When the NOSB holds its fall meeting later this month, members will once again revisit the issue of which production methods meet the criteria for “excluded methods” in organic.
“Excluded methods” refers to the “terms defined” section of organic regulations, related to genetic engineering, which states:
Excluded methods. A variety of methods used to genetically modify organisms or influence their growth and development by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes and are not considered compatible with organic production. Such methods include cell fusion, microencapsulation and macroencapsulation, and recombinant DNA technology (including gene deletion, gene doubling, introducing a foreign gene, and changing the positions of genes when achieved by recombinant DNA technology). Such methods do not include the use of traditional breeding, conjugation, fermentation, hybridization, in vitro fertilization, or tissue culture.
Since 2001, when consumer uproar forced the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to keep GMOs out of organic, genetic engineering has evolved to include a host of new technologies that didn’t exist 15 years ago.
The onslaught of new technologies has led to industry pressure on the NOSB to consider allowing some of these newer technologies—including gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR and mutagenesis (a method of plant breeding that involves subjecting plants to radiation, or dousing them in chemicals, in a way that scrambles their genes in order to produce new traits)—in organic.
Organic consumers and farmers have consistently opposed allowing any of these technologies in organic. But a statement made last summer by USDA Under Secretary Greg Ibach has stoked new fears that industry lobbyists intend to keep pushing their plan to corrupt organic standards.
In July, during the House Committee on Agriculture Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research hearing, Ibach said this:
“As the National Organic Standards Board set the rules originally, GMOs are not eligible to be in the organic program. However, we’ve seen new technology, including gene-editing, that accomplishes things in shorter periods of time than a natural breeding process can. I think there is the opportunity to open the discussion to consider whether it is appropriate for some of these new technologies that include gene-editing to be eligible to be used to enhance organic production and to have drought and disease-resistant varieties, as well as higher-yield varieties available.”
That comment didn’t sit well with the Organic Farmers Association (OFA), which immediately fired off a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.
In the letter, signed by more than 80 organizations (including Organic Consumers Association), OFA said that “the organic community is united that WE DO NOT WANT TO revisit the conversation about genetic engineering in organics, and all forms of genetic engineering should remain excluded methods under the National Organic Program.”
OCA got its start fighting to keep GMOs, along with irradiation and sewage sludge, from being allowed in organic. We’re not about to give up that fight now.
But given growing industry pressure, amplified now by Ibach, it’s critical that consumers continue to make it clear to NOSB members, so they can make it clear to the Trump administration, that we reject all forms of GMO production in organic.
And it’s worth reminding the NOSB and the National Organic Program that they don’t have the power to allow GMOs in organic by through their own policymaking.
The only legal pathway for adding GMOs to organic production must include a formal rulemaking process that leads to a change in federal regulations—something organic consumers and farmers would marshall all their resources to fight.