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As non-GMO grows, remember USDA Organic

Jenna Blumenfeld
Natural industry values are shifting from USDA Organic to non-GMO. Here's why this is a problem. 

Non-GMO is blistering hot—and not just for the granola-eating set. 

Whole Foods’ commitment to achieve full GMO transparency by 2018 has prompted a torrent of quests to verify food products as non-GMO. Plus, along with influential organizations like GMO Inside (credited with pressuring mainstream food brands such as Cheerios to produce a non-GMO SKU), education efforts from the natural industry have spurred even conventional shoppers to question products made with maligned GMO ingredients. Indeed, the movement is inspiring. 

But through this heady non-GMO buzz, there’s one thought I can’t seem to shake: Is USDA Organic slipping away from us?

Indeed, it’s tempting for companies to choose non-GMO ingredients over organic. “The increasingly successful movement to eliminate genetically modified crops—GMOs—from food is turning out to be organic's false friend. The non-GMO label has become a cheaper alternative to organic,” reports NPR’s food blog, The Salt. “Organic soybeans currently cost twice the price of standard conventional beans. This means, in turn, that any food made from those soybeans—think organic chickens, which eat a soy-rich diet—will be more expensive than food that's simply ‘non-GMO.’”

Does migration toward non-GMO threaten natural industry’s founding values?

Natural pioneers fought tooth-and-nail for national organic standards because they believed food grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers was best for producers, consumers and the planet. Seeking organic foods symbolically and literally defied the agricultural monoliths that practiced chemical farming.

I believe in non-GMO, but these crops are still conventionally produced with chemicals. So aren't non-GMO ingredients the same foods our natural founders disdained? Do spikes in non-GMO sourcing diffuse USDA Organic values?

To help answer this question, I gauged the collective consciousness surrounding organic and non-GMO by using Google Insights—a tool that tracks search terms over time. Tensions between the two terms are illuminated in the above graph. Organic interest remains steady for several years, but in 2007, when “non-GMO” first spikes, “organic certification” starts declining. Notice the clear point in 2012 when searches for “non-GMO” surpassed searches for “organic certification”.

The shifting social pulse of organic and non-GMO is apparent—and according to Google's forecast, the rift between the terms will continue to increase in the next few years.

It's unfortunate that modern farming techniques necessitate the non-GMO movement, as the issue didn't exist 30 years ago. My hope is that we can prove the forecast wrong: If non-GMO and organic can both tangentially rise, we’ll make our natural forefathers proud.

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