USDA organic stock photo

Nov 14, 2019
Organic growers won’t talk GMOs

Consider this a conversation-stopper. A USDA gene editing dialogue with the organics community didn’t get very far before a chorus of organic growers responded in the negative, saying it was a distraction from more pressing issues.

During a House Committee on Agriculture Subcommittee meeting in mid-July, Rep. Neal Dunn asked the Department of Agriculture Under Secretary Greg Ibach about the use of gene editing to come up with disease-resistant plants for organic growers.

Genetically-modified organisms are currently prohibited under the guidelines of organic certification, Ibach said. But he expressed interest in opening a dialogue with the organic industry about more advanced gene-editing techniques.

Greg Ibach
Greg Ibach

“We’ve seen new technology involved, that includes gene editing, that accomplishes things in shorter periods of time that can be done through a natural breeding process,” Ibach said according to a video of the meeting. “I think there is an 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 resistant varieties – drought-resistant, disease-resistant varieties as well as higher-yielding varieties.”

Dunn, a Republican who represents Florida, responded, “I think sometimes we’re more afraid of science than we should be.”

That overture for further discussion wasn’t welcomed by organic growers.

Kate Mendenhall, director of the Organic Farmers Association (OFA), said many growers were busy growing crops during the hearing. OFA chairwoman Harriet Behar, a Wisconsin herb grower who is also a current member of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), happened to be watching a live stream
of the hearing.

Harriet Behar
Harriet Behar

Behar said she’s a strong believer that growers can rely on natural systems and cycles.

“We don’t need GMOs,” she said. “It’s not like organic farmers are waiting for science to save us.”

Many organic growers feel the same way. A letter from the OFA, sent to Secretary Sonny Perdue and other top officials and lawmakers, was signed by 79 organic farm organizations. “We strongly oppose any efforts to revisit the issue of any type of genetic engineering in organic certification, and we will work to ensure that all genetic engineering remains an excluded method,” the letter declared.

Update: Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has since responded to the Organic Farmers Association letter.

“Organic growers are always interested in disease resistance,” Mendenhall said, adding that OFA has supported natural breeding programs in the past for livestock. But, she said, “genetic engineering has never been a tool that the organic community has supported. In any situation, there may be one or two people outside of the vast majority, but genetic engineering is not the topic that farmers are talking about or want to explore.”

It’s not the first time growers have voiced their distaste for genetic engineering. When the national organic standards were written in 2001, genetic engineering was on the menu until the organic community responded, “with over 400,000 comments demanding its prohibition,” according to the OFA letter.

“We have seen an indication from the current administration that they are interested in guiding the program to a more industrial model,” Mendenhall said, so the comments at the hearing were not a complete surprise.

Mendenhall isn’t so worried that a pro-gene-editing conversation would “go anywhere” – NOSB in 2016 said it was against gene editing – so much as she is concerned that a formal conversation would distract from more pressing issues faced by the organic program. Those issues include protecting consumers from fraudulent shipments of organic foods, closing certification loopholes in the standards of the National Organic Program, and increased enforcement of the standards. Right now, organic growers say they have better things to talk about than gene editing.

“We’re hopeful we won’t hear anything else about it,” Mendenhall said.

— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor

Photo: USDA/Lance Cheung.

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