Organic Consumers Association

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Why the 'Non-GMO' Label Is Organic's Frenemy

For Related Articles and More Information, Please Visit OCA's All About Organics Page and our Genetic Engineering Page.

It's easy to think of "organic" and "non-GMO" as the best buddies of food. They sit comfortably beside each other in the same grocery stores - most prominently, in Whole Foods Market. Culturally, they also seem to occupy the same space. Both reject aspects of mainstream industrial agriculture.

In fact, the increasingly successful movement to eliminate genetically modified crops - GMOs - from food is turning out to be organic's false friend. The non-GMO label has become a cheaper alternative to organic.

"More and more, there's concern [among organic food companies] that they created a monster," says Mark Kastel, a pro-organic activist who's co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute.

The conflict between organic and non-GMO food became clear to me while reporting two stories in recent weeks, one about non-GMO grain and another about organic eggs. I visited Allen Williams, a farmer near Cerro Gordo, Ill., who straddles this divide. He grows everything: lots of organic crops; non-GMO corn and soybeans; and some genetically modified crops.

His nonorganic fields are treated essentially the same, whether the crops are non-GMO or genetically modified. Williams keeps those fields weed-free with chemical herbicides, although he has to use different chemicals on the non-GMO fields. He adds standard commercial fertilizer to keep the soil fertile. Basically, it's just conventional farming. Williams will get a higher price for his non-GMO soybeans and corn, but it's not a huge premium over the standard commodity price - about 15 percent for soybeans, 10 percent for corn.  
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