Permaculture. Sustainable Food Production. Natural Building. Education. Community.

Does organic mean non-gmo?


Holy, what a day! So, my obsession with GMOs has started me talking to others on-site about their gmo questions, which led me to Trent who asked if Organic actually means non-gmo. Admittedly, I have been hiding from this one. The thought that there is no way to escape eating something I know very little about kind of freaked me out enough that I decided deluding myself was a better option.

Ah, the levels of awareness.

“I’ll find out.” I said, and sat down at my computer, figuring that its got to be a pretty simple question. Nope. First of all, Genetically Modified Organisms are also called Genetically Engineered and Bioengineered. The later is what the USDA chooses to call GMOs in some of their documentation. First I went to the Ask the Expert section on the USDA website:

How does USDA define the term organic?

Organic food is produced using sustainable agricultural production practices. Not permitted are most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients, or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Organic meat, poultry eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. The USDA National Organic Program website has more information including inspection and certification information.

National Organic Program

Then, I found the same wording in answer to this question on the USDA website (about a quarter of the page down):

USDA Consumer Brochure: Organic Food Standards and Labels: The Facts

“What is organic food? Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled ‘organic,’ a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.” Consumer Brochure, USDA National Organic Program,

However, when I went to the link at the bottom of it to check out the fact sheet for myself, the term bioengineering had been removed:

Processed products labeled “made with organic ingredients” cannot be produced using excluded methods, sewage sludge, or ionizing radiation.

Um… puzzling, no? (and sewage sludge? Humans are weird.)

I also found this rule on the Organic Valley Co-op website, that supposedly comes from the USDA, but which I cannot locate anywhere in any of the literature I read.

The USDA Organic Rule states that “The use of genetically engineered organisms and their products are prohibited in any form or at any stage in organic production, processing or handling.” Consumers can rest assured that Certified Organic means that a rigorous process has been followed which consumers can count on to avoid food that is produced with antibiotics, synthetic hormones and pesticides and GMOs.

So… to answer the question, I am pretty sure that if we buy organic we have a really good chance that it’s organic, but the USDA doesn’t seem to be holding fast to making any claims they can’t prove, and with the drifting of crop pollen… who knows, really?

If you have a better source of definitive information, I’m sure that everyone would appreciate you’re posting in the comments – especially me, before I start thinking about conspiracy theories and beyond…

  1. Chris

    GMO seeds are strictly forbidden in the organic standards that farms must follow if they are part of a certification program. But this doesn’t mean that there isn’t some contamination because of drifting pollen from GMO crops. Where things get tricky is in assessing inputs — compost should be from organic sources, but only if commercially available. If not commercially available many farms will turn to compost made from manure of other sources, including livestock that will have been fed GMO grains (and any conventional livestock feed will contain GMO grains these days).

    The big problem is that GMOs are increasingly ubiquitous and it makes avoiding them very difficult, even in an organic regime. Nonetheless, the organic standards don’t allow the use of GMO plants.

  2. Moderator

    Thanks Chris!
    Do you have a link that you could post for the seed rule? I found some information about drifting pollen… and never thought about the compost!
    In Community,

  3. Mark

    The Canada Organic Standard (and the USDA equivalent) do not allow GMOs – the caveat to this is the allowance of “Low Level Presence” of 0.9% to account for GE drift.

    More can be found at CFIA’s website here:

    And specific information about GE content can be found at this CFIA site under Q35:

    Hope that helps,

  4. Malissa

    Stumbled across your posting while searching for answers in the GMO/Organic debate. I have my chickens on Purina feed and I really want to get them on organic and off of GMO’s, etc. I’ve been researching options, but so much of their feed contains soy (YUCK) and corn which one of the feed reps I ran into at a local fair told me all chicken feed is GMO. If I’m going to the trouble to raise my own, I want them to produce more nutritious eggs than what I can get at the store. I did find a local Amish man who makes his own feed and it is supposedly organic without the certification. Also is soy free. So hoping this is the way to go. Thanks for posting this info!

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Permaculture. Sustainable Food Production. Natural Building. Education. Community.