Agriculture and Human Values

, Volume 34, Issue 4, pp 805–818 | Cite as

Non-GMO vs organic labels: purity or process guarantees in a GMO contaminated landscape

  • Carmen Bain
  • Theresa Selfa


Since 2010, demand for non-GMO food products has grown dramatically. Two non-GMO labels dominate the market: USDA Organic and the Non-GMO Project Verified (the Project). However, the non-GMO status of Organic is not obvious from the label and many consumers are unaware of this. As sales of products carrying the Project’s non-GMO label have exploded, concern has increased among some Organic proponents that demand for non-GMO threatens the organic market. In response, both sides are seeking to build legitimacy and authority for their label by emphasizing the value of their standards for determining a food product’s non-GMO status within a GMO contaminated agrifood system. Drawing on in-depth interviews with key informants with knowledge of non-GMO standards and labels, we examine the knowledge systems, discourses and actors that proponents of the Project and USDA Organic privilege in their effort to legitimize their standards. Here, the Project emphasizes its application of technoscientific norms, especially thresholds and testing, which they argue provide the best means for preventing GMO contamination and helping consumers find (relative) non-GMO ‘purity’. In contrast, proponents of Organic favor a process standard that excludes GMOs, arguing that non-GMO ‘purity’ is unrealistic in today’s agrifood system that is widely contaminated by GMOs and where mandatory testing would unnecessarily harm organic producers. We conclude that tensions between the two groups are unlikely to be easily reconciled since these two distinct marketing labels rely on different knowledge and verification claims to vie for consumers and increase market share.


GMO Organic Standards Labels Transparency Environmental governance Agrifood system 



Genetically modified organism


National Organic Program Proposed Rule


National Organic Standards Board


Organic Food Production Act


Organic Trade Association


United States Department of Agriculture



This research was supported by the USDA-National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) under Grant No. 2013-68004-20374. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the USDA. The authors would like to thank Hannah Fisher for her research assistance. We would also like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments on an earlier version of this article. Finally, we wish to express our appreciation to all those who kindly agreed to participate in this research project.


  1. Allen, P., and Kovach, M. 2000. The capitalist composition of organic: The potential of markets in fulfilling the promise of organic agriculture. Agriculture and Human Values 17 (3): 221–232.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bain, C., and Dandachi, T. 2014. Governing GMOs: The (counter) movement for mandatory and voluntary non-GMO labels. Sustainability 6: 9456–9476.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bain, C., Ransom, E., and Worosz, M. 2010. Constructing credibility: Using technoscience to legitimate strategies in agrifood governance. Journal of Rural Social Sciences 25 (3): 160–192.Google Scholar
  4. Barham, E. 2002. Towards a theory of values-based labeling. Agriculture and Human Values 19 (4): 349–360.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bartley, T., Koos, S., Samel, H., Setrini, G., and Summers, N. 2015. Looking behind the label. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Boström, M., and Klintman, M. 2006. State-centered versus nonstate-driven organic food standardization: A comparison of the US and Sweden. Agriculture and Human Values 23 (2): 163–180.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Boström, M., and Klintman, M. 2008. Eco-standards, product labelling and green consumerism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Buck, D., Getz, C., and Guthman, J. 1997. From farm to table: the organic vegetable commodity chain of northern California. Sociologia Ruralis 37 (1): 3–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bunge, J. and Gasparro A. 2015. Organic vs non-GMO labels. Who’s winning? New York: Wall street Journal.Google Scholar
  10. Busch, L. 2011. Standards: Recipes for reality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  11. Charles, D. 2014. How American food companies go GMO-free in a GMO world. National public radio, The salt. Accessed 14 Feb 2014.
  12. Charles, D. 2016. Organic food fights back against ‘non-GMO’ rival. National public radio, The salt. Accessed 15 Aug 2016.
  13. Clapp, J., and Fuchs, D. 2009. Agrifood corporations, global governance, and sustainability: A framework for analysis. In Corporate power in global agrifood governance, eds. J. Clapp, and D. Fuchs, 1–25. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Darnhofer, I., Lindenthal, T., Bartel-Kratochvil, R., and Zollitsch, W. 2010. Conventionalisation of organic farming practices: From structural criteria towards an assessment based on organic principles. A review. Agronomy for Sustainable Development 30 (1): 67–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Espeland, W.N., and Stevens, M. L. 2008. A sociology of quantification. European Journal of Sociology 49 (3): 401–436.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Fernandez-Cornejo, J., Wechsler, S.J., Livingston, M., and Mitchell, L. 2014. Genetically engineered crops in the United States. Washington DC: USDA.Google Scholar
  17. Freidberg, S. 2014a. Footprint technopolitics. Geoforum 55: 178–189.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Freidberg, S. 2014b. It’s complicated: Corporate sustainability and the uneasiness of life cycle assessment. Science as Culture 24 (2): 157–182.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Goodman, D. 2000. Organic and conventional agriculture: Materializing discourse and agro-ecological managerialism. Agriculture and Human Values 17 (3):215–219CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Guthman, J. 2003. Eating risk. The politics of labeling genetically engineered foods. In Enineering trouble: Biotechnology and its discontents, eds. R. Schurman, and D. D. Kelso, 130–151. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  21. Guthman, J. 2004. The trouble with ‘organic lite’ in California: A rejoinder to the ‘conventionalisation’ debate. Sociologia Ruralis 44 (3): 301–316.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Guthman, J. 2009. Unveiling the unveiling. Commodity chains, commodity fetishism, and the “value” of voluntary, ethical food labels. In Frontiers of commodity chain research, ed. J. Bair, 190–206. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Guthman, J., and Brown, S. 2016. Whose life counts: Biopolitics and the “bright line” of chloropicrin mitigation in California’s strawberry industry. Science, Technology & Human Values 41 (3): 461–482.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Hennessy, M. 2014. Non-GMO not necessarily organic, and other GMO myths busted: OTA. FoodNavigator—USA. Accessed 22 Feb 2016.
  25. Higgins, V., and Larner, W. 2010. Standards and standardization as a social scientific problem. In Calculating the social: Standards and the reconfiguration of governing, eds. V. Higgins, and W. Larner, 1–17. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Jaffee, D., and Howard, P. H. 2010. Corporate cooptation of organic and fair trade standards. Agriculture and Human Values 27 (4): 387–399.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Jaffee, D., and Howard, P. H. 2015. Who’s the fairest of them all? The faractured landscape of U.S. fair trade certification. Agriculture and Human Values 1–14.Google Scholar
  28. Juska, A., Gouveia, L., Gabriel, J., and Koneck, S. 2000. Negotiating bacteriological meat contamination standards in the US: The case of E. coli O157: H7. Sociologia Ruralis 40 (2): 249–271.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Lloyd, K. 2015. Removing GMOs. Natural Products Insider. Accessed 22 Nov 2015.
  30. McEvoy, M. 2013. Organic 101: Can GMOs be used in organic products? USDA. Accessed 22 Nov 2015.
  31. Mol, A.P.J. 2013. Transparency and value chain sustainability. Journal of Cleaner Production 107: 154–161.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Non-GMO Project. 2015. Non-GMO project standard (version 12). Bellingham, WA: Non-GMO Project.Google Scholar
  33. Office of the Federal Register. 2016. Organic production and handling requirements. Electronic code of federal regulations. idx?SID=0264bfc54589f24cd0f2d9eecbee34e5&mc=true&node=se7.3.205_1200&rgn=div8. Accessed 3 March 2016.
  34. OTA. 2014. OTA position on the landing of USDA NOP certified products and “non-GMO” claims. Accessed 25 Nov 2015.
  35. Pfoutz, A. 2015. Good earth natural foods: Safeguarding our organic & non-GMO food supply. The organic and non-GMO report (October). Accessed 1 March 2016.
  36. Ponte, S., Gibbon, P., and Vestergaard, J. 2011. Governing through standards: An introduction. In Governing through standards: Origins, drivers and limitations, eds. S. Ponte, P. Gibbon, and J. Vestergaard, 1–24. New York: Palgrave Macmillian.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Porter, T.M. 1996. Trust in numbers: The pursuit of objectivity in science and public life. Princeton: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Renard, M., and Loconto, A. 2013. Competing logics in the further standardization of fair trade: ISEAL and the Símbolo de Pequeños productores. International Journal of the Sociology of Agriculture and Food 20 (1): 51–68.Google Scholar
  39. Roff, R.J. 2007. Shopping for change? Neoliberalizing activism and the limits to eating non-GMO. Agriculture and Human Values 24 (4): 511–522.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Roff, R.J. 2009. No alternative? The politics and history of non-GMO certification. Agriculture and Human Values 26 (4): 351–363.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Roseboro, K. 2015a. A tale of two labels: Organic and non-GMO. Organic connections. Accessed 22 Nov 2015.
  42. Roseboro, K. 2015b. New non-GMO certification programs emerging. Accessed 22 Nov 2015.
  43. Russell, A. 2014. Open standards and the digital age. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Scott, J. C. 1998. Seeing like a state. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  45. Silva-Castenada, L. 2012. A forest of evidence: Third party certification and multiple forms of proof- case study of oil palm plantations in Indonesia. Agriculture and Human Values 29 (3): 261–370.Google Scholar
  46. Strom, S. 2015. FDA takes issue with the term “non-GMO”. Manhattan: New York times.Google Scholar
  47. Szasz, A. 2007. Shopping our way to safety: How we changed from protecting the environment to protecting ourselves. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  48. Thottam, J. 2007. When organic isn’t really organic. New York City: TIME magazine.Google Scholar
  49. Timmermans, S., and Epstein, S. 2010. A world of standards but not a standard world: Toward a sociology of standards and standardization. Annual Review of Sociology 36: 69–89.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Turnhout, E., Neves, K., and de Lijster, E. 2014. ‘Measurementality’in biodiversity governance: knowledge, transparency, and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Environment and Planning A 46 (3): 581–597.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. USDA National Organic Program. 2013. Can GMOs be used in organic products? Accessed 3 March 2016.
  52. USDA National Organic Program. 2016. National organic handbook. Accessed 3 March 2016.
  53. Vos, T. 2000. Visions of the middle landscape: Organic farming and the politics of nature. Agriculture and Human Values 17 (3): 245–256.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Watson, E. 2015. Pompeo bill would ‘create a competing non-GMO label with drastically lower standards’, says Non-GMO Project. Food Navigator. Accessed 1 March 2016.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyIowa State UniversityAmesUSA
  2. 2.Department of Environmental StudiesSUNY ESFSyracuseUSA

Personalised recommendations