argue that religion, environmental agencies, and food allergy activists each hold a stake in the debate.

By nature, GMOs are created artificially through processes that do not occur naturally. While this is not necessarily harmful, some studies suggest GMOs are a red flag for health risks. Many consider GMOs too new of a technology to truly understand long-term risks or benefits.

Another negative aspect of GMO foods is that consumer marketing lacks clarity. This has many consumers wondering, "If GMOs are not clearly advertised on the label, what are retailers trying to hide?"

Being aware of tricky labeling tactics used in the industry can make navigating GMO and non-GMO foods easier.

Non-GMO vs Organic

GMOs are not allowed in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic food and is a voluntary labeling law in most US states. This means market retailers must meet certain guidelines in order to attract GMO-conscious consumers.

Non-GMO

Many consumers may recognize the Non-GMO Project symbol on products. Using a third party for verification, this nonprofit organization clarifies communication between retailers and consumers. Their "stamp of approval" ensures the product complies with voluntary laws and guidelines and contains less than one percent GMO ingredients.

For concerned consumers, a non-GMO label can be reassuring. Those who want to know the exact ingredients of their food supply can find comfort in seeing the Non-GMO Project symbol as well as ingredients they recognize on the label.

Organic

Depending on what is being discussed, the definition of "organic" can differ:

Produce labeled "organic" is grown from crops or seeds that have not been irradiated. In addition, no synthetic fertilizer or prohibited pesticides are used during the production process. Sewage sludge is not allowed on farms producing these organic crops.

Animal products (i.e. organic meat or dairy) with an organic seal are produced without antibiotics or growth hormones. Farmers also provide outdoor access and 100 percent organic feed to these animals.

"100% Organic" foods contain only or completely organic ingredients and are certified by the USDA organic label.

"Organic" foods are at least 95 percent organic and qualify by obtaining a USDA seal.

"Made with Organic Ingredients" indicates that the food was made with 70 percent organic ingredients. These foods must certify as organic but cannot use the USDA organic seal.

Since pesticides may be present in the rain or air, organic foods may still be exposed to pesticide residues. Fortunately, regulations on organic farming are strict and specific. Eating organic foods can decrease pesticide residues humans ingest, especially when compared to the contribution of conventional counterparts.

The Bottom Line

Organic and GMO foods are often misunderstood, and there are unique differences between the two. One of the most notable differences is that organic crops avoid GMOs, meaning they are free from pesticides and other additives.

Overall, deciding whether or not to consume GMO or organic foods is particularly based on individual preferences. Nutrition experts also often agree to choose quality nutrition sources over those devoid of nutritional value. For instance, an apple rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, organic or not, is a preferable nutrition choice over a candy bar laden in added sugar and fat.

References:

Braly K. Organic, Grass-Fed, and Free Range: Label Deciphering and Take Home Resources (Part 3 of 3). Kimbralyrd.com. Published June 24, 2020. https://kimbralyrd.com/organic-grass-fed-and-free-range-labels-and-resources/

Food and Drug Administration. Science and History of GMOs and Other Food Modification Processes. https://www.fda.gov/food/agricultural-biotechnology/science-and-history-gmos-and-other-food-modification-processes.

McEvoy M. Organic 101: Can GMOs Be Used in Organic Products. USDA. Published February 21, 2017. https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2013/05/17/organic-101-can-gmos-be-used-organic-products#:~:text=The%20use%20of%20genetic%20engineering,is%20prohibited%20in%20organic%20products

Tagliabue G. The central dogma, "GMO" and defective epistemology. GM Crops Food. 2017;8(4):209-215. doi: 10.1080/21645698.2017.1405899.

Sarah Asay's Photo
Written By Sarah Asay, RDN. Published on March 26, 2021. Updated on April 12, 2021.

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