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USDA says 'organic' means 'non-GMO'

The USDA organic ruling of 2002 bans GMOs in organic foods, but do all food manufacturers have the same interpretation of the rule?

Last week I questioned whether GMOs are hidden in organic foods.

Ken Roseboro from the Organic & Non-GMO Report responded that he had “discussed GMO prohibition with some organic certifiers and several said there is inconsistency among the certifiers in how they interpret the rule prohibiting GMOs.”

And yet, another industry leader and peer reminded me of the Organic Trade Association white paper on GMOs and the organic industry’s hard stance against GMOs.

In the wake of last week’s Kashi consumer fallout for the company’s use of both GMO ingredients and the word “natural” (Nutella also settled a class action lawsuit last week for its use of the word “natural”), it is important to consider the history and importance of organic in light of GMOs. And, it’s important for organic companies and certifiers to be reminded of this legislation, to make sure it is being upheld as it was designed.  

History of GMO standards in U.S. organic agriculture

  • In 1997, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its draft National Organic Program rule. At this time, they proposed that organic allow the use of GMOs. This proposal was unacceptable to consumers, manufacturers, retailers, farmers, and basically anyone who had anything to do with organic.
  • The organic community united to “Save our Organic Standards” and deluged the USDA with comments. After receiving more than 275,000 comments from the public opposing the use of GMOs in organic, the final USDA organic rule, which went into effect in October 2002, prohibited the use of GMOs in the production and handling of organic products.
  • The final rule outlines that an organic operation has to document that it has not used GMOs and takes reasonable steps to avoid contact with GMOs. Whether a product is labeled "100% organic," "certified organic" (with an allowance of 5% non-organic ingredients) or “made with organic” (a minimum of 70% organic ingredients), none of the ingredients are permitted to use genetic engineering.

    That means in a “made with organic” cereal containing 70 percent organic ingredients, the remaining 30 percent non-organic ingredients cannot be produced from genetic engineering. Providers of non-organic ingredients being used in organic products, must also be able to provide proof that their ingredients are non-GMO.
  • An organic certifier may require testing when there is reason to believe that an organic product has come in contact with GMOs.

So are there GMOs in organic foods?

To Roseboro’s point, there may be inconsistency in how certifiers interpret the organic ruling. And to my point last week, there may be GMOs in organic products. But, ultimately the intent of the original ruling is that there are no GMOs present in an organic product.

On a large scale, organic becomes one of the only, if not the primary, guarantee that a product does not contain GMO ingredients. Yet, as the use of GMOs increases in the U.S. at an alarming pace, increased pressure is put on the organic community to maintain this standard, especially in the face of limited budgets.

In addition to reminding me of the organic white paper, my peer admitted that the organic community is grappling with many other issues as well, including what is needed to assure the future purity of organic seeds and who is liable if an organic farm’s crops are genetically contaminated from drift. These and many more issues are being studied and debated by the USDA's citizen advisory panel, the National Organic Standards Board.  

In light of the Kashi issue, I think it is important to be reminded of the organic legislation. “Natural” means nothing. No regulation, no guarantee against GMOs or pesticides, and really, no guarantee of anything, not even that the product's "healthy." So, playing by the rules, Kashi technically didn't do anything wrong because its "natural" cereals were the ones found to contain GMOs.

But "natural" isn't good enough for many consumers or me. While organic certainly has its challenges, I appreciate the work that went into creating the organic label so that we have a fighting chance against GMOs in favor of pure food. 

Discuss this Blog Entry 22

algernon (not verified)
on May 1, 2012

Excellent article, and it's also important to note that the label "Natural" is now being challenged as a deceptive marketing practice because, as the article states, the "Natural" label means nothing (except to unwary consumers who, understandably, believe that it does).

Anonymous (not verified)
on Nov 29, 2012

Natural actually does mean something if you know anything about nutrition...Although "natural" products contain GMO's and pesticides, if you you compare the ingredients (and number of ingredients) on the label of a natural vs non, there is a big difference. Any nutritionist will tell you not to purchase anything with more than 5 ingredients. Its those ingredients listed on non "natural" products that you have no idea what it is....that's what makes it un-"natural".

Anonymous (not verified)
on Aug 19, 2013

So how do I have a SEEDLESS watermelon that is labeled ORGANIC? (from Whole Foods) Watermelons do not grow naturally (correction: organically) without seeds! Isn't that considered, "Genetically Modified?"

on Aug 19, 2013

Thanks for your question! Seedless watermelon are hybrids created via a breeding technique that doesn't introduce genes from another species and are therefore not considered GMO.

High Quality Organics (not verified)
on May 5, 2012

This is very interesting as HQO abides by the strictest definition of USDA Organic, and all of our products contain absolutely no GMOs.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Sep 26, 2012

If Monsanto can sue farmers for selling products contaminated by drift because it has altered the farmers' crops, then Monsanto should be liable for not controlling the drift. We have become a nation that encourages poisoning its population.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Apr 18, 2013

Take a look at the YouTube Keynote presentation "GMOs in USDA Organics" to see how the regulatory statutes and USDA public relations proclamations about certified organics seem to have loopholes in them. The verbiage is loose and needs to be fixed, else some corporation take advantage and "inadvertently" sell gmo-laden organics to cut better profits.

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