Here’s some help “decoding” some of those labels.
Definition: GMO stands for “genetically modified organism.” The term covers any living form whose genetic material has been altered through genetic engineering. In the food world, the term applies mostly to crops that have been grown with the objective of adding or eliminating certain characteristics—delayed ripening in tomatoes, for instance, or faster growth, nutrient resistance, or added nutrients. Done in a lab by injecting certain genes into a plant’s genome, genetic modification is a faster process than the selective breeding used by growers to develop certain characteristics in their crops.
Most GMOs aren’t consumed directly, though some are. The majority are commodity crops like soybeans and corn, which are later processed into a wide variety of foods.
Definition: Organic food is farmed the old-fashioned way, without synthetic pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Organic farmers have to be certified by the federal government and face strict regulations. In the United States, such farmers are regulated and certified by the National Organic Program, run by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Definition: “Fair trade” is a designation that focuses on workers’ rights in developing countries. There is no set description; in general, products are certified by one of several international fair trade federations. Fair trade coffee, for instance, is meant to be less exploitative of small-scale farmers and to reduce the environmental impact of coffee farming. Certified fair trade factories prohibit child labor and try to ensure that workers are making a living wage.
What it means for you: Best-case scenario, it means that the workers on the other end of the product you buy aren’t being exploited by Western companies.
Wild-caught vs. farm-raised
Definition: These two labels apply to seafood, and they’re fairly self-explanatory: wild-caught fish come from seas, rivers, and other natural bodies of water; farm-raised fish are raised in tanks, irrigation ditches, and ponds. There’s a bit of a gray area, too, in the form of fish hatcheries, where farm-raised fish are released into the wild for commercial fishing purposes.
What it means for you: Wild-caught fish are widely thought to be a healthier choice—they live longer lives and more diverse diets than farm raised fish. But they are a source of environmental concern. Some wild fish are caught using damaging techniques, including drift nets. Some are caught via less destructive means, like hand lines and cage traps.
Definition: The opposite of organic. Conventionally grown fruits and vegetables use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
Definition: A term applying mainly to beef and occasionally dairy, it means cattle that were raised on a diet consisting mainly of grass. Commercial cattle are fed soybean meal, corn, and other grains.
Definition: You’ll see this label on eggs and poultry. In conventional operations, chickens typically are raised indoors—either in grow-out houses (for broilers—chickens raised for meat) or battery cages (for egg-laying hens, although this practice is changing). The USDA requires that free-range chickens spend at least part of their time outdoors, but there is no unifying standard for the label beyond that.
The terms can be confusing. Cage-free birds don’t live in a cage, but they might not have access to the outdoors. Another common label for eggs is “barn roaming,” which applies to egg-laying chickens that are confined to a barn but not a small cage. Free-range has nothing to do with a chicken’s diet, so it might be fed conventionally grown feed and low levels of antibiotics, unless it’s also certified organic.
The term also doesn’t regulate the size of those non-cage spaces. Chickens can still be crowded into barns, and the outdoor space required for free range eggs doesn’t necessarily have to be large.
Definition: In the dictionary, “existing in or caused by nature.”
What it means for you: Absolutely nothing, yet. Food manufacturers can label anything from guacamole to Sun Chips “natural” without consequence, though some people are trying to change that. California’s Proposition 37, which failed to pass last year, would have prohibited genetically modified food from being labeled “natural.”
Definition: In general, “locally grown” applies to food grown on nearby farms—which, with no standardized distinction, can mean just about anything in terms of the actual distance. It could mean food grown within a 20-mile radius, or a 150-mile radius. The term might be better defined by what it isn’t—tomatoes shipped from California to Massachusetts, for instance, or citrus from South America.
The local food movement has grown prodigiously over the past decade or so, and its champions include bestselling authors Michael Pollan and Bill McKibben, among others. The movement developed as a conscientious alternative to organics, which have been largely co-opted by corporate farms in recent years.