What Do GMO and Organic Really Mean for Your Food?

At your local grocery story, you’ve likely seen the terms GMO and organic. If you’ve wondered what they mean, we can help.

GMO stands for genetically modified organisms. GMO can include high-tech genetic engineering (GE) or traditional plant breeding. GMO means a change has been made to a plant or animal that normally wouldn’t occur in nature.

Why Use Genetic Engineering?

Genetic engineering is used with both plants and animals. The term means that scientists have changed the genes or DNA of a plant or animal to include a more desirable trait.

Crop improvements happen all the time, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Genetic engineering is just one way to improve crops. Farmers have used selective breeding to bring out good qualities in crops and animals for many years.

GE is used to make crops:

  • More resistant to herbicides, insects and drought
  • Resistant to certain viruses
  • Heartier so they require fewer pesticides
  • Higher yielding
  • Higher in food and animal feed nutrients

Scientists have also used GE to design crops with components that are used in pharmaceuticals and other non-food products.

Modern genetic engineering of seeds began 15 years ago. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports most seeds for corn, soybeans and cotton are genetically engineered in the United States. Other major crops with common GE varieties include potatoes, squash, apples and papayas.

GE in Livestock

GE is used to make animals:

  • More resistant to disease and infection
  • Produce antibodies used in medications for humans
  • With an improved meat nutrient profile

Scientists have also used GE to decrease the energy needs and waste produced by the animal.

Safety of GE

The FDA regulates food safety for humans and animals. GE plants and animals must meet the FDA-set standards for food safety before being allowed on the market.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates pesticides, including those used on GE foods. The regulations are set to ensure pesticides are safe for human and animal use and will not harm the environment.

Long-term research is not available to address questions and concerns about the potential environmental risks of growing weed resistant plants and the potential long-term health effects of consuming plants and animals with altered DNA. The FDA reports, “credible evidence has demonstrated that foods from the GE plant varieties marketed to date are as safe as comparable non-GE foods.”

What Does Organic Mean?

For a product to be labeled organic, it must meet USDA organic standards. The standards cover products from farm to table. Organic farming aims to reduce the use of pesticides and antibiotics and reduce the environmental impact of food production. These standards address soil and water quality, pest control, livestock practices and rules for food additives.

According to the USDA, organic farming standards and goals include:

  • Preserve natural resources and biodiversity
  • Support animal health and welfare
  • Provide access to the outdoors so that animals can exercise their natural behaviors
  • Use only approved materials
  • Not use genetically modified ingredients
  • Receive annual on-site inspections
  • Separate organic food from non-organic food

For a single product such as produce, meat, eggs and milk to be labeled “certified organic,” it must be inspected, based on the organic standards, and approved by a USDA-accredited certifying agent. Foods that contain more than one ingredient can have the USDA organic seal if at least 95% of the ingredients are organic, and it may be labeled 100% organic if all the ingredients are organic.

Research has found organic products have lower pesticide residues but has not found a significant difference in the nutrient content of organically and conventionally produced food.

What’s Better for You?

So far, the evidence supports the safety of both GMO/GE foods, although long-term research is not yet available.

When it comes to organics, you’ll need to decide if paying a premium for them is worth it for you.

To reduce your costs:

  • Purchase produce locally at a farmers market
  • Purchase produce when it’s in season
  • If deciding which foods to buy organic, refer to the Environmental Working Group’s “Clean 15” list of foods with the lowest pesticide residues and the “Dirty Dozen” with the highest pesticide residues.
  • Wash and scrub conventionally produced fruits and vegetables in water in order to decrease the pesticide residue.

Ultimately, it comes down to personal choice. Continue to stay informed and choose the foods you are most comfortable with.

Meet the Author

Lindsay Brechbill RD, CD is a Registered Dietitian at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee, WI.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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