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


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.

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  1. 1.

    SPINS is an analytical and consulting company for the natural, organic and specialty products industries.

  2. 2.

    These figures do not include Whole Foods, which is a major retailer of non-GMO products.



Genetically modified organism


National Organic Program Proposed Rule


National Organic Standards Board


Organic Food Production Act


Organic Trade Association


United States Department of Agriculture


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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.

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Correspondence to Carmen Bain.



See Table 2.

Table 2 Interviewee Participants

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Bain, C., Selfa, T. Non-GMO vs organic labels: purity or process guarantees in a GMO contaminated landscape. Agric Hum Values 34, 805–818 (2017).

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  • GMO
  • Organic
  • Standards
  • Labels
  • Transparency
  • Environmental governance
  • Agrifood system