Garden and food labels: Fact or Fiction

As we prepare to celebrate Earth Day on Friday, many take time to celebrate a more earth-friendly garden practice.

Many garden products claim their contents are “environmentally friendly,” and many websites share recipes to do certain things “without chemicals.” Are these claims true?

If you peruse a garden center, farmers market or grocery store, you’ll see a whole bevy of different labels — “chemical free,” “natural,” “organic,” “certified organic” or “GMO free.” What do these labels mean, or do they mean anything at all?

One of the easiest labels to understand is “natural” or “all-natural.”

It is simple to understand because it doesn’t have an official meaning. None of the agencies that regulate labeling of food or garden products has such a designation. The “natural flavor” many processed food products contain just had to come from a natural source at some point — many of them are derived from base chemicals formed from corn or soy.

“Organic” is another label commonly seen. If it is “USDA Certified Organic,” then it follows a strict set of federal guidelines and is inspected. Many small farmers, though, don’t have the resources or the level of sales to warrant such a certification. A label that just states “organic” may follow guidelines, but isn’t certified.

While we are on the topic, most of my colleagues agree it is much better to purchase produce from local farmers, even if it is “conventional,” rather than organic at the grocery store. Local farmers typically use pesticides only sparingly (they’re expensive, after all). Organic, even certified organic, doesn’t mean that pesticides haven’t been used on the produce. I’d much rather support a small local farmer.

“GMO free” is a label that is being severely overused these days, especially in the gardening world. Seed catalogs galore list everything between their pages as “GMO free” as a marketing tactic. The truth is that nothing available to home gardeners is genetically engineered. You would definitely know if you purchased a genetically engineered crop — farmers who buy these crops have to sign contracts relating to the saving and selling of the seeds (it isn’t allowed).

Most of the crops that have been genetically modified are commodity crops — corn, soy, cotton, canola. There isn’t a huge profit in selling $3 packets of GMO seeds to home gardeners. Unfortunately, the overuse of “GMO free” on seed labels has misinformed the public that many garden seeds are genetically engineered. It’s a marketing pitch; it doesn’t mean anything.

While the scientific community agrees strongly that genetically engineered crops are safe for human consumption, there are still many with concerns. There are also concerns about overuse of pesticides on modified crops. There are some issues with this, but most crops are designed to reduce reliance on pesticides.

For those with concerns, the easiest way to avoid genetically modified foods is to avoid processed food, buy certified organic, or select brands that label their content. Keep in mind that companies sometimes use voluntary GMO label to unnecessarily jack up the price.  Someone recently compared unlabeled avocado to one with a non-GMO label on it.  The one with the label cost nearly 400% more.  The catch: there currently aren’t GMO avocados.  It is a marketing tactic to fleece customers out of money.  Most of the stuff in the produce section is fine.

The most likely things you’ll find genetically engineered in the produce section are papaya — they’ve been engineered with disease resistance due to a devastating disease that nearly destroyed the industry.

But the label that bothers me the most is “chemical free.” First and foremost, there’s no such thing — everything is made with chemicals. Even water is a chemical.

Second, this often leads gardeners to try a variety of untested and unsafe concoctions they find on the Internet. Those trying to eschew the use of basic pest treatments (that have been tested for safety), will blend up all kinds of questionable mixes that, at best, don’t work, and, at worst, are more dangerous than the pesticide they are trying to avoid. These often contain some combination of vinegar, Epsom salt, dish soap (all chemicals, by the way).

I’m not advocating that you go out and drench your garden with pesticides, but know it is often more effective to use the proper chemical safely. There are many least toxic and even organic options for home gardeners that are more safe and more effective than home remedies.

Next week I’ll explain some effective, safe and organic gardening options. Until then, don’t fall for all of the labels you read.

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