Winter is upon us. If you're tucked away in the Pacific Northwest corner of the States like I am, that means another 4-5 months of soup season. Days are short, rain is steady, and the bright, fruit-forward flavors of summer have faded into a distant, sultry memory. It’s the season of donning our waterproof shells and thick wooly socks. And, if you’re of the gardening variety, you’re in for a wholesome winter harvest of chicory, endives, radishes, swiss chard, rutabaga, mustard greens and leeks.
As winter deepens, our food preferences naturally and psychologically change with it. The human body is miraculously hardwired to crave and eat foods that keep us warm and full during colder months. With the outdoor grill turned off, we find ourselves gravitating towards our indoor crockpots and ovens. Our bodies are asking us, telling us, to eat with the seasons. To fuel up during the winter months, regulating our internal temperature with foods that warm and nourish us.
The key to local + seasonal
Tuning into the seasons allows us to engage with food in a deeper, richer way. This awareness also invites a rooted sense of place, where we become aware of and even celebrate the foods local to our geographic environments. And when you combine what’s seasonal with what’s local, you get the freshest flavor. This means a guarantee that your food didn’t take a cross-continental road trip (bolstered with preservatives) to arrive at your grocery store. It also means that your food bears witness to where you live, telling the story of local farmers and growers who are dedicated towards offering you the region’s hallmark, most natural flavors.
The garden’s ripest and brightest
It wasn’t until I booked a one-way ticket to Europe this past summer that I truly understood the significance of eating locally and seasonally. After months of exploring Swiss, Austrian, German, Dutch and Danish flavors, I spent September living with two vegan chefs in the heart of Tuscany’s Arezzo region. That's where I witnessed hyper-local and seasonally-expressive cuisine on display. We passed the early autumn days harvesting food from the garden, mushroom hunting and cooking meals that touted Tuscany’s best. The ripest and brightest ingredients were main characters in our shared meals, and whatever the garden lacked we sourced from local producers. It was a slow, intentional practice of place-ful eating. I learned to curb my cravings for non-regional foods, and enjoyed the (almost meditative) practice of eating what was available, seasonal, and true to the region.
Bold, regional flavor
The local-centric, seasonal lifestyle around food I witnessed in Tuscany (and a number of other European countries) struck a chord in me. I wanted to understand what made freshness the key ingredient to so many of the dishes and homemade meals I enjoyed, specifically in Italy. What I witnessed and learned is that authentic Italian cuisine involves simple ingredients, largely dictated by climate and natural landscape. The flavors emblematic of Italian food culture pay homage to regional accessibility and seasonal availability. You won’t find an Italian snacking on fresh tomato bruschetta in January, or cooking up zuppa di castagne e ceci (chestnut and chickpea soup) in July. When your main ingredients boast bold regional flavor, it’s about maximizing those ingredients and letting the food speak for itself.
Location laws and unruly food additives
Location plays such a critical role in Italian food production that Italy has passed a number of laws to protect the authenticity of products made in particular regions. And, speaking of laws, according to the New World Report, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) doesn’t allow additives in food production unless they’ve been proven to be unharmful to human consumption. The FDA has taken a different, more reactive approach in the States, where food additives are allowed into food production until they’re proven to be directly harmful to consumption. This means that food in the U.S. is not only likely to contain GMOs, but also foods rich in growth hormones and chemical preservatives to ensure a long shelf-life for our out-of-season eating habits and cravings. Not so in the larger European narrative around food, where (generally speaking) seasonal rhythms and locality play critical roles in the enjoyment of food closer to its origin and peak freshness.
Take it from the Italians – Eat local and seasonal foods
On one hand, prioritizing local and seasonal food products allows you to bypass highly processed foods that tend to be low in nutritional density. When food products are engineered to withstand time and travel, you can bet that nutritional saliency takes a hit. According to the Center for Food Safety, about 70-80% of processed foods in the U.S. contain GMOs. So, eating seasonally and buying locally-produced food as much as possible helps you shop with confidence, knowing that your food was made as nature intended, not bioengineered in a lab. You’re also reducing environmental impacts by choosing organic, non-GMO and local products. Less food transportation = lower carbon footprint. And, you’re keeping money in your local community by supporting producers and growers in your area. Finally, farm-fresh, locally grown food picked at peak ripeness is JAM-packed with flavor.
When it comes to winter in a maritime climate, we all need our seasonal survival strategies. Since leaving Tuscany’s warm, Mediterranean embrace and expressively fresh, regional cuisine, I’ve been seeking out ways to enjoy the winter harvest in my Pacific Northwest home climate. Knowing what’s in season has been the simplest way to add more local freshness to my diet. Italy’s winter harvest is actually very similar to that of the United States, with squash, mushrooms, cabbage, lentils, and clementine and mandarins in full bloom. Another method to access local, seasonal foods is through community supported agriculture (CSA) programs, where fresh produce is sourced from farmers local to your area. CSAs allow you to learn about fruits and veggies you may not have chosen at the grocery store, expanding your food horizons and palette preferences. And, winter farmers markets offer local and seasonal produce that’s readily available and assuredly delicious.
Escaping winter’s doldrums with fresh flavor
Even during these chilly months, there’s time to begin exploring a varied seasonal diet. Seasonally-bound and locally-based menus have the power to pull us from winter’s doldrums and feel connected to the place we’re in. Specifically in the Northwest, our seasonal rains and comparatively mild winters support cool-season crops even after the first frost. The winter harvest is robust and ready with flavor to nourish, sustain, and delight, even in the chilliest of seasons.
(Pro tip! Next summer, take a moment to remember the dark, languid days of winter ahead. Flash freeze your summer harvest of blueberries, strawberries, peaches and raspberries. Then, on a cold winter’s night when you need a zing of summer, whip out those frozen berries and make yourself a ripe, tart treat.)
*Photos courtesy of the author
Guest writer: Madi Burke. As a writer, explorer, and incessantly curious person, Madi Burke has always felt passionate about the natural world, our lived environments, and how to create more equitable systems that bring people closer to the nourishment and quality of life that comes with an integrated relationship to the earth. After receiving her undergraduate degree in sociology and speech communications, Madi went on to lead cycling trips in national parks, support nonprofit development, and now gets to help organizations tell their story as a freelance writer and brand manager.
There's a lot going on.
In case you missed it, there have been several news stories lately regarding the food system — including some that impact your right to choose whether or not to consume GMOs. As always, the Non-GMO Project continues to advocate for natural, resilient and sustainable food supply, to build and protect our genetic inheritance, and to offer Verified options.
Now, the news roundup.
White House promotes biotechnology… again
President Biden recently issued an executive order to advance biotechnology and biomanufacturing across government agencies and industries — including agriculture. This order blindly promotes biotechnology in the food sector — a misguided and expensive move. It takes the food system in the wrong direction to meet its stated goals of food security and climate adaptation.
We believe that agriculture should work with nature rather than against it. We support expanding holistic, resilient and equitable solutions in the food system. We are deeply concerned about the ongoing privatization of the food supply, which places ever more of our essential resources into the hands of a few multinational corporations.
You can read our statement in response to the executive order here.
Big investment in "Climate-Smart Commodities"
The U.S. government selected the first round of grant recipients under the "Partnerships for Climate Smart Commodities." The program earmarked $3 billion of the federal budget to reduce GHG emissions and increase carbon sequestration in major food crops and commodity production.
While this is an important first step, it doesn't go far enough.
The food system desperately needs a bold transition to fully regenerative production. In its current form, the grant program could further subsidize GMO production systems for crops such as soy, corn, cotton and alfalfa. These GMOs are grown using fundamentally harmful methods — vast areas of monocropping with liberal pesticide applications, leading to "superweeds" and "superbugs." Reducing GHG emissions without addressing the production model's other major issues is only a partial solution.
We welcome equally ambitious investment in an aggressive transition to diverse, non-GMO agriculture.
USDA packs Standards Board with government employees
The USDA is taking four seats on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) away from dedicated public volunteers and re-designating them to be filled by “Special Government Employees” (SGEs). The NOSB is a 15-member federal advisory board that makes recommendations on National Organic Program regulations, including which substances or practices to allow or prohibit in organic production.
With the Presidential Executive Order on biotechnology already telegraphing the federal government's support for GMOs, replacing public representatives with government employees is cause for deep concern. Organic supporters — including the Non-GMO Project — are left wondering if the appointment of government employees is part of a larger movement to include GMOs in organic production.
GMO labeling win — QR codes are unlawful
The Center for Food Safety had a critical victory in their latest suit to address shortcomings in the federal Bioengineered (BE) Food labeling law. A U.S. district court found using QR codes alone for BE disclosures unlawful and discriminatory. QR codes are inaccessible to Americans who don't use smartphones or live in rural areas with unreliable internet.
The finding is a big win for everyone who supports clear, meaningful GMO labeling. It eliminates the most egregious and discriminatory form of disclosure, forcing the USDA to revise the portions of the labeling law to remove the option alone on product packaging.
However, there are still issues with the Bioengineered Food labeling law — find out more here.
While we've ended on a positive note for GMO labeling, there are causes for concern in organics and agricultural biotechnology. Biotechnology in the food space continues to overpromise and underdeliver, increasing the need for costly and destructive inputs such as pesticides and fertilizers while failing to address hunger in the most vulnerable populations.
The Non-GMO Project continues to work towards a natural, regenerative and equitable food system that honors traditional and Indigenous knowledge and empowers all people to care for themselves, the planet, and future generations.
We're often asked how Non-GMO Project Verification and USDA Organic Certification intersect. If "Organic is always non-GMO," then what does the Non-GMO Project Verification mark offer to brands and shoppers? A lot! Let's walk through it.
The Non-GMO Project Verification Program is focused solely and deeply on GMOs, supported by testing and supply chain tracing. USDA Organic Certification is a holistic, process-based certification with practices modeled on natural ecosystems. Each certification examines food production from different angles. But when the two seals appear together on your favorite products they reflect the gold standard for food.
Only the Butterfly tests for GMOs
The Non-GMO Project is a single-issue certification. We look at one thing, and we look at it deeply. This focus lets us dive intensely into the world of traditional and emerging GMOs to monitor developments in a rapidly growing field. Keeping up with the biotech industry is a full time job. Specifically, it is the full time job of the Non-GMO Project research team that monitors the industry’s developments.
By contrast, the National Organic Program — or "NOP," which develops regulations for USDA Organic certification — examines the systems of agricultural production. To become a certified organic producer, farmers develop and implement an "organic system plan." This plan covers a range of practices, such as preserving soil health, crop rotations, pest management, livestock care and more. The system is designed to build soil, minimize erosion and protect the water supply from contaminants — all laudable aims.
While GMOs are considered an Excluded method of production under the NOP regulations, there is no requirement for testing and no mechanism to address contamination. The phrase "Organic is always non-GMO" is based on the idea that a producer, having followed their organic system plan, will not have purposefully used GMOs. The reality is that GMOs travel. Pollen drifts on wind and by the movement of diverse wildlife. Genetically modified organisms, once released into the environment, cannot be recalled.
That is why the Non-GMO Project Standard outlines explicit requirements for GMO avoidance, including ongoing testing of all major ingredients considered high-risk for being GMO. By evaluating each product rather than the system that produced it, our Standard tackles contamination (or fraud) in Non-GMO Project Verified products — including how to correct an issue and keep the Butterfly strong.
Without testing requirements, the National Organic Program can miss contamination events and even outright fraud. A well-publicized case of organic fraud came to light in 2018, in which a Missouri farmer sold $140 million of conventionally grown grain as organic. The farmer's activities were ultimately discovered by the FBI — not by the USDA or the NOP — because of other criminal activities that were funded by the fraudulent acts.
How non-GMO supports organic
By examining how our food is produced from different perspectives, Organic Certification and Non-GMO Project Verification provide shoppers with a much clearer picture of what they are investing in. That's not the only way that these two certifications complement each other.
Farms are often impacted by what happens upwind and upstream. Given GMOs’ propensity for travel, an organic farmer whose neighbors grow non-GMO is better protected from contamination. A non-GMO buffer makes the investment in organic just that much safer. That's important, because transitioning to organic is a long and costly process. Before a farm can even be considered for organic certification, the land must be free from non-organic practices — including synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and GMOs — for 3 years. That's 3 years during which a farmer adopts new practices, but is not yet able to sell their product as organic. After the 3 year transition period, certification can take another 3-6 months. That is a significant financial investment, with 3-4 years before the farmer sees a return.
Farmers often operate with tight margins, and to stagger the costs of going organic, some choose to transition their land incrementally, becoming "split producers." In this case, transitioning organic and non-organic operations exist side by side under the same operator. For split producers, growing non-GMO crops on pre-transition plots acts as an investment in their organic future, and because non-GMO doesn't require a transition period, the premiums producers earn from their non-GMO crops are gained within the growing season.
When the National Organic Program was first introduced, genetically modified crops were also quite new. The first draft of the NOP was published in 1997 — an incarnation which actually allowed the use of genetic engineering. The public outcry was deafening. Of course, the draft was revised, and the spirit and practice of organic production emerged. Genetically modified organisms were listed as an Excluded method in the "Terms defined" section, akin to a glossary.
At this time, there were only a handful of GMO crops on the market. They were produced using DNA from other species and engineered to either withstand the application of herbicides or to produce an insecticide within the plant. Since then, emerging techniques for producing GMOs have outpaced regulation, investments in agricultural biotechnology have skyrocketed and GMOs face deregulation and decreased scrutiny. USDA officials have made public statements on the benefits of genetic engineering — even within organic agriculture — to the horror of many in the organic movement.
This worries us, and we're not the only ones. It also concerns the National Organic Standards Board, or "NOSB" — the federal advisory committee that assists in developing standards for Organics:
"Genetic engineering is a rapidly expanding field in science. The NOSB recognizes the need to continually add methods to the list for review and to determine if the methods are or are not acceptable in organic agriculture."
There are currently two NOSB recommendations which would update and expand the definition of GMOs to include some of the emerging techniques in genetic engineering. They were submitted in 2018 and 2019, and neither has been integrated into existing regulations. During that time, the Non-GMO Project team has observed a massive increase in GMO development. Business is booming while regulation is stalled.
Biotech companies go to great lengths to market new GMO technology as something distinct from traditional GMOs. This is a blatant attempt to distance themselves from negative perception of GMOs held by much of the public. In the European Union, new GMOs are regulated as traditional GMOs, but the stance in North America remains purposefully shrouded. This confusion has the power to erode public trust in federal certifications, ultimately allowing loopholes through which new GMOs can enter the food supply in places consumers would not reasonably expect them. That's why the Butterfly is more important than ever — it remains the highest standard for GMO avoidance in North America.
Each certification provides you with valuable insight into what you are purchasing and what kinds of agriculture you are supporting with your purchase. The combination of the USDA Organic Certification and the Butterfly seal offers a unique and powerful leverage point for working towards a better food system for all. The future is organic and non-GMO!
We all love organic food here at the Non-GMO Project. Like most of our readers, we prefer not to consume foods that were produced with the use of harmful pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Some people are surprised to learn that the Non-GMO Project doesn’t test for those types of chemicals; our single-issue program focuses exclusively on genetically modified organisms. Let’s talk about how Certified Organic and Non-GMO Project Verified work together!
What is Organic?
Organic certifications set rules for how animals are raised, how crops are grown, and how pests are managed. Each has rules about specific substances that can and cannot be used in the production of organic goods. These programs are run directly by the government in Canada and the United States. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency oversees Canada’s program under the Safe Food for Canadians Regulations, and the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service operates the National Organic Program. The American program focuses on avoiding the use of prohibited substances; Canada’s program relies on a list of permitted substances instead. Neither program allows the use of synthetic pesticides or growth hormones. These programs do not allow GMOs either, but they also do not require any testing for them.
Is Organic Really Always Non-GMO?
It is wonderful that North America’s organic programs do not permit GMOs. Unfortunately, we all know that GMO contamination happens. From cross-pollination to human error, there are many ways for GMOs to accidentally end up in non-GMO supply chains if stringent protocols are not followed. Testing is the best and most reliable way to catch these problems—that is the very foundation of the Non-GMO Project’s work. Our Product Verification Program builds on the already-excellent organic certifications by adding the missing piece: provisions for mandatory GMO testing.
“There is no requirement for GMO testing in organic and that is why the Non-GMO Project was started.” -Megan Westgate, Non-GMO Project Executive Director
This is Where We Came In
The GMO issue is too complicated to be just one component of a broader standard like Organic; it demands its own Standard and its own avoidance program. This was true when the Project was founded more than ten years ago, and it’s even more true now as products of new genetic engineering techniques begin to enter our food supply. The organic programs in North America are not equipped to handle the complexities of all these new technologies—especially as they are not easy to identify or track.
“I truly believe that the Non-GMO Project is more important than ever…no one else is keeping up with these techniques,” -Megan Westgate
The Non-GMO Project works hard to stay ahead of these new GMOs. Our team of researchers works hard to identify and track new GMOs well before they hit the market so we can keep them out of our shared non-GMO supply chain.
Organic and Non-GMO are Friends.
Organic and non-GMO work best when they work together. A non-GMO system supports organic agriculture by reducing GMO contamination pressure and increasing the availability of non-GMO ingredients in the supply chain. The Non-GMO Project’s work helps expand access to non-GMO ingredients and increases traceability throughout the supply chain. In short, our work makes it easier and easier to create organic products that are truly non-GMO.
The Non-GMO Project wants to make sure that everyone has access to non-GMO choices—no matter what type of food they choose to eat. At the Non-GMO Project, we believe Certified Organic and Non-GMO Project Verified is the gold standard for food. Look for the Butterfly when you shop, and if you want to avoid synthetic pesticides and fertilizers too, choose Organic as well!