Does the current organic practice standard adequately address GMO contamination?

By Dag Falck

Widespread development and use of organic standards began in the 1980’s to safeguard and systematize an alternative way (organic) of agriculture and handling food. Among a detailed list of prohibited substances in organic systems are chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilizers. Because the organic system recognized from the start that it would likely remain a small component of agriculture, and that contamination would inevitably happen through background pollution such as polluted water, air and drift, it proposed a system based on a “practice standard,” rather than on measuring the purity of an end product. This practice standard defines and prescribes certain methods that are designed to eliminate (or minimize) the potential for contamination from the list of prohibited substances. Thus testing has not been relied on as a primary method to verify organic integrity, and instead a system and philosophy of following an “organic practice standard” has been adopted worldwide.

Organic standards also recognized that contamination from the prohibited substances would diminish over time if applications were stopped. This is one rationale for requiring a 3-year transition in order to bring conventionally managed land into an organic system. After 3 years of organic management it was felt that the land would re-generate itself and the toxic substances sought to be avoided would have diminished sufficiently to call it organic. Another motivator was to allow a practical means for farmers to get into certified organic production.

Genetic modification of the DNA of plants and animals through laboratory splicing of genes from various species began to be released into our common environment and agriculture in the mid to late 1990’s. This presented a new form of contamination to organic, and standards began to incorporate non-GMO clauses. Because nobody knew very much about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and their effect on agriculture and food, it was assumed that being another contaminant to organic, the previous practices build into the standards would suffice to deal with this also. Was this a valid assumption?

Two significant differences between pesticides and GMOs.
1) Dilute or concentrate…

We have learned that pesticides and other toxins will generally diminish over time when left in our environment. They will typically move about and dilute in the natural environment and even if it takes a long time, pesticides will break down eventually. This justifies the rationale that preventing further addition of pesticides is the best approach (practice) to avoid contamination.

GMOs however do not diminish when released into the environment as they are an alteration made to a living organism which can reproduce. For instance experience has shown that a small level of escaped GMOs from a field of canola plants will increase its presence in non-GMO canola fields each following season. Additionally it has been found to cross pollinate with nearby weeds of similar botanical families. When these weeds re-grow from seeds the next season, they are now also genetically modified. Even small amounts of GMO contamination will increase over time after it is released into our agriculture and environment.

2) To see, or not to see.
Pesticides, and the other (non-GMO) materials prohibited in organic can be seen. They typically come in a can, jug or bag with a label on it. You know when you are applying it. In some situations drift of applied pesticides from conventional non-organic neighbor fields could blow onto certified organic crops, and the practice standard approaches this potential risk through requiring buffer strips and other specific actions on the part of the certified organic farmer.

Also the organic inspector is trained to spot when, for instance, herbicides may have blown into and contaminated the organic crop. The standard then requires that which has been contaminated to be removed from the organic stream.

GMO contaminated seeds are not labeled and cannot be identified with the naked eye, nor can viable seed have the GMO contaminated portion recognized and separated out from the non-GMO seeds. At this time the only testing methods available require the grinding (and destroying the germination viability) of the seeds.

So a farmer preparing to plant seed has no sure way of knowing if the seed stock has been contaminated (even if it is certified organic) unless he or she conducts a test. When the farmer plants contaminated seed, the following crop is more contaminated.

The additional challenge with GMOs
Few doubt that the practice standard has provided a practical and effective solution to ensure the best possible organic integrity of products in a world where the very air and water is contaminated.

Do we now also need to ask:

  • Do the organic standards have to catch up with the unique threats presented by GMO contamination?
  • Should the organic standards require testing as a practice in order to “see” GMO contamination?

Are our heads in the sand?
Right now we are repeating the mantra that GMOs are not allowed in organics. Yet standards do not require nor encourage use of the practical and relatively affordable tool of testing for GMOs to see the contamination. Climbing levels in organic may be happening right in front of our closed eyes.

It is to be expected that the void created by the unaddressed GMO challenge is fertile ground for new initiatives utilizing GMO testing. When testing is applied to finished products and GMOs are found, it’s too late to remedy and may alarm organic consumers.

This could have a devastating effect on organic suppliers and farmers, if they are not simultaneously supported to use testing as a tool to minimize contamination at the source.

By supporting farmers to test seed through updating the standards, the solution is applied at the root of the problem rather than being forced to react to pressure from consumers where the problem can be felt, but not remedied.

Whether we are more fearful of “consumer backlash” or “growing contamination levels” our common issue is protecting organic. The time to tackle this threat to organics has come, and initiatives such as the Non-GMO Project, and the newly formed OTA Biotechnology Taskforce are signs that through common motivation we can find solutions.

We may be damned if we do, but we will be more damned if we don’t—tackle the GMO issue head on.

© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report January 2008.