KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
There are a couple of food labels that get attention from shoppers who are looking for products that they think are healthy. There's the organic label, the non-GMO label. That's the one that means the food wasn't genetically modified. The two labels mean different things, but they're often seen as similar. And the organic industry is worried the Non-GMO label is stealing its customers. NPR's Dan Charles reports.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: The other evening, I stood outside a Whole Foods market in Washington, D.C., with two cartons of large, brown eggs in my hands.
Do you have a minute for a question about food labels?
One carton had the words non-GMO Project verified on it with a little butterfly. The other carton had a different label - a green and white circle with the words USDA Organic. And the organic carton cost 50 cents more.
So my question is which one would you go for?
This is Anna Hansen.
ANNA HANSEN: They both sound good. I mean if it's non-GMO, great. If it's USDA Organic, great. (Laughter) I don't know. It's so hard I mean because this one's a little bit cheaper. I guess I would go with this one.
CHARLES: That's the non-GMO one. Lots of people are making the same choice. Non-GMO sales have more than doubled just in the past two years. But what do these labels non-GMO or organic actually mean? Let's go to Allen Williams's farm near the town of Cerro Gordo in central Illinois where they grow the soybeans that feed the chickens that lay those eggs.
ALLEN WILLIAMS: Our operation's split between conventional cropping and certified organic cropping.
CHARLES: The interesting thing is what Williams calls conventional includes both genetically modified crops and non-GMO crops because when it comes to farming practices, there's not much difference between them.
To grow both GMO and non-GMO soybeans, Williams uses factory-supplied fertilizers, chemical weed killers. The only real difference is he can use a cheaper weed killer on the genetically modified soybeans and spray the chemical right on top of the crops. But then he shows me his organic farming, and that's a whole different system. His organic soybeans are also non-GMO, but that's just a tiny part of what makes them organic.
WILLIAMS: But right next to us is about ten semi-loads of poultry litter.
CHARLES: That chicken manure is his organic fertilizer. To control the weeds, he doesn't spray chemicals here. He brings in local high school students.
WILLIAMS: We hire 20 to 30 people every summer for hand weeding in soybeans.
CHARLES: This is the kind of thing that makes organic food more expensive. The non-GMO labels always had its critics. Some people say it's misleading because it implies that non-GMO foods are better for you. Scientists and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have said repeatedly that's not true.
But now the organic food industry which actually helped launch the non-GMO label is turning into a bit of a critic, too. And the reason is non-GMO products are competing with organic ones on supermarket shelves, and non-GMO is usually cheaper.
JESSE LAFLAMME: It's a little frustrating to be honest.
CHARLES: Jesse LaFlamme, the owner of Pete and Gerry's Organic Eggs - he doesn't think consumers really understand what non-GMO means.
LAFLAMME: OK, that's great that there's a non-GMO symbol on there, but do you understand that that product was produced, you know, potentially with pesticides, antibiotics and, you know, absolutely no regard for animal welfare?
CHARLES: Which brings us back to those shoppers who said they'd buy non-GMO eggs because they seemed just as good for the environment as organic but cheaper. When Anna Hansen heard why they were cheaper, it changed her mind.
WILLIAMS: Now that I know that, I would definitely pick the USDA Organic.
CHARLES: Organic food companies are hoping that lots of consumers react the same way. Dan Charles, NPR News.
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