WASHINGTON, April 27, 2016 - Frustration in the organic industry is mounting over the difficulty of keeping organic seed free of any detectable level of genetic engineering. Organic seed producers continue to call on the federal government to force the conventional industry to provide compensation for the contamination, which can naturally occur when crops cross-pollinate. But that idea has gone nowhere in USDA or Congress.
Some in the industry hope GMO labeling will push consumers to turn away from biotech products and switch to organic. Theoretically, the growth in demand for organic products would give the organic industry more political clout.
“The best way to gain more credibility in the USDA and conventional agricultural industry is to gain enough market share that they have to pay attention,” according to a discussion document prepared for the USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting this week in Washington. “Labeling of GMOs will eventually cause enough awareness in the marketplace for the tide to turn.”
But the organics industry is now taking some tentative steps toward eventually setting some limits on the amount of biotech that can be found in organic seed. To that end, the NOSB has been seeking comment on the idea of testing organic seeds to find out what levels of biotech contamination are now common.
That testing could eventually be used to set limits, or purity standards, for the presence of biotech material in each type of seed. “Aiming to move towards establishing crop-specific thresholds and standardized testing protocols is worthwhile and has a role in maintaining organic integrity,” according to the discussion document.
The Organic Trade Association, which represents food companies and some organic producers, is backing the testing idea. OTA wants USDA to create a task force that would set up the system for testing and gathering data on contamination levels, said Gwendolyn Wyard, OTA’s senior director for regulatory and technical affairs. “We do believe that we have to collect data, and a seed purity standard has to be set crop by crop,” Wyard said. The European Union already has such standards.
One idea the board is considering is to start the testing first with soybeans, a self-pollinating crop that is far less likely to have biotech genetic material than corn.
OTA also wants USDA to tighten rules that allow growers to use conventional seed when organic seed is not available. Surveys indicate that usage of organic seed is growing, but a considerable amount of conventional seed is still being planted.
The testing may be a lot less controversial than whether the limits get set. The Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association takes the position that no detectable level of biotech contamination should be allowed, although the group says that would have to be linked to some kind of compensation policy.
“The USDA, when they deregulated these biotech products … should have created an indemnity fund funded by the biotech manufacturer,” said Jim Gerritsen, the group’s president. Gerritsen produces organic seed potatoes as well as corn, wheat, rye and vegetable seeds. He personally hasn’t had a problem keeping the seed pure because his farm is located in an isolated area in northern Maine. “We’ve never had a hot test,” he said.
On Tuesday, board member Zea Sonnabend suggested that a task force be formed to gather data about GMO contamination before diving headlong into the issue of seed purity.
“The data we really need to identify first is whether contamination is coming from seed, pollen drift or post-harvest handling,” Sonnabend said. “That’s not data being collected by other entities. I’d like to have the task force grapple with what kinds of data we’re going to need.”
Miles McEvoy, deputy administrator for AMS’s National Organic Program, said funding could be provided in the next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1. He suggested the board identify the methodology for gathering the information. “We’ll start working on it right away,” Sonnabend said.
Board mulls safety of organic dairy ingredient
The board also is struggling with whether to propose a ban on the food additive carrageenan, which is made from red seaweed, known as Irish Moss, and used for a variety of purposes in yogurt, ice cream, infant formula and other products. Critics claim that it’s potentially dangerous, citing laboratory studies that have linked it to gastrointestinal disorders and even cancer.
Charlotte Vallaeys, a policy analyst for Consumer Reports, urged the board to follow the “precautionary principle” and stop the use of carrageenan in organics. “The burden of proof…. should not fall on the consumer.”
The Food and Drug Administration has affirmed the safety of carrageenan, rejecting research findings being used by critics to get it pulled from organic products. The issue puts the NOSB in the position of essentially second-guessing the government agency, the FDA, that has the expertise and responsibility for deciding what is safe to eat. The main question for many board members, however, seems to be whether carrageenan is really necessary. Carrageenan is one of a number of substances up for renewal in 2018.
Many in the industry, including the International Dairy Foods Association, argue that carrageenan is essential to keeping nutrients distributed properly in products such as infant formula and to give low-fat products the mouth feel that consumers want. Daniel Fabricant, executive director and CEO of the Natural Products Association, said carrageenan has been shown to be safe, and warned the board that “regulators who would not consider the totality of the science” risk having their decisions struck down as “arbitrary and capricious.”
OTA said industry surveys indicate some companies have switched to other additives but that others say they still need carrageenan.
Board split over hydroponics, whether organic crops need soil
The NOSB is nowhere close to settling a dispute over whether tomatoes and other crops that are produced without soil should qualify as organic. Some organic growers are alarmed that vegetables are increasingly being farmed hydroponically in the United States and imported from Holland and Mexico.
But a NOSB task force that was formed to reconcile the industry’s split over the issue appears hopelessly divided as well. Leaders of the task force say members can’t agree on a recommendation.
The board, which advises USDA’s National Organic Program on what standards to adopt, recommended in 2010 banning hydroponics, but NOP never acted on the proposal. Now, the issue is complicated by a pending rule to allow farm-raised fish to qualify as organic. Organic fish farms want to be allowed to raise organic vegetables in the water that the fish use.
Opponents of hydroponics say organic crops have to be grown in soil. But Stacy Tollefson, a University of Arizona researcher speaking for the pro-hydroponic wing of the task force, told the board surveys show that consumers don’t think that way. “Consumers associate organic with chemical-free, healthy and nutritious, and environmentally friendly,” she said. They “do not associate it with (being) grown in the field.”
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