What GMO, Non-GMO, and Organic Actually Mean

an aerial view of some crops
Photo by Sveta Fedarava on Unsplash

All organics are non-GMO, but not all non-GMOs are organic. What the heck does that mean? In this age of information, we are constantly bombarded by news and articles that seem to contradict themselves more often than not. Searching for even the simplest answer to a question often leads to ten opinion pieces that don’t seem to have their facts straight. This is especially true for things that have been controversial for a while, but don’t get explained very often, like GMO, non-GMO, and organic. They often are mixed in together, but without much context or reference. My goal is to have you learn something new by the end of this article, even if you disagree with me on principle – this stuff is complicated and you might have a different take than I do. I can respect that. 

What is GMO?:

A genetically modified organism or GMO is just that: an organism such as a plant, animal, or bacterium that has had its DNA – its genetic code – artificially modified. This can be used as a shortcut to crossbreeding, like taking a gene from a heat-resistant lettuce and putting it into a particularly tasty lettuce to extend its growing season. It can also create something entirely new, like bacteria that can eat deadly chemicals in superfund sites and turn them into harmless ones.

More than 90% of all soy and corn grown in the united states is genetically modified in some way, which wouldn’t really be a problem except it’s usually modified to repel and/or kill pests and be tolerant to herbicides and/or pesticides, instead of for beneficial functions such as that afore-mentioned drought resistance. With conventional farming practices, 30% more pesticides are sprayed than in organic systems, and what makes up those pesticides is drastically different. Noenicitinoids are the most common class of those conventional pesticides, and they’re often powerful enough to protect a crop with just one spray from seed to harvest when used wisely. However, despite this, and the fact that many of these crops are modified to be pest resistant to begin with, they’re usually sprayed multiple times before harvest by conventional farm systems. This is made much easier for conventional farms by the crop’s resistance to the sprays. Since these pesticides don’t discriminate between pests such as potato beetles and helpful insects such as bees, you can see how this method of farming would be increasingly questioned.

A bee about to land on a sunflower
Get wrecked little buddy.
Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Further, since these same GMOs are not modified to amend soil or otherwise act like a different plant would in a crop rotation system, this ultimately means an incredible amount of fertilizers must be used to keep the crops productive for the conventional monoculture system. Monoculture systems are systems in which a single crop is grown in the same field, virtually forever. It’s long been known that intensive use of fertilizers connected to monoculture crops lead to increased rates of agricultural runoff – things like nitrogen and phosphorus entering the water and running off into streams and rivers. This is especially true of the super potent synthetic fertilizers that are generally used, and often leads to things like unhealthy algal blooms that destroy entire aquatic ecosystems. Add to this the growing concern about things like how herbicides affect native plant populations even in organic fields that haven’t seen a drop of the stuff in years; how poorly studied but widely used chemicals in conventional systems affect the body; and how the global ecosystem is impacted by conventional methods, and there’s good reason to be concerned about GMOs and their place in conventional agriculture.

However, and this is all emphasized for a reason, GMOs are not the problem here. If we were modifying crops to essentially take shortcuts in crossbreeding, to have benefit to the land, or to be pest resistant using chemicals that naturally occur in other foodstuffs, I’d be yelling about how great they are. Instead, I have to yell about how good they could be. That’s because of conventional farming methods, which use way too much fertilizer, way too much pesticide, and way too little long-term planning. And while we’re at it, let me put something to rest here: GMOs don’t cause cancer. They haven’t been linked to any issues beyond that which you would expect from the chemicals poured on them. That study with the rats that got cancer after eating a GMO diet? The one that everyone cites as the reason not to eat GMOs? They used a breed of rats that was especially prone to tumors. A breed of rats that was bred specifically to develop tumors. The GMOs did not cause the tumors, the genetics of the rats did. There’s a link to an article describing how that study was retracted down below if you want to read both sides of the issue, keeping in mind that the people noted as “for” the study are laypeople and politicians and the actual scientific community met the study with “near-universal scorn.” Thank you, and we may now move on.

Though actually, speaking of GMOs and animals, GMO animal products are not common at all. There is only one GMO animal currently approved for consumption in the US, and that is the AquAdvantage Salmon. This salmon’s gene for growth and development has another fish – the ocean pout’s – gene for increasing growth tacked onto it, so the salmon grows faster using its own hormones. However, animals raised in conventional systems are not generally raised to the highest standards. The overcrowding, poor waste management, and too-frequent use of antibiotics in conventional systems have been a public concern for a very long time. While conventional industries are getting better at providing high welfare outcomes for farmed animals – because happy animals make better products that people are happier about buying – this change is slow.

What is non-GMO?:

Non-GMO means an organism, whether plant, animal, or bacterium, has not had its DNA artificially altered in any way. It does not necessarily mean they are traditionally bred – artificial insemination and specialized pollination methods exist and may be used for non-GMOs – but it does mean that the genes of the parent organism(s) will randomly sort themselves out in the offspring without any genes getting added in or artificially altered. This means that for every desirable mix you get through cross-breeding, say, an ear of corn that’s sweet-and-large bred from a sweet-but-small and a large-but-bland set of parents, you may also get many offspring that are not desirable, such as small-and-bland offspring. This makes cross-breeding slow, but it also allows producers to work on improving many traits at the same time through via natural mutations, which puts more power in the hands of the average family-farmer or homesteader. Or, it will until CRISPR catches on for the average person, but I digress.

An elk bellowing
A dog barking in the year 2200, after everyone has learned to use CRISPR
Photo by Amee Fairbank-Brown on Unsplash

Non-GMO products also include heritage breeds, which vary on the requirements to be called heritage by species, but all require traditional breeding to produce offspring. Many heritage breed plants and animals are also specially bred to thrive in a specific environment, which can reduce the quantity of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers used on a crop. That having been said, non-GMO only means the organism hasn’t had its DNA artificially altered. Non-GMO products are often still grown using a conventional system. This means too-frequent noenicitinoid pesticide sprays, native plant killing herbicide sprays, and super-potent fertilizer run-off. In fact, some non-GMO crops use more pesticides than GMO crops, because they are grown in conventional systems without the pest-resistant genes that are inserted into GMO crops. However, not all non-GMO crops are grown in conventional systems. This brings us to-

What is organic?:

Organic crops and animals have a large number of rules they have to abide by to use the word “organic” on any packaging, one of which being that they cannot contain any GMOs. All plants and animals grown under an organic system cannot be genetically modified, as well as having a strict list of chemicals and ingredients that are allowed to be used in their production. The most potent of these are still pretty benign in comparison to most conventional chemicals. One of the most common pesticides in organic production, for instance, is called pyrethrin. It’s made from grinding up dried chrysanthemum flowers into a powder. It has a tendency to cause rashes for a lot of people and isn’t particularly pleasant to breathe, as you can imagine, but it hasn’t been shown to have any long-term effects on humans thus far. It generally degrades into a harmless chemical about two days after being applied. Because of the short lifetime of this and other organic pesticides, many organic farmers are much more careful about avoiding pests to begin with by using other methods, such as trap plants that draw the bugs away from the crop. That having been said, it still doesn’t discriminate between bees, fish, and pest insects, either, so for best practice organic farmers have to apply these after dark and away from waterways so they’re the least likely to interact with beneficial fauna.

A beekeeper opening an apiary
Who needs a bee suit when you can murder them upon contact?
Photo by Amee Fairbank-Brown on Unsplash

Further, organic crop farms are required to: rotate crops each growing season; fertilize only with non-synthetic, organic-approved soil amenders such as sphagnum moss and cow manure; not have used any sort of non-organic approved spray, whether fertilizer, herbicide, or pesticide on a field in three or more years; and never use any synthetic additives such as artificial food colorings or preservatives on the product, among other requirements. Overall, this supports native plant populations, pollinators, and biodiversity in general as unused lands remain largely undisturbed, and the soils become healthier. Granted, not every organic farm does things right. There are still farms owned by huge corporations that treat their organic crops like conventional crops while skirting by the rules – but these corporations still don’t generally cause as much harm as conventional farming does simply because the inputs to organic farming are still much less dangerous, and the requirements still encourage sustainability. Even better, these loophole flaunters are slowly getting removed from the organic market as regulators grow more aware of their actions, and more people are drawn to local options where they’re able to know the farms that produce their food.

In the case of organic animal products, most of these loophole closures are already done, as the requirements are much stricter than with crops. These animals must only eat certified organic food and can never be exposed to most of conventional medicine, which I have a real issue with, but maybe people will come to their senses some day. They also have a series of strict welfare requirements – it’s not just what physically goes into the animals, but ethically as well. They must have continuous outdoor access to certified organic land, be allowed to express all their natural behaviors, and must be free to move around. This means minimums on acceptable amounts of space per animal – though, this can also be problematic. There’s a lot more that goes into raising organic animal products, but the standards change depending on what kind of animal is being raised. Dairy cows will have different requirements than beef cows, for instance, because they need different things to stay healthy and disease-free. 

A red hen
Disclaimer: This is not a dairy cow. Do not feed dairy cow rations.

So why do I have beef with organic?

(Pun entirely intended.) Well, for one thing, corporate “farms” are still out there, treating organics like conventional farming. Since crop yields vary up to 20% depending on the plant, they also generally use more land to produce the same quantity of food, and then with more land being sprayed more they end up hurting the environment to a similar degree as they would have following non-organic practices. Further, not every organic pesticide is as benign as pyrethrin, and some have health and environmental effects that are worse than the least harmful conventional pesticides. With technologies like genetic modification off the table, organic agriculture is hindered in a lot of ways that are completely unnecessary to producing a healthy, wholesome product and planet, and that in some cases these hinderances cause more harm than good because organic systems fail to take full advantage of new information. There’s a very “Well, maybe it’s better, but that’s not how we’ve always done it” air to organic crop systems and the regulations placed around them, and it’s biting both the producers and consumers in the bum.

On the animal side, added hormones don’t really hurt anything. You eat less hormone from a cow raised with an estrogen implant than you get from eating a bowl of peas, and the cows aren’t growing so quickly that they experience negative effects… Unlike chickens, for which it’s actually illegal to use hormones at all but we’ve still managed to breed into putting on weight so quickly that their muscles literally start to rot while they’re still alive. Yet again, even organic farming can be horrifyingly bad for everyone involved.

The inability of producers to use conventional medicine without having to cull an animal is also concerning. While producers are required to use conventional medicine if an animal gets too sick for anything else to work, a) this isn’t really enforceable, so animals may well just die of illness or be euthanized rather than treated unless a bad producer is caught, and b) that leaves a lot of time for an animal to, say, go blind from pinkeye while the organic producer is stuck praying that the garlic salve they applied around the eye will work instead of just using an effective antibiotic to begin with. Conventional medicine shouldn’t be abused, certainly. I love that antibiotics can’t be fed constantly at low levels to “prevent disease”. However, making conventional medicine completely inaccessible to 100% organic producers is an ethical nightmare.

A slightly muddy duckling lifting a foot
“Well’p. Guess I’ll die!”
Photo by melethril on Unsplash

Oh, and for continual outdoor access? Free-range chickens are under the absolute worst conditions of any production system. They’re constantly exposed to wild birds passing by, which is a recipe for disease when you combine it with the fact that they’re all jammed together in a warehouse with a yard and sanitation is a virtually unsolvable problem in those conditions. This isn’t to say that outdoor access is an absolute no – pastured birds with rotating pasture are the healthiest birds out there because they’re constantly moving away from their own and other birds’ waste, as well as consistently getting better nutrition and enrichment from the pasture they peck through. It’s using a fixed pasture that’s a problem. Further, indoor birds can live perfectly happy and healthy lives just as pastured birds do, it just takes more work to get them complete nutrition and environmental enrichment. Big producers aren’t quite there, yet, though they are getting substantially better and fast. For a better breakdown of this, see my posts on egg-carton jargon, or my future article specifically on these three production methods.

But hey, let’s not end this on a sour note: I want to make it clear that organic and integrated farming methods are helping the environment, and welfare requirements, even if sometimes they’re a step in the wrong direction, are making a difference in the lives of production animals. The desire we, as consumers, have for planet healthy, ethical products, is one that’s being responded to. It’s going a lot faster than it was before, too! Animal welfare and pesticide reduction bills are regularly being presented now, and all the hearts working on them seem to be in the right place even if they aren’t particularly educated on biosecurity or practical production methods. Still, the more things get presented, the faster those folks will learn what makes sense and what doesn’t. Plus, it helps drive demand up for the thing that actually makes the most difference: buying local, seasonally produced foods. We’re getting better at this stuff, one day at a time.

Further reading:

Larsen, A.E., Claire Powers, L. & McComb, S. Identifying and characterizing pesticide use on 9,000 fields of organic agriculture. Nat Commun 12, 5461 (2021). https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-021-25502-w

Goulson, D., REVIEW: An overview of the environmental risks posed by neonicotinoid insecticides. J Appl Ecol, 50: 977-987. (2013) https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1365-2664.12111

V. Novotny. Diffuse pollution from agriculture—a worldwide outlook. Water Sci. Technol., 39 (1999), pp. 1-13. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0167880920304564#bibl0005

Roff, R.J. Shopping for change? Neoliberalizing activism and the limits to eating non-GMO. Agric Hum Values 24, 511–522 (2007). https://www.researchgate.net/publication/227007598_Shopping_for_change_Neoliberalizing_activism_and_the_limits_to_eating_non-GMO

Kershen, Drew. (2001). The Risks of Going Non-GMO. SSRN Electronic Journal. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228140612_The_Risks_of_Going_Non-GMO

Teri Underwood, Christine McCullum-Gomez, Alison Harmon & Susan Roberts (2011) Organic Agriculture Supports Biodiversity and Sustainable Food Production, Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, 6:4, 398-423, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19320248.2011.627301

Rigby, D. and S. Bown. 2007. Whatever happened to organic?: Food, nature and the market for “sustainable” food. Capitalism Nature Socialism 18(3): 81-102. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10455750701526393?journalCode=rcns20

Agricultural Marketing Service. 2023. National Organic Program (NOP); Strengthening Organic Enforcement. https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2023/01/19/2023-00702/national-organic-program-nop-strengthening-organic-enforcement

Code of Federal Regulations. 2023. Title 7, Part 205, of the Code of Federal Regulations. https://www.ecfr.gov/current/title-7/subtitle-B/chapter-I/subchapter-M/part-205?toc=1

Cassasus, B. Study Linking Genetically Modified Corn to Rat Tumors Is Retracted. November 29, 2013. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/study-linking-genetically-modified-corn-to-cancer/

Blair, A. Hormones in Beef: Myths vs. Fact. July 13, 2022. https://extension.sdstate.edu/hormones-beef-myths-vs-facts

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