Think Your Organic Food is GMO-Free? Don’t Be So Sure

are organic vegetables really gmo-free?

For those who want to avoid consuming GMOs–genetically modified organisms–especially given the fact that one national GMO label will not be put into place for at least another two years, the logical choice is the USDA organic label. After all, GMOs are strictly prohibited in organic food, right? Well… the real answer is a bit more complicated than that. Suffice it to say, when you buy organic, you’re not necessarily always buying GMO-free.

Why Are GMOs Such a Big Deal?

GMOs refer to a plant or animal whose genes have been modified so that it takes on a favorable characteristic, like an apple that doesn’t oxidize and turn brown so easily, a potato that’s immune to certain pests, a fish that reaches market weight in half the time, for example.

But the most common GMOs — and the ones that are causing the hubbub — are super-crops that are immune to certain herbicides, particularly Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicide marketed as Roundup. Because these crops are engineered to resist these harmful chemicals, more can be used, introducing them into our food supply and into the environment.

It’s no wonder so many people are clamoring for GMOs to be labeled – if you don’t want to support Big Ag adding herbicides to your food, your water, and your land, it’s important to know where they are and how to avoid them. So when rumors started bouncing around claiming that certified organic foods might contain GMOs, it got some people a bit worried.

Could GMOs Be Hiding in My Organic Kale?

So do you really have to worry that your certified organic produce might be hiding a big, bad secret?

The short answer? No, not really.

An organic farmer is prohibited both from planting GMO seeds and feeding his animals GMO feed, and these rules and regulations are very strict. If you buy organic apples, organic summer squash, organic eggs, or organic meat, you can rest assured that your choices are GMO-free.

So Where Did the Rumor Come From?

After the Senate passed its GMO labeling bill in July, rumors began flying claiming that GMO seeds, raised using organic methods, could technically be considered organic. Research carried out by FactCheck.org found that these rumors began when Democratic Senator Jon Tester claimed that, “because the bill uses a new definition of ‘bioengineering’ and because USDA is given the authority to determine which foods are considered bioengineered, there could ultimately be a situation where a GMO seed is planted, raised using organic processes, and then certified organic despite it being a GMO plant,” according to the Senator’s office.

While this is definitely consumers can breathe a bit easier in the knowledge that no matter how the definition of bioengineering changes in the future, all Roundup-ready crops will continue to be prohibited from organic certification. In fact, any products made using gene deletion, gene doubling, introducing a foreign gene, and changing the positions of genes will never be given organic certification, according to the USDA.

But unfortunately, debunking this rumor is not the end of our GMO woes — some organic products, even today, are not as GMO-free as the USDA would have us believe.

So Where Are GMOs Lurking?

The key to finding where GMOs are hidden is in reading packaging very carefully.

The first place you may find GMOs are in products labeled “Made with organic ingredients.” This label only requires that 70 percent of ingredients used in the product be certified organic, leaving the remaining 30 percent a bit of a mystery–and most notably, leaving open the possibility that GMOs may be used.

But even with 100 percent certified organic products, things can still get a bit tricky if you’re not reading the ingredients list carefully.

Anything included on the USDA’s National List can technically be included in a certified organic food, including certain non-organic ingredients. This includes sausage casings, which can be made from the intestines of animals fed a GMO-feed and antibiotic-ridden diet; celery powder, which, if made from non-organic celery, packs a hearty dose of pesticides given its number five ranking on EWG’s Dirty Dozen list; and a variety of colorings made from grapes, pumpkin, radish, and red cabbage – none of which need to be grown organically or without GMOs.

Even if you’re avoiding products with these ingredients, you might still be introducing GMOs into your diet because of cross-pollination between non-GMO and GMO crops. Due to a number of factors including supplier error and seeds traveling by wind or via animal pollinators, a whopping 25 percent of organic corn has been contaminated with GMOs, according to the Non-GMO Report.

You’re not even necessarily doing much better with Non-GMO Project Verified foods. Not only do you miss out on the other guarantees that an organic label provides, but the Non-GMO Project uses an Action Threshold of 0.9 percent, meaning that foods that contain 0.9 percent GMO ingredients might still wear the Non-GMO Project seal of approval.

So How Can I Stay GMO-Free?

Even with all of these problems, there is a simple strategy that you can use to ensure that you’re keeping your kitchen GMO-free, and it’s a good rule for feeding your family at any rate: choose whole foods from sources you trust.

A certified organic steak or a certified organic apple won’t have any GMOs, but certified organic chicken nuggets or a certified organic ready-made apple pie might, depending on what other ingredients are included in the recipe.

The fewer ingredients you see on the package and the more you know about the methods that the individual farmer is using to produce his food and protect his crop from cross-contamination, via protective walls or other techniques, the more confident that you can be that you’re making a completely organic – and GMO-free – choice for you and your family.

Talk to your farmers and producers, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Labels like USDA organic are great for leading us in the right direction, but they’re far from the only guarantee helping us make choices that we can feel good about.

Related on Organic Authority
Breakfast with Monsanto: Glyphosate Found in Nearly Half of Breakfast Foods, Study Finds
There’s a Major Problem with Non-GMO Foods (and It’s Got Nothing to Do with GMO Labeling)
President Obama Expected to Sign Divisive Senate GMO Labeling Bill into Law

Organic food image via Shutterstock

Emily Monaco
Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.