Trends of the Supermarket: Which Should We Follow?

By Becky Hoag

No GMOs! Organic! Umm…great? More and more companies have been jumping on these trends, reassuring consumers that products from orange juice to cat litter are non-GMO and organic. But what do these terms entail? And should we actively seek out these products?

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Organic

An organic product is grown without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, GMOs, or ionizing radiation, according to organic.org. To poor college students, we might associate organic to “something that costs more and might rot sooner.” Yet, environmentally conscious people tend to gravitate toward items labeled organic.

Rachel Carson was not wrong in Silent Spring when she documented the immense environmental devastation that arose from the use of chemicals in the agricultural industry.

Being stamped with the USDA Organic label should tell you that they are following strict requirements established by the department; however, the system isn’t perfect. Rodale’s Organic Life Magazine reported that certifying something organic doesn’t account for how the company treats the environment around the farm past herbicide and pesticide usage. The soil could still be reaped of its nutrition and there are other forms of pollution that can occur.

In the way of animals, the organic certification ensures “ethical slaughtering practices, livestock handling and transport, living conditions, use of organic-certified feed, and no use of antibiotics or hormones,” as described by the magazine. This doesn’t ensure proper disposal of waste and the definition of “ethical livestock handling” can vary.

Additionally, products can fall through the cracks. In 2014, University of Oregon journalism PhD professor Peter Laufer investigated products he purchased from a local Eugene grocery store to see if they were truly organic. He followed one of the items — “organic” black beans — all the way to its place of origin, Bolivia. Throughout his journey, recorded in his book Organic: A Journalist’s Quest to Discover the Truth Behind Food Labeling, Laufer found that the industry was not as transparent about where food comes from than it should be.

While organic-certifying organizations have cracked down on regulations since 2014, more instances of fraud in the system are still being uncovered. The Washington Post exposed Aurora Organic Dairy last May for engaging in very un-organic conduct.

The USDA requires organic farms to allow livestock to “graze daily throughout the growing season” to feed on grass, but when visiting their High Plains complex in Boulder, Colorado several times, The Post found that no more than 10 percent of the herd was out of confines. The USDA inspectors couldn’t have caught this because they only inspected in November, which falls after grazing season.

Other large-scale “organic” dairy farms were investigated by The Post and found to have far too little cows grazing during grazing seasons.

The system that should be holding these farms accountable has been put into question, especially when most inspections that occur are announced ahead of time and conducted by inspectors hired by the farms, not the USDA.

These instances and others have caused some to rethink what it means to be organic. Early last November, the National Organic Coalition moved to exclude “hydroponic greenhouse-grown” vegetables from organic produce. Hydroponic veggies are grown surrounded by nutritious liquid in fibrous containers. This high-tech method of growing allows farms to pop up in places they normally wouldn’t be able to, like abandoned factories. This way plants require less land and resources. Yet, hydroponic opponents argued that this would halt the progress of increasing soil nutrition in the country, that normally comes from crop rotations. Therefore, hydroponics, they said, could not be considered organic.

As said by Modern Farmer, this has been “one of the most divisive issues in the organic world.” That is why it was a big deal when the National Organic Standards Board declared that hydroponic farms will still be considered organic. Other modern methods of farming, maybe even GMOs, are bound to be placed in the debate ring in the near future.

Non-GMO

To compensate for the growing human population, scientists are finding ways to increase nutrition production and decrease the time and resources the food industry employs. Scientists do this by cutting a bit of DNA from an organism that has the desired trait and putting it into a plant or animal chosen to be genetically modified.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have the potential to make a large impact. If done carefully, GM plants could be designed to be more resistant to insects, viruses, and herbicides that kill the weeds around them.

Some produce with these capabilities available on US shelves include corn, soybeans, and canola. In a way, genetic modification can be a faster approach to artificial selection – choosing which organisms to reproduce based on desired traits – which humans have done for decades. As with artificial selection, genetic modification could increase availability of nutrients to developing countries.

GMOs aren’t exclusive to plants either. AquaAdvantage salmon – Atlantic salmon modified with a Chinook salmon growth hormone and an ocean pout with antifreeze proteins – grow faster and larger than the average salmon, require less food, and withstand near-freezing temperatures as well as disease. With many communities relying on salmon to provide their major source of protein and the declining health of the wild salmon population, AquaAdvantage salmon provides a supply to the demand and decrease the pressure on the wild salmon population.

There is a clear stigma towards genetic modification, though, which has slowed the movement considerably. Anti-GMO coalitions have popped up in the recent years, hence the increasing trend of “No GMOs” labels. A 2016 Centra Foods study showed a 50 percent increase in non-GMO-claiming products from 2013 to 2015.

There have been some concerns associated with some GMOs. Because a major use of genetic modification has been increasing the hardiness of the plant against insects, viruses, and herbicides, many are concerned that these insects, viruses, and weeds will build resistance to the chemicals. This is a catch-up game we have seen occasionally with antibiotics. And while the amount of pesticides used has decreased since these crops were introduced starting in 1996, the use of herbicides has increased significantly now that the crops desired are more resistant to those chemicals, according to Consumer Reports. In a way, their hardiness gives farmers of GM crops permission to go full-force on weed-killers where they might have been more cautious to do this before.

Patenting in the GMO industry has also caused problems, as cross-pollination makes it difficult to keep patented seeds on the GMO farm’s side of the fence. Cross-pollination occurs when birds and insects spread seeds or pollen. This is very helpful to plants because it increases genetic diversity; good genetic diversity decreases the chance of a population getting wiped out. But if genes are shared between one farm that grows GM plant and another that does not, the farmer with natural crop might inadvertently grow the patented GM plants. This means that companies growing GMOs, such as Monsanto, can sue their neighbors for accidently growing and distributing their GMOs.

Most the European Union nations currently block new GMO’s from being grown in their borders and Russia bans both production and imports of all GMOs. But for each GMO, the correct approach might be “innocent until proven guilty.”

If you still decide to avoid GMOs, be cautious of products advertising “no GMO”. The label might not mean anything if a produce has no GMO option. Companies eager to jump on the bandwagon have placed the phrase on products that have never been a GMO and sometimes can’t even be a GMO.