All organics are non-GMO, but not all non-GMOs are organic. What on earth does that mean? In this age of information, we are constantly bombarded by news and articles that seem to contradict themselves more often than not. Searching for even the simplest answer to a question often leads to ten opinion pieces that don’t seem particularly helpful. This is especially true for things that have been controversial for a while, but don’t get explained very often. GMO, non-GMO, and organic are three such terms. They often are mixed in together, but without much context or reference. We’d like you to feel like you’re able to make the best decisions for your family, garden, and world, so we made this deep-dive into what GMO, non-GMO, and organic actually mean.
A Genetically Modified Organism or GMO is just that: an organism such as a plant, animal, or bacterium that has had its DNA – its genetic code – artificially modified. This can be used as a shortcut to crossbreeding, like taking a gene from a heat-resistant lettuce and putting it into a particularly tasty lettuce to extend its growing season. It can also create something entirely new, like bacteria that can eat deadly chemicals in superfund sites and turn them into harmless ones.
More than 90% of all soy and corn grown in the united states is genetically modified in some way. Sometimes it has only been modified just to increase yield or drought tolerance, but often it is modified to repel and/or kill pests and be tolerant to herbicides and/or pesticides. With conventional farming practices, 30% more pesticides are sprayed than in organic systems, and what makes up those pesticides is drastically different. Noenicitinoids are the most common class of those conventional pesticides, and they’re often powerful enough to protect a crop with just one spray from seed to harvest when used wisely. However, despite this, and the fact that many of these crops are modified to be pest resistant to begin with, they’re usually sprayed multiple times before harvest by conventional farm systems. This is made much easier for conventional farms by the crop’s resistance to the sprays. Since these pesticides don’t discriminate between pests such as potato beetles and helpful insects such as bees, you can see how this method of farming would be increasingly questioned.
Further, these same GMOs are not modified to amend soil or otherwise assume roles in a crop rotation system that would help amend the soil, which ultimately means an incredible amount of fertilizers must be used to keep the crops productive for the conventional monoculture system. Monoculture systems are systems in which a single crop is grown in the same field, virtually forever. It’s long been known that intensive use of fertilizers connected to monoculture crops lead to increased rates of agricultural runoff – things like nitrogen and phosphorus entering the water and running off into streams and rivers. This is especially true of the super potent synthetic fertilizers that are generally used, and often leads to things like unhealthy algal blooms that destroy entire aquatic ecosystems. Add to this the growing concern about things like how herbicides affect native plant populations even outside planted fields; how poorly studied but widely used chemicals in conventional systems affect the body; and how the global ecosystem is impacted by conventional methods, and there’s good reason to be concerned about GMOs and their place in conventional agriculture.
GMO animal products, it should be noted, are not common at all. There is only one GMO animal currently approved for consumption in the US, and that is the AquAdvantage Salmon. This salmon’s gene for growth and development has another fish – the ocean pout’s – gene for increasing growth tacked onto it, so the salmon grow faster. However, animals raised in conventional systems are not generally raised to the highest standards. The overcrowding, poor waste management, and too-frequent use of antibiotics in conventional systems have been a public concern for a very long time. While conventional industries are getting better at providing high welfare outcomes for farmed animals – because happy animals make better products that people are happier about buying – this change is slow.
Non-GMO means an organism, whether plant, animal, or bacterium, has not had its DNA artificially altered in any way. It does not necessarily mean they are traditionally bred – artificial insemination and specialized pollination methods exist and may be used for non-GMOs – but it does mean that the genes of the parent organism(s) will randomly sort themselves out in the offspring without any genes getting added in or artificially altered. This means that for every desirable mix you get through cross-breeding, say, an ear of corn that’s sweet-and-large bred from a sweet-but-small and a large-but-bland set of parents, you may also get many offspring that are not desirable. This makes cross-breeding slow, but it also allows producers to work on improving many traits at the same time through via natural mutations, which puts more power in the hands of the average family-farmer or homesteader.
Non-GMO products also include heritage breeds, which vary on the requirements to be called heritage by species, but all require traditional breeding to produce offspring. Many heritage breed plants and animals are also specially bred to thrive in a specific environment, which can reduce the quantity of pesticides, herbicides, and potent fertilizers used on a crop. That having been said, non-GMO only means the organism hasn’t had its DNA artificially altered. Non-GMO products are often still grown using a conventional system. This means too-frequent noenicitinoid pesticide sprays, native plant killing herbicide sprays, and super-potent fertilizer run-off. In fact, some non-GMO crops use more pesticides than GMO crops, because they are grown in conventional systems without the pest-resistant genes that are inserted into GMO crops. However, not all non-GMO crops are grown in conventional systems. This brings us to....
Organic crops and animals have a large number of rules they have to abide by to use the word “organic” on any packaging, one of which being that they cannot contain any GMOs. All plants and animals grown under an organic system cannot be genetically modified, as well as having a strict list of chemicals and ingredients that are allowed to be used in their production. The most potent of these come nowhere even close to how dangerous the most potent conventional chemicals are. One of the most common pesticides in organic production, for instance, is called pyrethrin. It’s made from grinding up dried chrysanthemum flowers into a powder. It is as dangerous as any other powdered chrysanthemum flower to humans, but is incredibly effective at killing bugs. It generally degrades into a harmless chemical about two days after being applied. Because of the short lifetime of the pesticide, many organic farmers are much more careful about avoiding pests to begin with by using other methods, such as trap plants that draw the bugs away from the crop.
Further, organic crop farms are required to: rotate crops each growing season; fertilize only with non-synthetic, organic-approved soil amenders such as sphagnum moss and cow manure; not have used any sort of non-organic approved spray, whether fertilizer, herbicide, or pesticide on a field in three or more years; never use radiation on the product; and never use any synthetic additives such as artificial food colorings or preservatives on the product. Overall, this supports native plant populations, pollinators, and biodiversity in general as unused lands remain largely undisturbed, and the soils become healthier. Granted, not every organic farm does things right. There are still farms owned by huge corporations that treat their organic crops like conventional crops while skirting by the rules – but these corporations still don’t cause as much harm as conventional farming does simply because the inputs to organic farming are still much less dangerous, and the requirements still encourage sustainability. Even better, these loophole flaunters are slowly getting removed from the organic market as regulators grow more aware of their actions, and more people are drawn to local options where they’re able to know the farms that produce their food.
In the case of organic animal products, most of these loophole closures are already done, as the requirements are much stricter than with crops. These animals must only eat certified organic food and can never be exposed to antibiotics or additional hormones. They also have a series of strict welfare requirements – it’s not just what physically goes into the animals, but ethically as well. They must have continuous outdoor access to certified organic land, be allowed to express all their natural behaviors, and must be free to move around. This means minimums on acceptable amounts of space per animal. There’s a lot more that goes into raising organic animal products, but the standards change depending on what kind of animal is being raised. Dairy cows will have different requirements than beef cows, for instance, because they need different things to stay healthy and disease-free. Something worth noting, though, is that if an animal does ever get so sick that it needs a medicine not approved for organic use (such as an antibiotic) to become healthy again, organic farms are required to give the medicine to the animal and move it to a non-organic herd or flock so that it doesn’t suffer or die from a curable disease.
And there you have it. We hope you feel more empowered to make what you feel is the best choice in this information-laden world, and that we’ve helped clear any confusion about these terms that you might have had. If you’re interested in learning more about organic agriculture, we have a wonderful list of books (and one podcast!) below. If you have your own livestock and are thinking about making a switch to organic feed, New Country Organics is proud to offer super-premium, 100% soy-free feeds for everything from baby chickens to dairy cows with calves. Learn more about our mission, or browse our products to see if our feeds are right for your family.
References & Further Reading
City Chicks: Keeping Micro-flocks of Chickens as Garden Helpers, Compost Makers, Bio-recyclers, and Local Food Producer, by Pat Foreman
This book takes a no-fuss, to-the-point approach in teaching you about chickens and how to care for a flock in an urban setting. It’s shockingly comprehensive and a fantastic place to start your journey, with the added bonus of tips on convincing your community to allow chickens.
The Small Scale Poultry Flock, by Harvey Ussery
This is a super-comprehensive guide to raising poultry, from incubating your own eggs to processing your chickens, this is for both the homesteader looking to increase production in the garden and the flock and small scale farmers looking to increase efficiency while making a tidy profit.
Chicken Tractor: The Permaculture Guide to Happy Hens and Healthy Soil by Andrew W. Lee and Patricia Foreman
Learn how to use mobile chicken pens to feed your chickens and utilize their potential as natural pest control, fertilizer, and food source.
Feeding Pasture Raised Poultry, by Jeff Mattocks
This is a perfect beginner guide to understanding what should go into a pastured chicken feed and why, with special consideration to keeping birds healthy.
There’s a book for every kind of flock by this author, whether you’re raising a small flock of chickens in your backyard, or building a beef enterprise. We recommend browsing through his catalogue and seeing what seems to best apply to your own flock.
Pastured Poultry Talk, by Mike Badger
Not only does this podcast have a multi-part guide to raising and processing your own pastured poultry that you can listen to on your morning commute, it also delves in to all sorts of other current events and issues in the poultry community and best management practices to help.
Sources referenced in the writing of this article:
Larsen, A.E., Claire Powers, L. & McComb, S. Identifying and characterizing pesticide use on 9,000 fields of organic agriculture. Nat Commun 12, 5461 (2021). https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-021-25502-w
Goulson, D., REVIEW: An overview of the environmental risks posed by neonicotinoid insecticides. J Appl Ecol, 50: 977-987. (2013) https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1365-2664.12111