Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth nutrition, fitness and adventure courses, and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+..
Q: I have no idea what the difference is between organic and non-GMO food. Can you fill me in on the basics?
A: It’s not always easy to get the facts about these important topics, in large part because for more than two decades, information about dramatic changes in how our food is produced has been suppressed, and people have only been discovering the truth in bits and pieces.
“So many truths [about our food] have been whitewashed,” says Carey Gillam, a writer for U.S. Right to Know and the author of Whitewash. “By pouring more and more pesticides on crops, we’re getting less healthy soil, less healthy food, and potentially a range of carcinogenic and endocrine-disrupting chemicals in our breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
“The chemical industry is doing exactly what the tobacco industry did decades ago,” continues Gillam. It puts forth “an orchestrated effort to keep the public in the dark about real and serious dangers about chemicals found in our food, our water, and our own bodies.”
In a similar way to how people woke up to the dangers of pesticides in our environment from Silent Spring author Rachel Carson in the 1960s, Gillam says we need to again pay attention to the many risks of pesticide use, be aware, and be engaged on this issue to protect ourselves, our food, our health, and our environment.
When it comes to protecting yourself, it’s best to seek out organic and non-GMO foods. While both have benefits, there are some subtle differences. Here’s what you need to know:
Although foods may look like they used to, several key foods now are radically different on the inside because they’re genetically engineered to confer new traits. Almost all of the genetically modified foods on the market have been altered to either produce their own pesticide or to tolerate chemical herbicides such as Roundup weed killer.
All of the top six GM crops in the U.S.—sugar beets, soy, alfalfa, corn, canola (canola oil), and cotton (cottonseed oil)—are genetically modified to be herbicide tolerant, which means lots of extra herbicide is being sprayed on the plant, and that has led to weed resistance. Farmers, in turn, sometimes use up to four times more herbicide than they used to in an effort to combat resistant weeds. Spraying so much herbicide adversely affects the beneficial microorganisms in the soil, which makes the plant more vulnerable to disease.
Research shows that the process of genetic engineering itself causes unintended consequences in the DNA of the plant, which pose health risks. However, the risks associated with the herbicide sprayed on most GM crops are now considered much more serious. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer declared glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, a probable human carcinogen. Research also suggests that glyphosate is an endocrine (or hormone) disruptor.
Organic and Non-GMO Explained
The best way we can affect positive change in our food system and environment is through what we buy. To make an informed choice, be sure to know the difference between organic and non-GMO foods.
Products that have the USDA Organic seal cannot, by law, contain any GMO ingredients. They also must be produced without irradiation, sewage sludge, antibiotics, growth hormones, synthetic chemical fertilizers, and synthetic chemical pesticides (including glyphosate), many of which have been linked to a number of health problems, including neurologic and endocrine system disorders, and cancer. Buying organic means supporting an environmentally beneficial food production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems, and people. Plus, reviews of multiple studies indicate that organic foods are more nutritious than non-organic foods. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that organic certification does not require testing for GMOs.
Non-GMO Project Verified
On the other hand, products that carry the Non-GMO Project Verified label are independently verified to be in compliance with North America’s only third party standard for GMO avoidance, including the testing of at-risk ingredients. That’s important to know to help us avoid GMOs. But a Non-GMO Project Verified label will not let us know if the food was sprayed with chemical pesticides.
The Best Ways to Avoid GMOs & Pesticides
In my book Going Against GMOs, I call GMOs and the pesticides that go with them the food and environmental issue of our time. In fact, they’re two of the primary reasons why many people choose to buy organic, which is the best strategy for avoiding synthetic chemical pesticides.
To avoid both GMOs and pesticides, seek out USDA Organic foods, preferably also labeled with the Non-GMO Project Verified label. The two widely used seals together give extra insurance to help you chose nutritious, unadulterated, non-GMO food.
The New Food Label on the Market
Concern about glyphosate herbicide on food has become such a hot-button issue that The Detox Project, a research and certification platform that uses an FDA-registered food testing lab to test for toxic chemicals, launched its “Glyphosate Residue Free” food label in 2017. You can learn more about Glyphosate Residue Free certified products at detoxproject.org.