Understanding Terms

Understanding “GMO”, “Natural” and “Organic” 

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are plants or animals created through the process of genetic engineering. This experimental technology typically introduces DNA from one species into a different species. The resulting GMOs are combinations of plant, animal, bacterial, and viral genes that cannot occur in nature or traditional breeding. 

The majority of commercial GMOs are engineered to withstand direct application of herbicide and/or to produce an insecticide. Despite biotech industry promises, none of the GMO traits currently on the market offer increased yield, drought tolerance, enhanced nutrition, or any other consumer benefits.

A large and growing body of scientific research and on-the-ground experience indicate that GMOs:

  • Can be toxic, allergenic, or less nutritious than their natural counterparts;
  • Have shown, in studies on animals, disturbances on the reproductive and the digestive systems; damage to liver, pancreas, and kidney function; and marked disturbance in immune system cells and biochemical activity. 
  • Promote the use of agricultural practices (such as monocropping and increased pesticide use) that disrupt the ecosystem, damage vulnerable wild plant and animal populations and harm biodiversity;
  • Create serious problems for farmers, including the proliferation of herbicide-tolerant “superweeds”, which require the use of larger amounts of and more toxic pesticides and herbicides, compromised soil quality, and increased disease susceptibility in crops; 
  • Are nearly twice as expensive as conventional seeds; 
  • Contaminate non-GMO crops, which damages the ability of organic farmers to earn higher prices for their crops, and prevents export of crops to countries that have strict GMO contamination regulations;
  • Deliver yields that are no better, and often perform worse, than conventional crops;
  • Are laboratory-made and, once released, harmful GMOs cannot be recalled from the environment.

(For more information about the effects of GMOs on health and the environment, check out resources in the “learn more section” under "Actions you can take" to the right.)

Natural food has yet to be clearly defined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which says “from a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is 'natural' because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”

In other words, “natural” has no legal definition and offers no promise of consumer protection. Companies use “natural” and other terms like “green,” “environmentally-friendly,” and “local” to evoke brand values for their products. 

Since each company creates their own definition of the term “natural”, if you want to know what’s in the products you’re buying, read the ingredient list.  

Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods. These methods integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices which foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. 

“Organic” according to the USDA Organic Standards, means that crops are raised without the use of most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based or sewage sludge-based fertilizers, genetic engineering and irradiation. The National Organic Program (NOP) regulates all organic crops, livestock, and agricultural products certified to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic Standards. The USDA is also charged with conducting investigations and enforcement activities to ensure all products labeled as organic meet the USDA organic regulations. 

Organic labeling standards are based on the percentage of organic ingredients in a product. 100% must only contain organically produced ingredients; 95% must consist of at least 95% organically produced ingredients. Both 95% and 100% organic may use the USDA Organic seal. Products that contain at least 70% organic ingredients can use the phrase “made with organic ingredients” and list up to three of the organic ingredients or food groups on the front of a package. 70% organic items must also be made excluding the use of GMO ingredients (even for the remaining 30% of content). Products that contain less than 70% organic ingredients may only list the specific organically produced ingredients on the ingredient listing of the information panel. 

Organic farmers provide a great service to our human and environmental health. Organic farmers maintain and improve the productivity of the land by encouraging and enhancing biodiversity and natural biological processes. They nurture healthy plants and animals by working to create a foundation of healthy soil by using composts, cover crops, rock minerals and natural fertilizers. Organic farmers control plant disease and pests through the use of crop rotations, resistant varieties, cultivation, biological pest controls and botanical controls. They also maintain animal health with wholesome food, adequate shelter, access to the outdoors and preventive health plans. And they never use synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides or genetically-engineered seed.