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Organic 101: Can GMOs Be Used in Organic Products?

This is the thirteenth installment of the Organic 101 series that explores different aspects of the USDA organic regulations.

The use of genetic engineering, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), is prohibited in organic products. This means an organic farmer can’t plant GMO seeds, an organic cow can’t eat GMO alfalfa or corn, and an organic soup producer can’t use any GMO ingredients. To meet the USDA organic regulations, farmers and processors must show they aren’t using GMOs and that they are protecting their products from contact with prohibited substances, such as GMOs, from farm to table.

Organic operations implement preventive practices based on site-specific risk factors, such as neighboring conventional farms or shared farm equipment or processing facilities.  For example, some farmers plant their seeds early or late to avoid organic and GMO crops flowering at the same time (which can cause cross-pollination). Others harvest crops prior to flowering or sign cooperative agreements with neighboring farms to avoid planting GMO crops next to organic ones. Farmers also designate the edges of their land as a buffer zone where the land is managed organically, but the crops aren’t sold as organic. Any shared farm or processing equipment must be thoroughly cleaned to prevent unintended exposure to GMOs or prohibited substances.

All of these measures are documented in the organic farmer’s organic system plan. This written plan describes the substances and practices to be used, including physical barriers to prevent contact of organic crops with prohibited substances or the products of “excluded methods” such as GMOs. On-site inspections and records verify that farmers are following their organic system plan. Additionally, certifying agents conduct residue testing to determine if these preventive practices are adequate to avoid contact with substances such as prohibited pesticides, antibiotics, and GMOs.

Any certified organic operation found to use prohibited substances or GMOs may face enforcement actions, including loss of certification and financial penalties. However, unlike many pesticides, there aren’t specific tolerance levels in the USDA organic regulations for GMOs. As such, National Organic Program policy states that trace amounts of GMOs don’t automatically mean the farm is in violation of the USDA organic regulations. In these cases, the certifying agent will investigate how the inadvertent presence occurred and recommend how it can be better prevented in the future. For example, they may require a larger buffer zone or more thorough cleaning of a shared grain mill.

USDA supports all methods of agriculture production, including organic, conventional, and biotechnology. To help these different methods coexist better, USDA has convened an Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (“AC21”). Organic stakeholders are well-represented on AC21.  Recent recommendations from the Advisory Committee are currently being implemented by USDA agencies.

Consumers purchase organic products expecting that they maintain their organic integrity from farm to market, and USDA is committed to meeting these expectations. No matter where it was grown, if a product has the USDA Organic label on it, it wasn’t produced with GMOs.

71 Responses to “Organic 101: Can GMOs Be Used in Organic Products?”

  1. Keith Reding says:

    Isn’t the use of GMOs an excluded method, NOT a prohibited substance? This means one can’t intentiionally use the technology but if one ends up with some GMO in the final product, it doesn’t remove their organic status as long as they complied with their organic plan.

    Regards,

    Keith

  2. Caryn Connolly says:

    I have heard there is a specific tolerance for how much is allowed. I’ve heard that it is 0.9% because there is almost always some cross-contamination. Is this true?

  3. Steve Savage says:

    I think it is sort of sad that an agency which does so much good and important science itself is stuck with the task of enforcing or even explaining rules that ignore the overwhelming scientific consensus that GMO foods bear no more risk than any sort of conventionally improved food. Then they get to administer rules which encourage the use of fertilizers derived from animal manures which have been well documented causes of human death.

  4. Cynthia Hamilton says:

    The real question is, WHY are GMO foods allowed to be sold when there is NO testing done to indicate its safety? And don’t give me that ‘substantially similar’ excuse, that would be hybrids, not something made in a lab with genetic engineering. We need GMOs taken OFF the market until they’ve been proven safe by peer reviewed studies.

  5. Xena Horvath says:

    Hey USDA, why not do your job and ban GMOs altogether!? There is no proof that GMOs are safe what so ever, and if you’re not going to ban them you should put a label on them so that we can make an informed choice on whether we want cancer or not. This is absolutely ridiculous how much corruption there is in the USDA and the FDA.

  6. sheila says:

    I asked one of my organic growers at my Farmer’s Market about the tolerance amount, I believe it is closer to 5%.

  7. Sam Rosenthal says:

    It’s a travesty that organics farmers have to work so hard to prevent pollution from neighboring GMO plantings. Steve, Monsanto’s RoundUp Ready GMO seeds are linked to many health problems and are thus outlawed in many other countries.

  8. Alice Elliott Brown says:

    Steve, it’s become a very odd convention that every comment board has a commenter who states that there is overwhelming scientific consensus that GMO foods bear no more risk than conventionally improved food.

    There was an overwhelming scientific consensus that cigarettes were good for you (helped you lose weight) and that aspartame, DDT, Agent Orange, and the rest of the long list of Monsanto poisons were good for you, too.

    So the reason the population says no, is because history says scientific consensus is bull crap.

  9. Steve Savage says:

    Cynthia,
    There are literally hundreds of peer reviewed studies demonstrating the safety of GMO crops. There is a list of them at the GENERA website provided by biofortified. A great many of them have been completely independently funded by entities that are not in that business.

    http://www.biofortified.org/genera/

    This idea that there are no studies or no independent studies is essentially a lie that has been propagated on the internet. I’ve been an observer of this technology for 36 years. There has never been a technology so carefully launched.

  10. John Downey says:

    So my question is how do you know if certain products, animal feeds, etc. contain GMO’s if manufacturers are not required to label products containing GMO’s? We raise chickens for egg production and do not want GMO’s even though we are not certified organic.

  11. crecencio elenes says:

    My thinking and like to share it, is that farmers that used pesticides and GMO’s should be the ones putting the buffer zones, since they are the ones that can cause some damage, not organic farms, who follow more sensible management. thanks

  12. Bruce Follett says:

    Why is the burden of isolation on the shoulders of the organic farmer? They are using seed as nature intended. It should be the contaminator’s responsibility to mitigate cross pollination.

  13. Janet O'Dell says:

    At least LABEL the GMOs – that way everyone can make their own choices as to what they want to eat. I am willing to bet that the GMO products will not be purchased and Monsanto and others will have to get with the program or go out of business. I buy ONLY organic now!!! Organic farmers should NOT have to watch for GMOs, those growing the GMOs should be responsible for not cross-contaminating organic crops as organic crops were here first. Why mess with natural selection and bastardize seeds and crops? Humans are playing GOD way too much for my liking.

  14. Ray Kamalay says:

    But the real question is, What is the regulation banning the labelling of GMO’s? When did it come into effect? Who was responsible for it?(Since it was worth billions of dollars)Was it a campaign contribution, or a promised job outside of Washington DC, or simply political croneyism? How did it come to be, and who is responsible?

  15. Richard Weaver says:

    Unfortunately some individuals (above) do not get it. People purchase organically grown produce and livestock to avoid pesticides and other un natural substances. This includes GMO. The pesticide company’s would make the argument pesticides are safe, and yet they are not allowed into organics. The same can be said about GMO’s. These are not natural substances. They are artifical by defination and do not occur in nature. As well, studies are now raising concerns about the safety of GMO. It will take decades to show true safety if it even exists. The studies on soil microbial environment dysruption are extremely concerning. Also, the scientists who study GMO recieve funding from the companies(thats how it’s done here…..no independent funding exists) and sign confidentiality agreements that will not let them discuss their findings. As with pharm studies, we are finding that they dispose of the bad results and only allow the good. As far as the burdon on the farmer….as a consumer I say tough. You want the premium price for your product, then there should be a guarentee on what the consumer is getting. Ms Brown above was succinct in her sentiments. You summed it up clearly. Thankyou
    Dr. Richard Weaver
    Physician and Health Advocate

  16. Susan Haymore says:

    Bottom line is that it should be my decision whether I consume genetically modified food. How can I decide if I don’t know? GMO’s are not natural and I think labeling anything as “natural” when it contains GMO’s violates the truth in advertising laws. Why should Monsanto be afraid of labeling if they think GMO’s are harmless?

  17. Megan Cooper says:

    Steve, please explain your background. I see you wrote a defense of plant patents, posted to GENERA. I would like to know if anything in your history specifically touches on human biology, epigenetics, or chemistry.

    Respectfully,
    Megan

  18. Dehl Jossi says:

    Basically most all conventional foods now contain GMO contamination in some form or another. Look up http://www.nongmoshoppingguide.com to be informed of foods that are GMO free. We must stop buying the contaminated food and vote for labeling with our dollar. I love it that companies are now choosing to label products that don’t have GMO’s. The reason these bio tech companies are so against labeling is for one they know how bad they are for the environment and our bodies and for two basically every conventional processed food product would have to be labeled and they know they would be out of business. The most disappointing thing is that the USDA and the FDA supports this crap. I have farmed for a living for 25 years, third generation farmer and am both conventional and Organic and my Organic crops are so much better!! I really enjoy Organic farming. I believe the whole agricultural system in the U.S. is going to crash and there will be a famine here some day because the soil is being poisoned and destroyed by all the “crop protection” poisons that are now on the market. You can only play God so long with out consequences.

  19. Brad says:

    Steve, why are you here to defend the interests of global corporations determined to commodify and engineer our food supply? There is plenty of evidence that some GMOs are potentially dangerous and there is no conclusive evidence that they are safe. In any case, a food engineered at the genetic level in a manner that could not naturally occur should not be considered organic as it is the antithesis of such.

  20. Janet O'Dell says:

    Kansas wheat farmer sues Monsanto for contaminating his wheat – like it!

    http://weather.yahoo.com/kansas-wheat-farmer-sues-monsanto-over-rogue-wheat-155201442.html

  21. Kathy Burns says:

    Amen Delh Jossi!
    Man has overstepped his boundaries in trying to control nature. We have made vast technological improvements to aid man in all walks of life, but we must not try to change the natural order of life on earth. Just this spring numerous articles were released linking sudden hive collapse in honey bees to GMO corn. (search on GMO AND honey bee sudden hive collapse) As a beekeeper and organic gardener with GMO corn grown widely in NE Indiana, I am greatly concerned. Thanks to all above for the insightful comments.
    Kathy

  22. Concerned citizen says:

    I think labeling is in order. We WANT to know what we are eating and putting into our bodies. All food needs to be labeled if it has been altered and is GMOs. The USDA needs to comply with the people of the United States of America and require labeling of these geneticlly modified foods. Study after study is now revealing that GMOs can be tied to many Heath issues.

  23. MB Fournier says:

    All I know is that if I am a conscious consumer I have the right to know what has or hasn’t been done to the food I purchase for my family’s consumption. If there is nothing for Monsanto to hide or be concerned about their GMO crops, then they should be PROUD to label their fine scientific achievements in agriculture and prove how superior they are in taste, quality and safety to organic and non-GMO!

  24. Jennifer Andersen says:

    Mysterious Steve, the defender of all things GMO. We would respect you and your points about safety if you proudly defended GMO labelling as a way to promote GMO products. Why not? Everyone who has a great product loves to promote it! I would definitely have more respect and listen to the arguments you so eloquently serve up. But – what about the method used to get the foreign gene – gene on its own perfectly safe – into the plant genome? As I understand it, the gene gets randomly inserted by means of transposons and so we don’t know where it lands in the plant genome. It could insert itself into the middle of a gene that performs, not one function, but many functions. We don’t know the effects of inserting the safe gene into random spots in the plant DNA. Until we really know, what is the harm in straightforwardly labelling GMO products?

  25. svetlana says:

    It is ridiculous congress is allowing the Monsanto’s of the world to take over our food.
    Why can’t we have a bill that supports small local farmers ??? Why is Monsanto considered a farmer ? It is a chemical company ! We should subsidize small local organic farmers, so we can have access to healthy raw foods. Let’s get rid of politicians who support chemical companies that tell us their products are good for us, ie ddt, agent orange, milk additives, pesticide, GMO foods ? You want us to believe these foods ARE SAFE ? Why are you passing legislation that supports companies with such a HORRIBLE reputation. Who are the idiots ? Me ? You ? All of us ? I need someone to explain this to me. What underhanded trick is congress hiding in this bill ? Will it benefit the PEOPLE or Monsanto and their congressional prostitutes.. We should make it illegal for congress to benefit in any way from legislation they pass for any special interest group. We should not allow armies of special interest lobbyists. I am mad. I want honest legislation, honest congressmen and clean raw food.

  26. Renee says:

    It’s just so sad.. the corruption and greed. Really wish I could just pick up and move to a country led by brighter, non-corrupt individuals.

  27. Maria says:

    See the movie FOOD, Inc

    It is gross how industrial the food supply has become.

    Sickening.

  28. Charles Sutherland says:

    I have tried to summarize the pervasive corruption and dangers to our health, and to the health of infants, in the book “The Poison Planters”, and, in doing the research I was appalled at how many people in the government are ‘on the take’ from Monsanto and the other GMO companies. It’s really disheartening. Charles Sutherland

  29. Nicole Rolfe says:

    As a mother I am outraged by the amount of work and research I have to do before purchasing food to ensure what my family eats does not contain GMOs. FDA do your job! We have the right to know what is in our food.

  30. Jim Davis says:

    Good grief, people.. seems to me the certified organic program is trying to ensure that people have a choice. If you don’t care about GMO’s or you WANT them, then don’t buy certified organic.

    If you’re non-GMO and have issues with the standards then let them know.

  31. Erick the Beard says:

    Did Steve disappear? Screw the government and their agenda. Be self sufficient, buy local, buy fresh, and buy organic. Find Christ. Lucifer is working overtime as he knows his time is short. California has stolen the innocence of all schoolchildren to accommodate the .0001%.

    Isaiah 5:20
    20 Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!

  32. Nicole Rolfe says:

    Kansas wheat farmer sues Monsanto for contaminating his wheat – like it!

  33. Sue Peters says:

    Jennifer, nicely put. Steve – I am an avid supporter of technology with a background in mobile tech, and I also do brain research, so I am definitely not a luddite. I suffered for 10 years with a chronic pain illness, that was cured by removing grains, GMO’s and pesticide laden foods from my diet. It seems silly to me that we have massive government organizations like the USDA, FDA, and US Dept of Health, who end up offsetting the work or goals of each other. These foods may not effect you, but they do effect a growing population of individuals suffering from chronic illnesses that seem to originate in the gut. If you care, and you’d like to learn more about how these foods do create pain and suffering for others, humans and animals, check out http://www.geneticroulettemovie.com

  34. Diane E Adams says:

    There are a handful of pure seed companies left. We need to support them and the non-GMO companies, natural and organically grown. As an organic fertilizer sales company, I have been reading on GMO foods to know what my transitioning farmers are going through as they move to an organic or natural farming process. As simple as I can explain from my limited knowledge…. The main ‘advantage’ of GMO crops -right- is so the crop can be sprayed with a Monsanto or other produced herbicide and the crop will not die, though the weeds will. But the GMO crop loses a great percentage of nutritional value due to damage to roots and the good bacteria has been killed off, the uptake is not there. That is how the weeds are killed, the crops is affected but does not die. The crops also die earlier and earlier each year and they do not have the desired yields due to this effect. This result can take a decade but it does occur. The soil life is poisoned and killed by the Roundup or other herbicide used. Theoretically, there can only be “Roundup Ready” GMO seeds planted there from now on because the soil is poisoned and other crops will suffer and even die. Farms and market growers who are transitioning to healthy land again, they have to fertilize heavily to regain soil health while the herbicides are degrading in the soil, this can take three or more years. Their crops are limited, but they are possible. The farms cannot be called natural or organic for a very long time, it could take two decades to get there. But they are changing, only I believe it could be too little too late because of the wayward thrust of the giant and the farms that are not changing.

  35. John Hilliard says:

    This is worth reading- it answers many misconceptions in these comments: The European Commission is the executive body of the European Union. “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular, GMO’s, or no more risky than conventional plant breeding technologies.”
    http://ec.europa.eu/research/biosociety/pdf/a_decade_of_eu-funded_gmo_research.pdf

  36. John Hilliard says:

    I am disappointed the scientists and academics at the USDA do not participate in clarifying the current state of knowledge concerning GMOs. Clearly there is a need evidenced by the near hysteria in some of these comments.

  37. John Hilliard says:

    I am disappointed we do not hear from the scientists and academics at the USDA. Do they not participate in clarifying the current state of knowledge concerning GMOs. Clearly there is a need evidenced by the near hysteria and profound lack of knowledge in some of these comments.

  38. Jeff says:

    Concerning organic products that are %95 organic, the other 5 percent are conventional and non GMO?
    I am reading different things on that “other 5%”. Thanks.

  39. Dave Sansone says:

    The EU study Jillian Hilliard cites is a joke. There are no human or animal studies in it. On “study” is “The Sustainable Introduction of New GMO’s”.

    GMO contaminatio of organic food is the rule.
    Big Island HAwaii has 50% contamination of non gmo papayas. If a farmer wants to verify their papayas aren’t GMO, they mustpay $3 per plant for a test created by opponents of the GMO papaya.

    Hawaii is overrun with GMO field trials of experimental crops, how can an organic farmer really know what genetics they have.

    Too bad there is only one human study–it indicates that 3 out of 7 people’s gut bacteria “uptook” the RoundUp ready gene. Ohoh, do we owe monsanto now?

  40. Cae Joy says:

    Clearly, the public sentiment on this USDA blog is for informed choices regarding our food supply, and proof that GMO’s are not harmful. I whole-heartedly agree! So, the question is, where is the response to these concerns from the USDA? Isn’t the point of the blog to address consumer concerns and to find out what the public thinks? The public has spoken. What are you going to do about it USDA?

  41. Phoebe Saffold says:

    All I am asking is that we required clear GMO labeling on all food and food ingredients sold in grocery stores and any other major distributors. Let the people decide what they want to buy.

  42. Leslie Armstrong says:

    Also a fervent believer in the health and nutritional benefits of organic farming. GMO’s are junk food, soil destroyers, population sickeners, and a cash cow of the biotech industries. I looked at that EU report as well. Regurgitation of biotech propaganda and indeed, no studies on animals or people. You can find some studies, though, on animals (and they are gross, naturally) by going to the Institute for Responsible Technology website. There are also good documentaries on Netflix. Great information, albeit depressing. Seems like we have to fight fire with fire now, meaning money with money and, thanks largely to vast corporate profit driven interests, they’ve also successfully devastated our job market and kept wages low for 30+ years. ‘Bout all I can afford now is the luxury to buy organic products. FDA and USDA you are not just useless, but 100% anti-American in that you in no way stand up for the common good and are bought off just like the politicians. I am not wrong. Look for CANCER: THE FOBIDDEN CURES on free documentaries online.

  43. Max Truth says:

    Steve,
    You are clearly either severely uninformed or a GMO, Monsanto stooge. I lean towards the later. Since the evidence against GMOs is overwhelming, how about you provide us one real-world scenario or example where GMO crops have helped anyone, the environment or otherwise. The myth that they “provide higher yields” has been debunked via statistics. Your right Steve, the poor dirt, organic farmers of America simply have it out for poor ol’ Billion Dollar Monsanto.

  44. Richard Stone says:

    I have the same question as Jeff (9/13): What is in the other 5% of USDA-seal products. I know that it can’t be just anything–there’s something called the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/ams.fetchTemplateData.do?template=TemplateJ&page=NOPNationalList, which goes into great detail about what can and can’t be included. But I have yet to get the patience to analyze this carefully. I have read that no gmo ingredient can be used in the other 5%, but I don’t remember where.

    Whatever the rule, I believe that the same rules apply to the other up-to 30% of non-organic ingredients in products which say “Made with organic so and so” on the main label panel.

  45. Richard Stone says:

    OK, here is a site which seems to do a good job of attacking this vexing question. Unfortunately the answer is not certain, but “usually.” They discuss the issue in great detail: http://gmo-awareness.com/2011/05/05/is-organic-always-gmo-free/

  46. John says:

    Why can’t america have europe’s standards?
    I’m liking america less and less every day as a citizen here.
    Yaaaay, freedom and liberty and all that crap that allow monsanto and dow to do as they please. I’m moving to italy. Bye

  47. Roy says:

    If what you conveniently pick up in the store does not explicitly say that it containes NO GMO then you can assume that it does. So simple, no label required. No added expense to be passed on to the consumer. Most people don’t care and those of you who do should just buy the products labeled NO GMO.

  48. Sandra Sweazie says:

    If gmo’s are safe than why not label products that contain them and allow the public to be fully aware of what they are buying? What’s with all the secrecy if there is nothing to hide?

  49. Janice Smith says:

    I agree with Sandra Sweazie. What can happen to companies who produce GMO products if all products are labeled GMO?

  50. Nancy Harrison says:

    I can’t understand why the organic farmers, who are not spreading contaminated seed, are being given the burden of insuring themselves, when it should be the GMO seed providers, whose seeds are contaminating the area, who should be made to bear the financial burden. Yet again, Monsanto is being protected from the consequences of its actions.
    The problem, and it is a huge one, is that Monsanto essentially ‘owns’ the USDA (look at the background of USDA top brass over the last 2 decades) and can control what it says, does, and rules.

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