A recent suggestion by U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary Greg Ibach that gene editing should be considered for use in organic food production received a big thumb’s down by organic industry leaders, including the Organic Trade Association, Organic Farmers Association, and Organic Seed Alliance.
Speaking at a U.S. House Agriculture Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research in July, Ibach said: “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 have resistant varieties — drought-resistant, disease-resistant varieties — as well as higher-yielding varieties available.”
“We’ve made it very clear that gene editing is an excluded method”
The Organic Trade Association (OTA) disagreed, issuing a statement that said: “The Organic Trade Association maintains its long-held position that any gene-editing techniques not be allowed in organic production. And this view is supported by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).”
The OTA statement refers to the 14-0 vote by the NOSB in 2016 determining that gene editing should be considered, as genetic engineering is, an “excluded method” in organic agriculture.
“We’ve made it very clear, and the organic community has had public comment that gene editing and CRISPR should be an excluded method,” says Harriet Behar, NOSB chair.
Further, Behar says organic food production doesn’t want or need gene editing, “even the little slice and dice they want to do.”
“The organic community works with natural systems, and we don’t feel the need for this type of genetic engineering,” she says. “We don’t understand the long-term effects of short-circuiting evolution.”
Proponents of gene editing claim the technology is not genetic engineering, and the USDA has said it won’t regulate gene edited crops as being genetically engineered. The technology edits existing genes in a plant’s DNA without introducing foreign genes as current genetic engineering methods do, proponents say.
But the European Union’s Court of Justice ruled last year that gene edited crops must be regulated by the same rules as conventional genetically engineered products.
Investment needed in organic plant breeding, not gene editing
Kate Mendenhall, director of the Organic Farmers Association, says her organization “is deeply disturbed by the suggestion by undersecretary Ibach that we should revisit the conversation about genetic engineering in organics. Organic farmers are united in their opposition to gene modification, including gene-editing, and consumers do not want genetic modification in the certified organic food system. The undersecretary’s suggestion to revisit this issue won’t be tolerated by the certified organic community.”
Kiki Hubbard, advocacy & communications director of the Organic Seed Alliance, said that attempts to allow gene editing into organics would face the same massive opposition that a similar proposal did more than 20 years.
“Any future effort to allow products of genetic engineering into certified organic products will likely be met with the full force of resistance that the USDA witnessed in 1997, when the organic rules were first written and the initial draft proposal allowed genetic engineering and other now excluded methods,” she says.
At that time more than 250,000 comments were submitted to the USDA opposing the use of genetic engineering in organics. The massive opposition forced the USDA to drop their plans to allow GMOs in organics.
Hubbard said investment in traditional plant breeding for organic farming is needed, not gene editing.
“Let’s put more funding toward methods that advance organic agriculture, are allowed in organic production per the standards, and meet the expectations of organic consumers,” she says.
Dag Falck, organic program manager at Nature’s Path, a leading organic food company, says suggesting that gene editing would fit into organic food production indicates a lack of understanding of organic principles, which focus on working with—and not trying to manipulate—nature with technology like gene editing.
“My view is that it’s not understanding what organic is about. Fundamentally, organic is something where we don’t have to do these things. We aren’t looking for a way to override nature’s boundaries in order to breed crops faster because we trust that the wisest methodology is to allow nature and the guidance nature provides to the process of traditional plant breeding to do it.”