Looking to avoid genetically modified foods? Search for an "organic" label. (Photo: Flickr/Getty Images)
“When [a food] says ‘organic,’ is that enough to mean non-GMO? Would a Monsanto soybean ever be considered organic? I always buy Trader Joe’s organic and I read somewhere that they do not use GMO ingredients in their own products. Please tell me if this is correct!” —Jillian Simms
The short answers to your questions are 1.) yes 2.) not no, but hell, no, and 3.) I don’t know.
The long answers are a little more complicated, but bear with me. Much will be revealed. USDA-certified organic foods do not contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Organic produce is also cultivated without synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, or sewage sludge (“biosolids” is the industry euphemism) for compost, and they haven’t been irradiated. Certified organic meat comes from animals that were given 100% organic feed and no growth hormones or antibiotics. They had access to the outdoors (although generally not the pastoral idyll we all fondly imagine) and the producers meet USDA animal welfare protocols. Any time you see the label “USDA Certified Organic,” in fact, it means that the food was produced under the federal standards specified by the National Organic Program (which is part of the USDA) and verified by an accredited certifying agent. For more information, the Organic Farming Research Foundation is a great place to start.
It took a good ten years to hammer out the organic food regs, and they are far from perfect. Organic food doesn’t have to be local or seasonal, for instance, and it doesn’t have to be harvested by humanely treated workers paid a living wage. The rules can be burdensome for small farms, and as always, it pays to know your producers; I buy fruit and vegetables from several of them who aren’t certified organic, yet follow organic practices. It’s also necessary to parse labels carefully: Underneath the official “Certified Organic” umbrella, there are different shades of meaning when it comes to packaged multi-ingredient foods.
“100% Organic” means that the product contains only organic ingredients and processing aids. The USDA seal and the logo of the third-party certifier may appear on the product.
“Organic” means that the product contains at least 95% organic ingredients. Any remaining ingredients must consist of nonagricultural substances on the approved National List, including specific nonorganically produced agricultural products that aren’t commercially available in organic form. The USDA seal and the logo of the third-party certifier may appear on the product.
“Made with Organic Ingredients” means that the product must include at least 70% organic ingredients. It may carry the certifier’s seal but not the USDA seal. And it can list up to three of the organic ingredients or food groups.
It sounds like common sense to slap a label on foods containing GMO ingredients as well. After all, how hard could it be? They’re in everything. Commodity GM crops such as corn, soybeans, canola, and sugar beets are now present in the sea of processed foods at any supermarket. According to the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit organization committed to providing verified non-GMO choices to consumers, the back panel of almost any packaged food can contain ingredients derived from GMO risk crops, including “Amino Acids, Aspartame, Ascorbic Acid, Sodium Ascorbate, Vitamin C, Citric Acid, Sodium Citrate, Ethanol, Flavorings (‘natural’ and ‘artificial’), High-Fructose Corn Syrup, Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein, Lactic Acid, Maltodextrins, Molasses, Monosodium Glutamate, Sucrose, Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP), Xanthan Gum, Vitamins, Yeast Products.”
Yeesh. By the way, in case you are wondering why the name Non-GMO Project rings a bell, it’s probably because Kashi cereals recently jumped on the bandwagon. And for more on why GMO labeling is a good thing—and why it will be an uphill battle—read what the straight-talking policy expert Marion Nestle had to say in her first “Food Matters” column for the San Francisco Chronicle. As to whether a Monsanto soybean would ever be considered organic, I reached out to Charles Benbrook, chief scientist at The Organic Center, in Troy, Oregon. “The vast majority of the soybean seed they sell has, by their choice, the Roundup Ready gene in it, whether farmers want it or not—and more and more do not, because of resistant weeds,” he explained. “The seed industry holds all the cards, since they must decide what they are going to grow in 2012 to sell to farmers in 2013. If farmer attitudes change in 2013 and a significant percentage—say, one-third—decide they do not want to plant GE soybeans, they will be #hit out of luck, since 90 percent plus of the nation’s soybean seed supply will be GE, and Monsanto cannot wave a magic wand and extract their RR gene.” Lastly, when shopping, even at Trader Joe’s, don’t check your brain at the door. Private-label products help create a brand; some may be certified organic and some may not. In all honesty, Trader Joe’s lost me as a customer when a manager refused to disclose which poultry producers he buys from. This lack of transparency is nothing new, and don’t get me wrong: The chicken I was eyeing looked beautiful. But without more information, I took a pass. When it came to the trail mix, though, and the peanut-butter–filled pretzel nuggets, I caved. Nobody’s perfect.