To test or not to test organics for GMOs

Two experts say testing and a non-GMO standard is needed to protect organic integrity and assure consumers while two others say a non-GMO label could hurt the growth of organic food production.

Should organic products be tested for genetically modified organisms (GMOs)? An educational session at All Things Organic conference in June sparked a lively debate over the need to test organics for GMOs with experts arguing for and against testing.

The session, titled “GMOs: To Test or Not to Test” featured Megan Thompson, executive director of the Non-GMO Project; Lynn Clarkson, president of Clarkson Grain; Dag Falck, organic program manager at Nature’s Path Foods, and Katherine DiMatteo of Wolf, DiMatteo + Associates and president of the board of directors of International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). Phil Margolis, president of Neshaminy Valley Natural Foods Distributor, Ltd. served as moderator.

In his opening remarks, Margolis said, “This is a complex issue that generates many points of view.”

Margolis’s assessment was dead-on as Thompson and Falck argued in favor of a non-GMO label with GMO testing with thresholds while Clarkson and DiMatteo argued against a non-GMO label.

“Testing is absolutely essential”
Thompson gave an overview of the current genetically modified crops grown in the United States with US Department of Agriculture figures showing GM varieties accounting for more than 80% of corn and 90% of soybeans. Thompson said, “The percentages are even higher because of GMO contamination (of conventional varieties).”

She cited worldwide consumer resistance to GM foods with 36 countries either restricting or banning GMOs because they haven’t been proven safe. In the United States, 90% of consumers say they won’t eat GM foods even though,

Thompson said, “They are likely to have eaten GMOs for breakfast.”
Thompson cited the limitations of National Organic Program rules, which declare genetic engineering an excluded method but don’t prohibit products of genetic engineering.

Thompson emphasized the need for GMO testing in organics. “Without testing, we don’t have a way to protect organics from contamination.”

She cited the Non-GMO Project as offering practical solutions to the challenge of GMO contamination, and said that GMO testing is an important quality assurance measure required by the Non-GMO Project.

“Testing is absolutely essential to the integrity of organic materials and to maintaining consumer trust,” Thompson said.

Will discourage organic production
Lynn Clarkson argued that organic is a process definition, not one that relies on testing. He said that adding a GMO testing requirement to organic production could dissuade farmers from converting to organic production. “We want more organic acreage, but adding testing will discourage farmers from organic production.”

Clarkson discussed challenges organic farmers, particularly in the Midwest where corn and soybeans are grown, face with GMO contamination. “The US farmer has to contend with massive plantings of GMO varieties,” he said.

Paths of GMO contamination at the farm level include seed, equipment not properly cleaned, cross pollination, and commingling in grain handling.

Clarkson highlighted problems that could result from making GMO testing a requirement in organics: GMO tolerances could be too tight for farmers to achieve, create challenges for grain buyers, and force organic grain production to China or India, where GMO requirements aren’t strict. “If the desire for GMO purity is not balanced with the farmers’ reality, we could suffer some serious and likely unintended consequences,” Clarkson said.

The solution Clarkson said is to continue with the National Organic Program with constant vigilance against fraud and no or minimal GMO testing.

Without testing organic will become more contaminated
Dag Falck said he agreed with Lynn Clarkson about organic being “a practice and not a system for purity.”

Falck contrasted damage to organic crops from pesticide drift to GMO contamination. “We can see damage from pesticides, but a farmer can’t see how much GMO contamination is in his seed,” he said. “There is no way to tell GMO seed from non-GMO except by testing.”

Also, unlike pesticides, which diminish in the environment over time, GMOs are living organisms that can continue to reproduce in the environment. “GMOs need to be treated differently from other contaminants,” Falck said.

Falck compared GMO tolerances and thresholds to speed limits in driving. A tolerance can be compared to a speed limit such as 60 miles per hour. A threshold is similar to the speed, such as 75 miles per hour, that a policeman will issue a ticket.

GMO thresholds are needed in organics, Falck said, “so farmers don’t lose certification.”

Falck emphasized the challenges faced by the organic industry due to GMO incursion. “We have no control over contamination and no ability to seek compensation (for losses due to GMO contamination). This is weakening our integrity to consumers.”

He argued that GMO testing with thresholds is needed in organics to minimize GMO contamination. Without them, Falck said “organic seed and food will become more contaminated.”

“Will drive people away from organic”
Katherine DiMatteo argued against adding a non-GMO labeling standard to organic. A non-GMO label, she said, moves organic from being a process guarantee to being an end product guarantee.

She said using GMO testing as a tool for improvement in organics is fine, but opposes non-GMO labeling based on testing. “Don’t add a guarantee that we can’t live up to and don’t force organic farmers and processors to live up to a (non-GMO) standard.”
Such a standard,

DiMatteo said, will hurt the organic market because consumers may fear that organic products that aren’t labeled non-GMO will be GMO. “A non-GMO labeling standard is not about protecting organic, it’s about driving people away.”
DiMatteo said the focus should be on what organic is, with its emphasis on healthy soil and plants, rather than on GMOs, an excluded method. “GMOs are not allowed for use in organic production,” she said.

© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report July/August 2009