April 13, 2022

Take a stroll through the grocery store and product labels boasting benefits and certifications jump out at you from all directions – organic, naturally-grown, non-GMO.

While it’s easy to become overwhelmed by all these terms and assume they mean the same thing (healthier for you, healthier for the earth) each label really does indicate something different.

To help make shopping for products easier, we’re going to take a closer look at the differences between two popular options in the sustainable farming and food world: organic and non-GMO farming practices.

What Is Non-GMO Farming?

First, let’s answer the obvious question – what’s a GMO? The acronym stands for “genetically modified organism,” or an organism that has had its DNA altered via genetic engineering techniques.

Some examples of GMO crops include corn that was modified to survive the application of herbicides, or papayas that have been modified to resist a common papaya virus.

In order for GMO products to be grown and sold in the United States, they must first be approved by various federal agencies.

Common Types of GMO Crops

While scientists may genetically modify crops for any reason, a few types of GMO crops fill farm fields and grocery store shelves.

  • Bt: Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a soil-dwelling bacterium that is fatal to members of the butterfly and moth family but harmless to other insects. By inserting Bt genes into crops, scientists are able to create plants that are resistant to devastating pests, like corn earworms and cutworms.
  • Herbicide-tolerant: By growing crops that are engineered to tolerate certain herbicides, farmers can spray herbicides to kill weeds without harming their crops. Roundup Ready® corn and soybeans are examples of herbicide-tolerant GMOs.

GMOs often allow for higher yields – in other words, more food per harvest, per acre, per season. But many advocate against GMOs due to their potentially negative impacts on soil quality, drinking water supply, and health of both people and planet.

While it may sound obvious, non-GMO farming doesn’t utilize GMOs. However, what’s less apparent is the simplicity of this statement.

If a farmer says they’re non-GMO, that only tells you one thing about their farming practices: that they didn’t use any GMOs. It doesn’t tell you much else about how a farmer grew a crop or raised an animal. For example, crops sprayed with synthetic pesticides might still be labeled “non-GMO,” and this designation indicates nothing about animal welfare either.

What Is Organic Farming?

While organic farming is always non-GMO, organic farmers must also meet other standards to become certified organic by the USDA.

While some people think organic means farmers simply forgo the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, organic farming is a lot more complicated than that.

“People want to know where their food’s coming from. They are interested in how the environment is taken care of, how the people on those farms are being taken care of. Are they being paid a fair wage? Is the food being grown the right way? It’s a product with purpose.”
Farmer Lee Jones, Award-Winning Member of the Founding Family of “The Chef’s Garden,” Judge on Food Network’s Iron Chef America, Restaurant: Impossible*

Rather than turning to synthetic chemicals, organic farmers largely rely on cultural, physical, and biological processes. That may mean planting a rye cover crop to suppress any weeds around other crops like corn or soybeans, instead of spraying an herbicide. Or it could involve rotating tomatoes each year to prevent the buildup of disease and therefore forgo the application of fungicides.

Blue tractor driving on a farm

It’s true that organic farmers are prohibited from using certain substances. They can’t use irradiation, sewage sludge, GMOs, or most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. However, they can still use products – including pesticides – approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI).

Many of these OMRI-approved products are naturally derived, although organic farmers can use a few synthetic products. It’s important to remember that organic pesticides might be just as harmful as their synthetic counterparts. Therefore, it’s important to talk to farmers if you want to learn about what products they use and how they apply them, and do independent research on the benefits and detriments of pesticide use.

Interpreting the Non-GMO and Organic Labels

While the GMO-free and organic labels can tell you a bit about how food was produced, they don’t provide the full story of how a product was produced. Here are some considerations to keep in mind when you’re interpreting these labels.

GMO-Free vs Organic Labels

Many non-GMO farmers and associated companies have found it worthwhile to label their products GMO-free through the Non-GMO Project. As mentioned above, this label means an individual product is free from GMOs, but it doesn’t tell you much else.

On the other hand, if certain crops or products don’t sport the non-GMO label, chances are high they contain a GMO. That’s especially true for products that contain corn or soy.

According to the USDA Economic Research Service, 92% of corn and 94% of soybeans grown in the United States in 2020 were genetically-engineered. Even if you’re not buying corn and soybeans off the shelf, be aware that these two crops make their way into packaged foods like chips, cereal, and tofu, as well as animal feed.

“So much of being in a restaurant is seeing boxes of produce show up at your back door and not really knowing anything about where they came from. So I wanted to get a bit more into the full spectrum of how the food gets from the farm to the actual restaurant to in front of a customer.”
Jon Todd, Chef Instructor*

On the other hand, just because a product is labeled GMO-free doesn’t necessarily make it different from the competitors, which might also be GMO-free. That’s because GMO options aren’t available for every crop. Currently, only ten GMO crops are grown in the US: corn, cotton, soybean, alfalfa, sugar beet, potato, canola, summer squash, apple, and papaya. (Any GMO crops imported from other countries must be on this approved list; no GMOs are imported if they’re not also cleared for cultivation in the U.S.) If a crop isn’t on this list, it’s always GMO-free.

When it comes to organic, the USDA Certified Organic label not only means a product is GMO-free, but it also means it was grown using organic methods. For packaged foods, the organic label means the food was made with 95% organically produced ingredients.

Looking Beyond the Labels

Along with knowing what these labels tell you, it’s important to understand what they don’t explain. When you’re considering the environmental footprint of an ingredient, you should also consider the impact of transportation, water use, and potential habitat destruction. When you take these factors into account, a local non-organic apple may be better for the environment than an organic apple from the other side of the world.

Furthermore, these labels don’t tell consumers anything about labor practices, animal welfare, taste, or nutritional composition.

Escoffier Lead Chef Instructor Stephanie Michalak“There are a lot of farms that can’t afford organic licensing that are just as good, if not better. You just have to ask that farmer what their practices are, so that you have a deeper understanding of what’s going on there.”
Stephanie Michalak, Chef Instructor*

You should also recognize that a product may be grown using non-GMO and/or organic methods even if it doesn’t sport an official label. Becoming certified organic involves a yearly fee as well as detailed record-keeping. Therefore, some small farms may opt to remain uncertified, even if they practice organic methods.

Learn More About Food By Connecting with Farmers

So if you can’t learn everything from the labels, where do you turn? To the people who produced your food – the farmers. Escoffier students have the opportunity to talk to farmers during the six-week Farm to Table® experience.

Farmer talking to Escoffier students on a farm

During this experience, residential students can tour area farms, chatting with farmers and getting their hands dirty. By the end of the experience, students may walk away with a new appreciation for and understanding of how food is grown. They might also gain the confidence to begin incorporating sustainable practices into their cooking – such as sourcing locally and serving seasonal dishes. Online students can still cover these aspects in their Farm to Table Kitchen course.

“I have a newfound appreciation for the months of work that go into producing every element of a dish and that respect for food has undoubtedly made me a better chef.”
Antionette Williams, Austin Culinary Arts Graduate*

If you want to learn more about how Escoffier can help you connect with food both on the farm and in the kitchen, contact us today.

Want to learn more about sustainability?

This article was originally published on April 4, 2014, and has since been updated.

*Information may not reflect every student’s experience. Results and outcomes may be based on several factors, such as geographical region or previous experience.