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What's the Difference Between Organic and Non-GMO Project Verified?

We get this question a lot.  Non-GMO Project Verified and USDA certified organic are the two most sought-after labels at […]

What's the Difference Between Organic and Non-GMO Project Verified?

We get this question a lot.  Non-GMO Project Verified and USDA certified organic are the two most sought-after labels at […]

We get this question a lot. 

Non-GMO Project Verified and USDA certified organic are the two most sought-after labels at the grocery store. Both are considered clean-label indicators, both deal with agricultural production — and both certifications take strong stances on GMOs.

However, Non-GMO Project Verified and USDA certified organic are different certifications. They accomplish different things and go about it in different ways. As a single-issue certification, the Non-GMO Project is uniquely positioned to help preserve and build the non-GMO food supply. 

Here's how our expertise sets the Butterfly apart from other clean label certifications, including USDA certified organic.

A comparison table of the requirements under the USDA certified organic label and the Non-GMO Project Verified label regarding GMOs.

A clear definition

Definitions are crucial to any certification. A well-crafted and specific definition helps to establish a shared understanding of the certification's scope.

The Non-GMO Project Standard's definitions of GMOs and biotechnology (the techniques used to create GMOs) are adapted from an international agreement ratified by 173 countries that aims to address potential risks posed by living modified organisms. Our definitions offer essential clarity about what is (and what isn't) a GMO, providing a north star in the changing landscape of biotechnology.

The Standard defines GMOs as organisms to which biotechnology has been applied, and defines biotechnology as the application of 

  1. in vitro nucleic acid techniques, including recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and the direct injection of nucleic acid into cells or organelles; or  
  2. fusion of cells beyond the taxonomic family, that overcame natural physiological, reproductive, or recombination barriers and that are not techniques used in traditional breeding and selection.

It is essential to work from an established, recognized and concise definition of GMOs, particularly as the applications of biotechnology evolve rapidly. 

Emerging biotechnology techniques are leading to a steady stream of new GMOs, many of which are entering the marketplace unlabeled and unregulated. Examples of new techniques include molecular farming, synthetic biology, and gene editing techniques such as CRISPR and TALEN. Around the globe, the biotech industry is lobbying regulatory bodies to treat new GMOs as though they aren't GMOs at all, shifting the goalposts to ease the market arrival of novel products that have never before been part of the human diet.

The USDA National Organic Food Production Act does not include a definition of "genetically modified organism." Rather, GMOs are described within the definition of "excluded method." The definitions included in the Non-GMO Project Standard help the Butterfly react to new GMOs as they enter the supply chain, remaining firm in the face of industry spin.

Testing and surveillance

The Non-GMO Project Standard requires that all major, testable, high-risk ingredients undergo testing to ensure they come from non-GMO sources, while untestable high-risk ingredients are assessed by legally binding documentation, such as affidavits. Additionally, the Surveillance Program monitors Verified products on store shelves to ensure compliance. Read our blog to learn more about testing and surveillance.

However, the National Organic Program does not require testing for GMOs. The Program sets forth specific provisions for how organic farming and manufacturing are to be conducted, with the assumption that products made per this guidance are organic. However, it does not challenge or verify those assumptions through testing. According to Non-GMO Project Executive Director, Megan Westgate, "It’s important to understand that claims like 'organic is always non-GMO' are based on intention rather than fact." 

Given the ubiquity of GMO crops such as corn and soy, the prevalence of GMO contamination and the complexity of the supply chain, we believe the non-GMO food supply is best served by rigorous testing requirements. 

Action threshold

Under the Non-GMO Project Standard, an action threshold offers a precise metric by which to evaluate test results. However, an action threshold is not a GMO allowance. Action thresholds reflect the complexity of the supply chain and the reality of GMO contamination, helping to make our Standard meaningful and achievable. 

On the other hand, organic certification does not indicate action thresholds for contamination by GMOs or any other excluded method. This makes sense under a process-based organic certification which does not require testing for GMO contamination. However, Non-GMO Project Verified is a product-based certification that requires testing of major, high-risk ingredients and sets action thresholds by which to assess test results.

The focus and rigor of the Non-GMO Project Standard helps set the Butterfly apart from other clean label certifications. In 2014, Consumer Reports compared the Butterfly with USDA certified organic, self-made non-GMO claims and conventional products. It found that Non-GMO Project verification offered the strongest mechanism for avoiding GMOs due primarily to testing requirements. Testing provides added certainty in the strength of the claim and helps protect your right to choose whether or not to consume GMOs.

Non-GMO Project verification focuses on the single issue of GMOs. GMOs in the food and personal care industries are our area of expertise – hence our name – and we adapt continually to the changing landscape of biotechnology. As a single-issue certification, the Butterfly is uniquely positioned to assess the state of the non-GMO supply chain, moving us closer to our goal of a truly non-GMO food supply.

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