Genetic integrity proposal aims to inform farmers about GMO levels in organic seed, measure GMO contamination in corn seed

By Ken Roseboro

Published: January 28, 2019

Category: The Organic & Non-GMO Report Newsletter

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is developing a proposal to provide greater transparency to organic farmers about the corn seed they buy and to measure levels of GMO contamination in organic corn seed. The proposal “Genetic Integrity Transparency of Seed Grown on Organic Land” was first submitted by the NOSB’s Material Subcommittee last August and is in the process of being revised based on public comments.

The use of genetically engineered seeds and crops is prohibited in the National Organic Program rules. But with more than 90 percent of major field crops such as corn, soybeans, and cotton now genetically engineered, contamination of organic seeds and grain from GMO varieties, particularly corn, has been a major threat to organic farmers. Organic corn crops are contaminated by cross pollination from neighboring GMO corn fields or by commingling in grain handling. Such contamination causes organic farmers to have their crops rejected by grain buyers and suffer economic losses.

A 2014 Food & Water Watch survey of organic farmers found that five out of six responding farmers were concerned about GMO contamination impacting their farm, with 60 percent saying that they were extremely concerned. One out of every three responding farmers has dealt with GMO contamination on their farm. Of those contaminated farmers, over half had their crops rejected by their buyers for that reason.

According to Gwendolyn Wyard, vice president, regulatory and technical affairs at the Organic Trade Association, the issue of GMO contamination of organic seed has been a major topic of discussion at the NOSB since 2013.

“There has been this ongoing conversation, and it’s been really tough because we know GMO contamination is out there, and everyone agrees we want to keep GMOs out of organic. Everyone agrees that we need to do everything we can to put contamination prevention measures in place.”

The focus has been on seed contamination because “seed is the most impactful and appropriate point in the supply chain to set limits for controlling GMO contamination,” Wyard says.

Disclose purity levels, measure GMO contamination of corn seed

The genetic integrity proposal would require that organic corn seed suppliers disclose the purity level or level of GM material in their seed, choosing one of five thresholds: 0.1 percent or less GM material, 0.25 percent or less, 0.9 percent or less, 5 percent or less, and over 5 percent. Determining the different GMO levels would be based on the most current GMO testing and sampling methods.

The goal is to provide more transparency to farmers about GMO levels in seed, says Harriet Behar, NOSB Material Subcommittee chair and an organic farmer and inspector.

“We’re asking that seed meets certain levels of purity. Farmers need to know the levels of GMOs in seed before they plant it, so they can make informed decisions about who they are contracting with or what market they are going to try to sell their harvested crop to.”

Behar believes that knowing the GMO level in corn seed before farmers plant it will also help organic processors.

“There could be less rejection of harvested corn because farmers will know the GMO level in their seed, which will help them more accurately meet their buyers’ purity requirements,” she says.

She says greater transparency could lead farmers to use more organic seed. The majority of corn seed purchased by organic farmers is non-organic, and suppliers of such seed aren’t as transparent about purity levels.

The genetic integrity proposal would also require a pilot study to evaluate the levels of GMO contamination in organic corn seed nationwide.

“The pilot project would give us an idea of the level of GMO contamination in seed corn in different regions where it’s grown,” Behar says.

The NOSB proposal focuses on corn seed because it is the most at-risk to contamination from GMO varieties. Finding corn seed that is 100 percent GMO-free in the United States is difficult if not impossible.

“Corn is the main crop where organic farmers are losing their markets,” Behar says.

The proposal calls for both organic and non-organic corn seed grown on organic land to be tracked using existing organic certification documentation. Information to be collected would include whether the seed is organic or not, the state where it was grown, and the seeds’ level of purity. This information would then be compiled into a database that would be shared within the organic community.

Need more industry feedback, solved by marketplace

Reactions to the genetic integrity proposal have been mixed. Several organic industry members say they appreciate the NOSB addressing such a challenging issue, while recommending improvements.  

Wyard said the proposal was the most detailed NOSB proposal on addressing GMO contamination of seed that she has seen and called it “a good starting place.”

But she says that the proposal needed to be better organized and that more feedback was needed by those most affected by it.

“We recommended that they reach out to organic and non-organic seed suppliers and other stakeholders in the supply chain.

Kiki Hubbard, advocacy and communications director at the Organic Seed Alliance, also recommended getting more industry input to ensure that the proposal is “farmer friendly, practical and informed by meaningful dialog with all stakeholders impacted by the proposal including seed companies, farmers, and organic certifiers.”

Tom Stearns, president of High Mowing Seeds, says he is glad the NOSB is addressing the GMO threat to organic. “I’m all for transparency and testing. I think it’s necessary but it has to be practical; field corn farmers are dealing with contamination.”

Mac Ehrhardt, president of Albert Lea Seeds, is concerned that the emphasis on testing and GMO thresholds runs counter to the National Organic Program (NOP) rules.

“The NOP has always been process based certification, so now we’re going to make this one small part threshold based? Where do you draw the line?” he says.

Ehrhardt also believes the issue of seed transparency is being solved by the marketplace. His company sells “PURE” organic seed corn that is 99 percent GMO-free and “ULTRA PURE” organic seed corn that is 99.9 percent GMO-free.

“The genetic integrity proposal is sort of what we and other seed companies are doing now. But this NOSB proposal made that really complicated and put a burden on the farmer so if a farmer bought seed that wasn’t labeled, the farmer would have to bear the cost of testing. I don’t think that’s fair to organic farmers,” he says.

Behar acknowledges that many organic seed companies already test their seed for GMOs but says the proposal would require them to provide that information “up front.”

She also says that farmers face an unfair situation with GMO contamination, and that something must be done to address it.

“It’s really unfair especially considering how hard it is to grow an organic crop of corn.We need to let farmers have information so they can make informed choices. It’s not a good situation where we are right now.

The NOSB materials subcommittee took public comments on the genetic integrity proposal until January 2nd. Behar says she will incorporate the comments before finalizing it in late February. She emphasized that she wants to receive suggestions for improvement. Her subcommittee will finalize a revised version of the proposal in February, which will be presented at the next NOSB meeting in April.

About the Author

Ken Roseboro

Ken Roseboro has been called “the nation’s reporter on all issues surrounding genetically modified foods” by Acres USA magazine. He has written extensively about GM foods and the non-GMO trend since 1999. Ken’s articles have appeared in leading food and agriculture publications and websites such as Civil Eats, Harvest Public Media, Prepared Foods, Natural Foods Merchandiser, Food Processing, as well as The Huffington Post, Yahoo News, Mother Earth News, and others. He is a contributing editor to EcoWatch. Ken is author of Genetically Altered Foods and Your Health and The Organic Food Handbook both published by Basic Health Publications. He has spoken at many conferences including Natural Products Expo West, Acres USA Conference, The Organic Farming Conference, National Heirloom Seed Expo, and others. Ken is a member of the design team of the Non-GMO Supply Working Group and a founding member of the board of directors of the Iowa Organic Association. Ken also serves on the board of directors of Soil Technologies Corporation. He appears in the award-winning documentary film, GMO OMG. In 2006, Ken received an Award of Merit from Seed Savers Exchange for his efforts to preserve genetic diversity through his publications.