There's a Difference Between Buying Organic and Not Buying GMOs

Even with the new GMO labeling law, shoppers still need to be savvy to know what they are buying.

(Photo: Cynthia Edorh/Getty Images)

Aug 10, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

You never know where the snatches of conversation overheard at farm stands or farmers markets will lead you—into an impromptu recipe exchange, for instance, or the desire to try a new vegetable (or part of one, like beet greens). The dark side of this eavesdropping is that you will hear culinary myths being perpetuated left, right, and center.

One common misconception I hear is that lettuce isn’t nutritious. (Not true: Although the darker green the leaf, the greater the nutritive oomph, all lettuces—even much maligned iceberg—contain, in varying quantities, dietary fiber, vitamins C and K, beta-carotene, magnesium, potassium, chromium, iron, folate, and even a little protein.) Another one is that vegetables like tomatoes, eggplant, and others in the nightshade family should be avoided at all costs. (Again, not true, and here’s the lowdown.)

Lately, I’ve been hearing a number of folks wonder aloud about the difference between organic produce and foods that are “non-GMO”—that is, not genetically modified.

OK, long story short: Produce that is USDA-certified organic cannot be genetically modified, but something that is not genetically modified may or may not be certified organic.

“The use of genetic engineering, or genetically modified organisms…is prohibited in organic products,” explained Miles McEvoy, National Organic Program deputy administrator, in a 2013 blog post on the USDA website. “This means an organic farmer can’t plant GMO seeds, an organic cow can’t eat GMO alfalfa or corn, and an organic soup producer can’t use any GMO ingredients. To meet the USDA organic regulations, farmers and processors must show they aren’t using GMOs and that they are protecting their products from contact with prohibited substances, such as GMOs, from farm to table.”

Inadvertent drift and cross-pollination are serious, ever-present worries for organic producers. “Organic operations implement preventive practices based on site-specific risk factors, such as neighboring conventional farms or shared farm equipment or processing facilities. For example, some farmers plant their seeds early or late to avoid organic and GMO crops flowering at the same time (which can cause cross-pollination),” McEvoy continued. “Others harvest crops prior to flowering or sign cooperative agreements with neighboring farms to avoid planting GMO crops next to organic ones. Farmers also designate the edges of their land as a buffer zone where the land is managed organically, but the crops aren’t sold as organic.”

GMO labeling is among the most hotly debated food policy issues today, and while President Obama recently signed a law that makes the disclosure of genetically modified ingredients mandatory, the loopholes in the new regulations all but guarantee that the debate will continue.

But when it comes to genetically modified crops ending up at your local farm stand or in your supermarket’s produce department, the good news is that most fresh fruits and vegetables are non-GMO, whether or not they are labeled as such. But among the five crops considered "high-risk" for GMOs, along with Hawaiian papaya and edamame (fresh young soybeans), there are three beloved summer staples: zucchini, yellow summer squash, and sweet corn.

While nearly all U.S. field corn—which is used for feed, processed foods, and industrial uses—is genetically modified, GMO sweet corn debuted with absolutely no fanfare at all (surprise, surprise) in the summer of 2012. According to the Non-GMO Project, in 2011, Monsanto announced plans to grow genetically modified sweet corn on 250,000 acres, roughly accounting for 40 percent of the sweet corn market. That said, what I wrote last year—that today only a small amount of genetically modified sweet corn can be found in the U.S. market—still holds true.

“In 2013, Friends of the Earth released a first-of-its-kind study tracking the prevalence of GMO sweetcorn and brought us some good news!” reported the Non-GMO Project. “According to the study, out of 71 samples of fresh, frozen and canned corn tested from around the United States, only two of those tested positive (both were confirmed to be Monsanto Seminis® Performance Series™ sweet corn).”

When it comes to zucchini and yellow summer squash (both crookneck and straightneck), the amounts of those vegetables that are from genetically modified seed remain small too. Still, I, for one, am shocked—in part because zucchini and yellow summer squash are linchpins of my summer cooking, and also because every time I’ve grown them, the plants have been so damn healthy and prolific I wouldn’t have thought they would need any help at all from someone in a lab coat.

Yes, yes—I’m aware of the recently released analysis by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that says genetically engineered crops appear to be safe for consumption and aren’t harmful to the environment, but wading through the ocean of caveats makes me tired. For now, I’ll keep buying my corn from a farm stand that is proud of its non-GMO crop. When it comes to summer squashes, I’ll stick to organic, thank you, and wish that more farmers markets would follow the lead of the Bloomington Community Farmers’ Market in Bloomington, Indiana. (Go Hoosiers!) As of April, the market is requiring the labeling of all produce, plants, and products containing GMOs, because according to a 2015 survey by the Indiana University School of Public Health, that’s what 77 percent of customers wanted. Vox populi!