Special thanks to Morgan Impink for the original draft of this article.
While there’s nothing wrong with sometimes buying foods that are organic or not genetically modified, making a point to purchase products with the “organic” and “non-GMO” labels is a manner of supporting fearmongering against biotechnology. Buying these foods creates considerable opportunity costs for everyone because organic and non-GMO crops have nothing to offer in terms of health or environmental benefits, despite common perceptions.
Companies that use non-GMO or organic labels play on fears about other foods considered “unnatural” or containing “chemicals” and pesticides. This misleading marketing strategy perpetuates misinformation about the benefits and safety of genetically modified organisms and conventional farming methods, so here are the main points about each:
genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
The previously mentioned marketing strategies that paint non-GMO foods as safer or more natural than GMO foods have created strong enough sentiments against genetically modified foods that protest groups have destroyed GMO crop research fields and opposed efforts at growing golden rice, which has been shown to fight vitamin A deficiency, a major cause of childhood blindness in parts of Asia.
In the United States, it is the job of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to create and enforce regulations that ensure all foods (conventionally farmed, organically farmed, GMO, and non-GMO) sold to American consumers are safe to eat. While not a perfect public protection, the FDA presents a considerable force in mitigating health risks posed by irresponsible or potentially harmful farming methodologies.
Arguments attempting to dismiss genetic modification as being unnatural miss the point that genetic transfer can and does occur naturally; transgenesis, a common form of genetic modification, is what gives us the sweet potato. Additionally,
Genetic engineering is a breeding method, not an ingredient.
“Genetic modification,” while often used colloquially to mean genetic engineering, is a vague term that could just as easily be used to describe selective breeding methods. All animal and plant breeding—horse breeding, maize breeding and everything in between—would thus be considered genetic modification, as well.
While they may originate in a certain species, genes used in genetic engineering processes are not going to make a plant “part-fish” or “part-” anything else. Genetic engineering is expensive, and transferring anything other than the single beneficial trait or set of traits is irresponsible and inefficient, so it just doesn’t happen.
A lot of the fruits and vegetables you’ll find at your local farmer’s market on a Saturday morning is grown organic (although obtaining the government “organic” certification can be prohibitively expensive for small farms). Organic farming at this scale generally has negligible environmental impacts, but it presents considerable environmental costs at large scales because of inefficient resource sage.
Additionally, organic crops produce smaller yields. This is where the opportunity cost is presented; every acre of land, gallon of water, and harvest season spent on organic farming yields 95 to 66 percent the final product that other farming methods with those resources would produce. At large scale, it’s harder to turn a tomato seed into a ripened tomato with organic versus conventional farming, presenting another economic cost of organic farming.
This is also what makes organic farming harmful to the environment at large scales; the amount of land that has to be dedicated to feeding a population is considerable to begin with, and incentivizing ineffective use of that land through organic farming presents serious sustainability concerns.
And while opportunity costs are presented by organic farming’s lower yields, other costs are presented by following the requirements of the United States Department of Agriculture’s “organic” certification (which is the de jure American standard for using the “organic” label). GMOs cannot be used in the process of organic farming, meaning that the engineered adaptations of those crops cannot be leveraged by organic farmings.
In part, this feeds the problem of lower yields, but it also creates costs through the amount and kinds of pesticides that must be used to maintain organic crops, the amount of nutritional value the crops yield, and others.
Among the other misconceptions about organic farming is a belief that organically farmed crops are healthier than conventionally farmed crops because of the pesticides used in each. This has been disproven; there are no measurable differences in nutritional values of the average organic fruit or vegetable compared to its non-organic counterparts.
As already mentioned, though, this is not an argument that organic foods be avoided completely. Many small farms use organic methods, and it can be for a variety of reasons. Certainly these farmers have a place in the world’s food economy, and local farming creates value for its community at the same time that it has environmental impacts, and this is a reality of all economic activity.
Buying GMOs and non-organic foods can be an economically savvy decision because they tend to be cheaper than their organic and non-GMO counterparts. This lower price is driven in part by stricter requirements in producing the final products, but these requirements are informed primarily by sentiment.
The preference for organic foods may in part be informed by perceived environmental impact, nutritional benefits, and safety, but these points do not hold up under scrutiny. Truly, the only difference is in sentiment.
Ultimately, though, what you decide to eat is a deeply personal decision; it’s a decision about what you’re allowing to enter your body and nourish you, and that is a sacred thing. I would implore anybody to pay close attention to what they’re eating, where it comes from, and what are the consequences of eating it.
The point, ultimately, is that organic versus conventional and GMO versus non-GMO has little to no practical effect on your personal health and wellbeing. In fact, eating GMOs and conventionally farmed foods, in most cases, have no personally discernible effect (besides financial and sentimental).
At a larger scale, though, farming has considerable environmental impacts. Individually, you have many opportunities to make sustainable choices that positively impact the world; food choice is yet one more way to internalize (quite literally) a commitment to positively impacting the world.
This post was last updated April 15, 2018.