USDA Certified Organic Versus Non-GMO Foods: Key Things to Know

By Pacific College - October 14, 2016
USDA Certified Organic Versus Non-GMO Foods: Key Things to Know

When someone claims to be a “natural food nut”, what are they really saying? Are they telling you that their diet is totally organic, non-GMO, or both? What do those terms really mean?

Organic product sales are big business in the United States, reaching a new high of $43.3 billion last year–an 11% increase over 2014’s numbers. As a point of comparison, the overall food market’s growth rate was only 3% in 2015, according to the Organic Trade Association’s 2016 survey.

But making a commitment to a whole-foods diet is not as clean-cut as it sounds. Deciphering labels when you’re rushing through the grocery store can be confusing if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for. What does it mean for a product to be USDA certified organic, and how is that different from a non-GMO (genetically modified organism) food?

What does the USDA Organic label tell you?

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates the National Organic Program. This process-based certification ensures that farmers and producers follow approved methods. They must undergo annual verifications conducted by third party organic inspectors to ensure compliance.

Some of the most important guidelines organic producers must adhere to include:

  • No use of synthetic or toxic pesticides
  • No use of toxic herbicides such as glyphosate (Roundup)
  • No use of fertilizers containing sewage sludge
  • Organic meat cannot be produced with growth-promoting steroids or drugs
  • Organic animals must not be fattened with growth-promoting antibiotics.

USDA certified organic meats, grains, produce, and processed foods do not allow the use of GMOs:

  • Farmers are prohibited from providing their animals with GMO feed. Organic livestock must receive 100 percent organic feed.
  • Farmers are not allowed to grow produce using GMO seeds.
  • Companies who specialize in processed organic foods may not use GMO ingredients. When you see the USDA Organic Seal on a processed food, it ensures that at least 95% of the ingredients are certified organic. The remaining 5% must be GMO-free.

Why is the Non-GMO Project Verified seal important?

When you spot the “Non-GMO Project” label on a product, it assures you that less than 0.9% of the ingredients are genetically modified. This independent non-profit organization based in Bellingham, Washington offers a process-based verification and inspection method that requires the testing of products at different stages of production to ensure compliance.

A product can certainly be labeled non-GMO and not be organic. Non-GMO crops are not subject to the same restrictions that apply to organic crops and can therefore contain toxic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Packaged non-GMO meats may have been raised on growth-promoting steroids and drugs and fattened with growth-promoting antibiotics.

Put Simply

All certified USDA organic foods are also non-GMO foods. Although 64 countries around the world require genetically modified foods to be labeled, this is not the case in the United States. This makes the Non-GMO Project’s efforts all the more valuable in helping us make informed and conscious food choices.

To learn more about creative projects that support sustainable, holistic lifestyles, see our article on the innovative Kickstarter site.


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