What is organic?

So what is “organic,” really?

To look at this question, it can be easier to start with what is not organic, rather, what is genetically modified. Genetically modified organisms, commonly referred to as GMOs, have been a topic of hot debate in recent years.

By definition, a genetically modified organism is one which has had its genes modified from their “natural state” through the use of modern biotechnology. However, “modern biotechnology” can be understood in a variety of ways, with gene insertion from other organisms on one side of the spectrum and mere selective breeding on the other. Selective breeding aims to do largely the same thing as gene insertions: to produce an organism with a desired genetic trait. Although some people feel this is a more natural and perhaps more  ethical route to travel, it’s difficult to see how it really changes the end product.

Due to such “modifying,” GMOs have garnered distrust among the majority of the public, while conversely the reputation of organic food products has grown. However, much of the hysteria surrounding GMOs and organic foods is based primarily on rhetoric rather than scientific principle.

One must consider that since the beginning of the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago, man has been genetically modifying crops in an attempt to increase and improve yields in order to stave off famine and malnutrition. The more recent developments in technology, although aiming to achieve the same goal, have brought a negative, anti-science stigma against these practices. With this stigma unveiled, the benefits of GMO technology can be seen more clearly.

One cause of concern surrounding GMO technology has been the fear of an increase of corporate control in the food supply. It’s true that a few large companies, such as Cargill and Sysco, have control over various aspects of the food supply within the United States. Some people believe that by switching back to traditional or organic food, we can avoid the monopoly associated with GMOs. Organic food researcher and author Michael Pollan points out that while the common conception is that organic food comes from small farms by loving farmers dedicated to their pure practices, this is often not really the case. Whole Foods Market, a well-known organic grocery chain, gets its produce from Earthbound Farm and Grimmway Farms/Cal-Organic, both located in California. These two companies dominate the organic produce market in America and employ industrial methods to satiate customer demand. The methods may be certified as organic, but the problems associated with large-scale corporate farming still remain if they wish to produce enough food to feed the population.

Much of the anti-science has latched itself to the argument of the added nutritional value organic foods bring. However, the nutritional differences between organic and GMO food illustrates a different story. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that was conducted around the chemical analysis of a wide variety of organic foods demonstrated that out of 11 key nutrients identified, only three nutrients showed a significant difference in nutritional value. These differences, as the researchers state, can be accounted for by the variability in techniques, product and soil makeup. Therefore, this presents the question of whether eating organic foods or eating healthy foods is more important for human health.

These misconceptions are but a small portion illustrating the supposed disadvantages of GMO technology in food. Other anti-GMO arguments have similarly misconstrued research, producing an unwarranted organic craze. A clear logic to give up GMO food production remains to be seen, but until that appears, we suggest that we continue with the progress of science to help feed the growing population with this new, more efficient technology.