It's easy to think of "organic" and "non-GMO" as the best buddies of food. They sit comfortably beside each other in the same grocery stores — most prominently, in Whole Foods Market. Culturally, they also seem to occupy the same space. Both reject aspects of mainstream industrial agriculture.
In fact, 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.
"More and more, there's concern [among organic food companies] that they created a monster," says Mark Kastel, a pro-organic activist who's co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute.
The conflict between organic and non-GMO food became clear to me while reporting two stories in recent weeks, one about non-GMO grain and another about organic eggs. I visited Allen Williams, a farmer near Cerro Gordo, Ill., who straddles this divide. He grows everything: lots of organic crops; non-GMO corn and soybeans; and some genetically modified crops.
His nonorganic fields are treated essentially the same, whether the crops are non-GMO or genetically modified. Williams keeps those fields weed-free with chemical herbicides, although he has to use different chemicals on the non-GMO fields. He adds standard commercial fertilizer to keep the soil fertile. Basically, it's just conventional farming. Williams will get a higher price for his non-GMO soybeans and corn, but it's not a huge premium over the standard commodity price — about 15 percent for soybeans, 10 percent for corn.
Organic production is a whole different ballgame. For fertilizer, Williams uses tons of chicken litter that he buys from a big chicken producer miles away. To control pests, he grows a variety of crops: soybeans one year, then corn, then wheat, and sometimes sunflowers, too. During the growing season, he hires people to walk through soybean fields and cut down weeds. He always plants a "cover crop" after the main crop is harvested, to capture nutrients — mainly nitrogen — and keep them from washing away.
That all takes time and money, which is why most farmers won't do it unless they get paid more. The gap, in fact, is astonishing: 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 more expensive than food that's simply "non-GMO."
No food retailer likes high costs. If it can offer a cheaper product that attracts the same consumers, it will do it. According to Kastel, that's how Whole Foods and others are using non-GMO labels.
"This is a potent marketing vehicle designed to blur the line between organic and nonorganic," he says.
Murray's Chicken, a company based in New York, recently announced that it was now "offering 'better-for-you' non-GMO chicken without the organic price tag." In a Whole Foods Market that I recently visited, the store had posted a sign explaining that organic eggs were out of stock, but that "during this shortage, we have expanded our selection of Non-GMO Project Certified eggs to provide you with high-quality alternatives."
David Bruce, director of eggs, meat, produce and soy for Organic Valley, a major organic food company, says the non-GMO labels "definitely" are diverting some consumers away from organic food. "We call it trading down," he says.
Bruce says organic companies need to draw a clear line that sets organics apart from any alternatives.
"The goal is to educate consumers that 'non-GMO' or 'natural' products are not 100 percent the same as an organic product," he says.