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Organic 101: Can GMOs Be Used in Organic Products?

Posted by Miles McEvoy, National Organic Program Deputy Administrator in Conservation Food and Nutrition Technology
May 17, 2013

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 (PDF, 62.4 KB) 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.

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Sep 29, 2016

In a world inhabited by a far to large percentage of starving people, how can any person live with themselves by eliminating the GMOs which go to feed them? If you insist on paying 5 times the price at a store and eating "organic" (OF COURSE it's organic! It says so on this little plastic sticker here!) then go ahead! At this link you can see some of the reasons we should absolutely continue to produce GMOs. This is a livelihood for farmers, and it's helping the starving people, then why would you ban them?

Sy Washington
Oct 26, 2016

cows are not supposed to eat corn it makes them sick

tom grice
May 11, 2017

Can a cotton ginner use a ginning lubricant for increased ginning performance and greater yields out of the gin and still maintain the Organics Cotton label IF the lubricant is washed off in the subsequent cotton processing?

If not, how does Organic Cotton remain Organic when it is washed, bleached (in some cases), dyed, etc.?

Jul 25, 2017

Very interesting and informative thanks

Aug 11, 2017

If this is true, how is it possible that we have "organic" or, as you say, non GMO or GE, seedless fruit. Only through human manipulation is this possible, which would mean it has been genetically altered while labels organic.

Sep 09, 2017

I have become so sensitive to GMO food and chemical laden corn products that even the slightest trace amounts ingested will give me horrible chemical burns on my face, blisters, nasty crusty weeping sores, my nose and eyes swell, my throat swells, and it's gotten so there is less and less that is safe for me to eat.
Every time I accidentally eat something with corn, flax, gmo, maltodextrin, xanthan gum, honey, just about any commercially US grown produce, even sugar... Anything with high acid content like tomatoes, citrus, etc causes the chemical reaction to set my skin on fire with a burning, blistering sensation. The weed killer in the corn eats through my intestinal flora & intestines, causing added toxicity with leaky gut syndrome, auto-immune problems, yeast infections, bladder infections, dry bloody eyes, blepheritis, achy joints and muscles, bloody urine, diarrhea, nausea, acid reflux, irritable boewl syndrome, agonizing abdominal pain and bloating, flatulance... Why is the use of known carcinogens like Round up weed killer, antibiotics, and pesticides still being allowed to poison the brunt of our food supplies? It makes me wonder what Monsanto employees and their families eat? Are their family and friends getting sick and dying of cancer like mine?
I get a reaction, I have to throw away the culprit. As a result, I am broke and starving. Non GMO, organic food, beauty products, soaps, shampoos, toilet paper, tissues, sanitary products, makeup--is all very expensive--and everything that touches my skin has to be scrutinized to the Nth degree. We need to turn this around before it's too late.

Sep 09, 2017

You say {mike} that you produce GM foods to keep up with the rising population of the planet? If GM foods kill off the populous, I guess then your problem is solved? Is that your way of thinking?
Cows are being fed GM/Round up weed killer laden corn, antibiotics, etc. They are not equipped to digest corn in the first place. The poisons are being ingested by the cow, and after the cow is slaughtered, we are ingesting the poisoned meat as a result. What happened to grass grazing cows? Why is it more expensive to get grass fed beef when the corn costs more to produce? It also costs the animal, since I understand a cow which is fed GM corn can only live approximately 110 days before it has to be slaughtered?
Why don't we, the general public, have a say as to what goes into the food we buy? Why isn't money being put into non carcinogenic methods? How about employing more jobless Americans to tend the fields and animals in an organic fashion? Seems to me you're taking the greedy way out if you buy into the whole GM is good thing. I'm guessing you have your blinders on when it comes to seeing or hearing what these chemicals are doing to our food, animals and the humans who use them as a food source? Read the labels of the chemicals you are using!!! If they're so safe, let me see you down a bottle of Round up right now! After all, we are all expected to ingest it slowly for a more agonizing death. I'm not playing bleeding heart liberal here. I am a human being who is being slowly poisoned by your need to feed your wallet, and I'm hopping mad about it!!!

Janie Miller
Oct 10, 2017

I I believe I have the right to know what I am really eating,
therefore I believe that GMO fruits and vegetables should always be labeled as such! Why is this information hidden from consumers?

Paula King
Mar 20, 2018

How can you tell the hybrid onions? Or what was the first onion? I am trying to only eat orginal foods instead of plant splices.


J Caldwell
Mar 27, 2018

Thank you for clear clarification. Trying to eat non GMO organic is a grocery shopping nightmare.

Mar 30, 2018

Never understood the ban on GMOs in Organic Farming. I understand that some GMOs are modified in a way that makes them more resistant to pesticides, but if there are no pesticides being used on this GMO, why is it still disqualified from being Organic? Sounds like an irrational fear, a bias.

Apr 08, 2018

So it's OK if organic has GMO as long as it's not physically put in I'm paying high prices to avoid ridiculous GMO BS but it's OK to have some in organic. Is there any foods safe to eat any more

William Gage
Apr 23, 2018

If farmers create a "buffer zone" around their crops that can not be sold as "organic," how can any honey producers sell their product as organic, knowing that bees can fly as much as two miles to collect nectar (from non-GMO sources)for "organic" honey?

Ben Weaver
May 04, 2018
@William Gage - Organic livestock producers that work with bees must describe the geographic area in which the bees forage – to make sure that bees only collect nectar on certified organic land. The certifier that certifies the organic business must check to be sure that the bee farmer has sufficient certified land to allow the bees to have the full geographic range they need, while also staying on organic land.
Ben Weaver
May 04, 2018

@Linda - The use of genetic engineering, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), is prohibited in organic products. For more information, view our fact sheet at Can GMOs Be Used in Organic Production?

Tiffany Wirick
May 20, 2018

Time for change
Time for protest by the billions ??
Yes over due
Our government is NOT OUR GOVERNMENT
IT BELONGS TO —money- sad but true

marie shulz
Jun 02, 2018

If a product is not genetically engineered, mustn't heirloom seeds be used and where can you buy heirloom seeds?