Should organics be tested for GMOs?

A recent disturbing incident of GMO contamination of organic soybeans raises the question of whether organic crops and foods should be tested for genetically modified material. The US National Organic Program rules prohibit GMOs in organics but don’t require methods to prohibit GMO contamination or establish thresholds for adventitious GM presence. The Organic & Non-GMO Report surveyed organic industry experts to obtain their thoughts on the question of testing.

According to Billy Hunter, an Iowa-based organic inspector, many organic food companies are ignoring the genetically modified food threat. “Many companies have their heads in the sand about the issue,” says Hunter, who conducts organic inspections for certifiers such as Quality Assurance International and Oregon Tilth, as well as audits for a non-GMO certification firm.

“Heads in the sand doesn’t solve the problem”
Hunter says very little GMO testing is being done on organic crops and foods that could contain adventitious GM material, such as corn and soy and processed products.

Companies don’t want to test because there is no pressure for them to do so. “They don’t want to take on an expense when it isn’t mandated by consumer or regulatory pressure,” he says.

As a result, no one knows the extent of GMO contamination of organics. “As long as we don’t do genetic testing, we won’t know,” says Hunter. “Having our heads in the sand doesn’t solve the problem. We are selling foodstuffs to the market that have GMO contamination.”

Michael Potter, president of Eden Foods, an organic food manufacturer, agrees with Hunter. “If you don’t test, you don’t know (how much GMOs are a problem in organics),” he says.

Eden Foods is one of a few organic food companies that require GMO testing.

The question of testing
Many organic food experts say GMO testing should not be required in organic certification. They say organic is a process-based certification, and a testing requirement would move organic to an end-product-based certification, not to mention adding costs to farmers and processors.

“We do not certify a product as chemical-free, so why would we try and certify the impossible standard of GMO-free? We certify the process,” says Brad Brummond, county extension agent and organic contact at North Dakota State University.

“There is no statutory basis for a testing requirement, and the ‘excluded methods’ provision of the (National Organic Program) regulation does not allow for penalizing a producer in the case of inadvertent contamination. Producers would, however, be penalized in the marketplace, regardless of how the contamination occurred,” says Mark Lipson, policy program director, Organic Farming Research Foundation.

As Lipson indicated, organic grains are sometimes tested for GMOs by buyers and rejected if they test positive for GMOs. That should be the main role of GMO testing in organics, says Kathleen Delate, associate professor and organic crop specialist at Iowa State University. “GMO testing is a function of private contracts and not of the NOP, so it would be very difficult to have any testing mandated by the government, let alone have sufficient resources to police the testing,” she says.

Francis Thicke, an organic farmer based in Fairfield, Iowa, says the question of whether GMO testing should be required in organics leads to other questions about the need for a GMO tolerance in organics. “To establish a GMO-contamination threshold for certified organic products would literally require an act of Congress, and would certainly bring on a raucous debate,” he says.

Former National Organic Standards Board chairman Jim Riddle says a GMO threshold in organics is needed to help organic farmers seek legal remedies for losses suffered due to GMO contamination (see The Organic & Non-GMO Report, February 2007).

Tool for detecting contamination levels
The issue of GMO testing in organic is complex, says Dag Falck, organic program manager at Nature’s Path Foods, another organic food company that tests for GMOs. “It would not be congruent to simply add a requirement for GMO testing to organic standards,” says Falck.

However, Falck believes that testing should be mandated in organic standards as a tool for detecting GMO contamination levels. “The only responsible ‘practice’ when it comes to effective elimination or significant reduction of GMOs includes the utilization of testing to determine where the contamination is present, and find out where it enters the organic systems.  Without testing we cannot ‘see’ the contamination, and are left guessing if our efforts to remain GMO free are effective or not,” he says.

Still, Falck believes adding a testing requirement to organic standards may be too much to ask since organic farmers and processors already face challenges with complex organic issues.

Shawn Matteson, certification coordinator for a Montana chapter of Organic Crop Improvement Association, says seed should be tested to confirm it is non-GMO. “I don’t think a non-GMO affidavit (stating that seed is non-GMO) is worth much unless the seed has been tested,” she says.

“No idea where we stand”
Hunter believes GMO testing is “absolutely essential,” but says farmers shouldn’t bear the cost. “The cost has to be figured out without being on the backs of farmers. Perhaps some type of cost share,” he says.

A good first step, says Hunter, would be to test representative samples using protein-based lateral flow strip tests, which are fast and inexpensive. “They can give you some idea of what you have with GMO levels,” he says.

If positive results show, other methods such as DNA-based polymerase chain reaction (PCR) could be used to quantify contamination levels.

“At this point we have no idea where we stand. Without testing, something that is organic could be contaminated,” says Hunter.

Ultimately, he says consumer demand could dictate the need for testing. “If consumers started demanding no GMOs, we would test no matter the inconvenience.”

© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report October 2007.