USDA Under Secretary Greg Ibach recently made comments before the House Agriculture Subcommittee suggesting it is time to discuss the possible allowance of gene editing methods within organic production.
Ibach’s words are in line with the Trump administration’s stance. Organic standards currently prohibit the use of genetic engineering (GE) and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), but USDA Secretary Perdue has been very friendly toward biotechnology companies and products.
President Trump’s June executive order to streamline approval for new GMO crops was immediately followed by a USDA proposed rulethat would allow biotechnology companies to regulate their own GE creations. Ibach’s testimony is not surprising in this environment.
“The allowance of any GE techniques under the organic label raises legitimate ‘slippery slope’ concerns. The USDA would be hard-pressed to find the resources to track allowed GE technologies and products in the organic sector, assuming they could summon the will,” observes Cornucopia’s director of domestic policy Marie Burcham, JD.
We have already seen the playbooks of biotechnology companies. Because GMOs are an expensive investment, both in terms of time and money, only the largest biotechnology companies are positioned to research, develop, and test new crops. They benefit enormously as regulatory hurdles are removed.
The majority of genetically engineered crops currently on the market have been modified to withstand synthetic pesticides, repel pest species, and extend crop shelf-lives to benefit processors and retailers.
Biotechnology companies hold patents on their seeds, which ensure they retain all rights to the engineered traits. As a result, four seed companies now own more than 60% of the global proprietary seed sales.
This runs counter to the spirit of organic agriculture. As noted by our allies at the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA), organic seed promotes biodiversity, democratizes collective resources, celebrates seed quality over quantity, and preserves agrarian tradition.
GMO seeds are not needed or wanted in organic agriculture. In a 2017 surveyconducted by Natural Grocers, 70% of respondents said they buy organic to avoid GMOs. Although advocates of GMOs claim that these crops will help farmers respond more quickly to environmental and pest threats, it takes years of testing to ensure the crops will perform as expected.
In addition, the FDA does not perform testing to ensure the safety of these plants to the environment and humanity; instead they rely almost entirely on manufacturer claims of safety and only monitor the food safety and nutrition of gene-edited foods if the manufacturer requests consultation.
The alternative to this technology is selective breeding—an important and deeply underfunded tool for organic farmers. Our ancestors used this technique to domesticate wild plants and to produce crops, including tomatoes, broccoli, and corn. Selective breeding continues to hold promise for improving drought, disease, and pest resistance in future crops.
Farmers can further improve yields in challenging conditions by promoting plant and wildlife biodiversity and soil health. These practices also result in higher nutrient levels in food, better pest management, and overall superior environmental sustainability.
Since one of the hallmarks of organic agriculture is the prohibition of genetic engineering, allowing for the certification of GMO crops would further erode consumer confidence in the organic label. Indeed, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) voted to exclude all genetic modification and manipulation from organic production in 2016 and again in 2017.
The track record of regulators in safeguarding the organic standards is not reassuring. Cornucopia has reported for years on the USDA’s consistent refusal to enforce organic laws.
Industrial-scale, confinement livestock facilities, providing no legitimate grazing or even access to the outdoors, are currently being certified organic. And in 2017, the NOSB voted to allow hydroponic production methods in certified organic agriculture, despite the mandate to steward soil and the outcry from hundreds of venerated organic farmers and advocates. When interviewed on this subject, USDA Secretary Perdue demonstrated little understanding concerning the foundation of organic agriculture.
Additionally, when the NOSB voted to remove several materials from the list of substances allowed for use in organic production, including carrageenan and non-essential conventional ingredients, Perdue’s USDA overrode its own organic advisory board.
Looking at this spotty history, there is little reason to believe the current USDA will protect the integrity of the organic label.
Any allowance of GMOs in organic agriculture would also further embolden industrial organic companies and their lobbyists. The pressures on ethical, family-scale farmers would increase, further hurting their bottom lines.
While the USDA ponders the use of gene editing to help farmers, funding for organic plant breeding continues to lag far behind that of conventional plant breeding.
The benefits that Ibach and others claim we would get from new gene editing technologies can be achieved through selective breeding. These authentic breeding methods should be funded fully and used to their best advantage to develop cultivars that are resistant to drought, pests, and other organic agricultural concerns.