Should you pay five bucks for organic milk? The GMO vs Organic debate, explained

Organic is trending, big time. But should you get behind the movement? Or remain skeptical? All of your questions on the topic answered, finally.


Evanthia Stirou

The debate over the health of GMO vs. organic foods is one that consumers continually have. Original art by Evanthia Stirou.

By Sophia Berry, St. Stephen's Episcopal School

Walking through Publix you check the price for a gallon of 2% milk: $2.53. You then compare the price of its organic counterpart, say “Horizon,” and find it’s an exorbitant 88% more. 

At $4.76, is your health worth paying a whole $2.23 more for the same amount of milk? Another equally important question— if you purchase the cheaper, conventional milk that may be genetically modified, are you or your children at some form of a health risk? 

These days, a lot of shoppers actually find themselves asking these questions in the dairy, meat, and veggie sections. And the answers can be frustratingly slippery with all the opinions and literature out there.  

So let’s get to the bottom of the organic versus conventional conundrum: What are the dangers of genetically modified foods, and are the health benefits of going organic worth paying for that expensive produce, meat, or dairy? 

To understand the current hype over organic foods, and the steep price tags that come along with it, you have to understand what goes into the production of both organic and GM foods. 

First off, GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism and as the title entails it’s essentially “any organism that has had its DNA altered by genetic engineering,” says Ms. Caitlin Wildes, Saint Stephen’s biology teacher. 

Wildes explains that scientists change the genes of different foods’ DNA to give them specific characteristics, like increased crop yield, durability, or nutrition.

There are many concerns about the “ecological impacts of GMOs and the motivations of the companies selling them,” Wildes says. 

For instance, what kind of impacts do GM foods have on the environment around them? Because of pesticides and herbicides used in the production, the toxicity of these plants could impact pollinating organisms like bees, become invasive species, or decrease biodiversity. 

Some researches also have concerns about the effects of meddling in genetic systems that they don’t fully understand and don’t want to risk offsetting the delicate balance of our Earth’s ecosystem.

However, despite many of genetically modified foods’ shortcomings, the current consensus scientists have come to is that they are, in fact, safe for human consumption. 

On the consumer, nutritionally, there are some concerns.

Saint Stephen’s athletic trainer and nutritionist Brian Shultes says that “GMOs are modified so that they can withstand pesticides and herbicides. If the plant is consuming them we are as well. In terms of nutrient density, organic food has more nutrient quality [unless the GMO food has been modified for nutrient content].” 

 GMOs have been around for roughly 20 years so there’s still a lot that scientists can’t say for sure about them. For instance, what the long-term repercussions of genetically modified foods on the human body are. 

The truth is— no one knows yet. Shultes did add that “There are degenerative diseases (heart disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s) that are showing up in mice who are eating genetically modified food.”  But even Shultes couldn’t say for sure. Here’s the study he referred to: the effects of GM foods.

Organic foods, on the other hand, are produced, according to the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), “without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients, sewage sludge, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation.” 

So that may be the reason these goods cost more. Ms. Wildes said, “instead [of using pesticides] organic farmers use crop rotation, biological fertilizers, and biological pest control (natural predators) to fertilize the soil.” 

The farmers and businesses that produce and sell organic foods are held to higher standards. The farmers, the farms, and the restaurants or supermarkets that sell these foods must be approved by a government-certified inspector before these foods can even be labeled as “organic.”

Dan Zack, a resident of Sarasota, was once an independent subcontractor for an accredited certification company.  About the process, Zack said: “To sell a product as organic the farm has to go through a whole process through an accredited certification agency.”

“If the inspector sees something that isn’t in compliance with the regulations, which are written by the NOP [National Organic Program, a part of the USDA], they write in their inspection report all of the inputs that don’t meet the standards. Then the farm is notified that they have to correct these noncompliances within 30 days,” Zack said.

Organic food, overall, “is healthier than conventional [food] in general,” said Ms. Wildes, “because [the produce] lacks pesticides and the meat lacks antibiotics. The nutrition is generally the same between conventional, organic, and GMOs unless the GMO has been modified to increase nutrition.” 

Organic food may be healthier, but it’s still much more expensive because of this intense regulation and specific conditions of production. 

Because of the lack of common pesticide use, there is less crop yield and it takes more work and careful planning for farmers to ensure its organic stature. 

Of note, recently, prices have been going down for organic foods. There has been an increase in availability and more stores have begun to sell organic food; no longer is the organic seal confined to stores like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. 

What’s more, the public demand for “local organic” is causing an uptick of community farms. Some universities are looking to organic farms to satisfy the demand of students. 

According to Jeremy Moghtader, the manager of the campus farm at the University of Michigan, “Organic farmers can save money by not using pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, but they may have to pay more for workers to pull weeds or control bugs.” 

Lastly, consumer demand also influences food prices, and because of health trends and celebrity diet plans and increased media spotlighting, many millennials are more interested in organic food than before. According to MarketWatch, “sale of organic deli lunch meat has risen an average of 18 percent annually over the last four years, while organic deli cheese sales are up 26 percent.”

So are you willing to fork out the 88% more for the organic version of the same food just so your milk isn’t treated with antibiotics? 

Shultes says, “We have clients that complain about the cost of organic, but you can pay your doctor, or you can pay your grocer.” 

He added that if twenty years down the road it turns out that there were no problems with GM foods, he’d still rather be safe than sorry.

This story was originally published on The Gauntlet on February 28, 2020.