Is Organic Also Non-GMO? What is the Difference?
Is non-GMO the same as organic? Not quite.
The United States government regulates Certified Organic labels that are found on food and other products. Receiving approval for Certified Organic labels requires farmers to change the way they grow and raise food, and it excludes GMOs.
Non-GMO labeling is not regulated by the government. Instead, independent organizations set their own standards for non-GMO labels. The largest organization, Non-GMO Project Verified, focuses on GMOs, but it doesn't require food to be organic to receive this classification.
What Qualifies a Food as Certified Organic?
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Certified Organic foods are grown and raised according to government guidelines. These guidelines regulate what farmers use, how they manage their land, and the way they raise their animals. USDA certifying agents ensure that organic farmers are following all guidelines.
Certified Organic Plants
To qualify as Certified Organic, farmers must ensure their crops are:
1. Free from prohibited substances
Prohibited substances include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Synthetic substances are lab-made, while non-synthetic substances occur in nature. Non-synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are often less efficient. Farmers need to apply more of these products to protect their crops from pests and diseases. Conventional and organic farmers only use pesticides and fertilizers approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA ensures substances are safe for humans and the environment.
The USDA maintains the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. This list contains both synthetic and non-synthetic substances. There are more than 25 synthetic substances allowed in organic farming.
2. Grown without certain technologies
To qualify their crops as Certified Organic, farmers must avoid GMOs. GMO stands for genetically modified organisms. The USDA defines GMOs are plants developed using genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is a more precise method of plant breeding. It allows plant breeders to transfer beneficial and natural traits from one plant to another. They can also make changes to an existing trait in a plant.
Two common processes farmers must also avoid include recycling biosolids compost and irradiation. Biosolids compost is the process of recycling waste that has beneficial nutrients for the soil. Irradiation is the process of using active energy particles to destroy harmful bacteria on crops and food.
Certified Organic Animal Products
Animal products, such as meat, eggs, and dairy foods, qualify as Certified Organic when farmers:
1. Avoid using antibiotics or hormones
Just like when you visit the doctor, farmers consult with veterinarians to give their animals antibiotics when they’re sick. Conventional farmers follow strict government guidelines to prevent antibiotic resistance. There’s a tradeoff when farmers choose to raise their animals organic. Animal welfare suffers because they can’t give animals antibiotics and medicine when they’re sick. If they do, farmers can't use those animals for food products.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates growth hormones in conventional farming. They are only used in beef cattle to improve their ability to convert feed to muscle. Testing ensures the animals aren’t processed until the hormone is out of the animal’s system. Organic farmers cannot use these hormones. Hormones are not used in dairy, pigs, or poultry on any farm.
2. Use only 100% organic animal feed
Whether it’s corn, soybeans, or oats, the food animals eat must be 100% Certified Organic. Organic feed can be costly for farmers. This is one of the reasons organic animal products are more expensive.
3. Raised in living conditions that accommodate their natural behaviors
Certified Organic regulations require that animals have extra room to roam and graze. This increases the area required to raise animals. For example, organic-raised cattle must be able to graze on pasture. Conventional farmers also often allow cows to graze and provide sufficient shelter for them.
Non-GMO vs Certified Organic Labels
Organic foods cannot contain GMO crops. But a non-GMO labeled food doesn't need to be organic. Like Non-GMO Project Verified products and other non-GMO foods, a Certified Organic food does not guarantee that it is 100% GMO-free. Both labels allow for a certain amount of genetically modified ingredients.
There are also differences in the certification processes for non-GMO and Certified Organic labels. The USDA regulates Certified Organic foods. Independent organizations control the voluntary process for certifying non-GMO food.
The Certified Organic labeling process prohibits GMOs. However, there are some exceptions when non-GMO alternatives are not available. This is the case with cornstarch and soy lecithin - an emulsifier. Producers use emulsifiers to combine foods or liquids that generally don’t mix, like water and oil.