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Daily News Blog

02
Aug

At Congressional Hearing, USDA Proposes Allowing Genetic Engineering (“Editing”) in Certified Organic Food

(Beyond Pesticides, August 2, 2019) Advocates of organic agriculture, including Beyond Pesticides, are sounding a “yellow alert” on the heels of recent comments, by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs, Greg Ibach, before the U.S. House Agriculture Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research. In his remarks, Mr. Ibach opened the door to consideration of allowing new gene-editing technologies to be permitted under the federal National Organic Program (NOP) and its standards. He said, “As the National Organic Standards Board set the rules originally, GMOs are not eligible to be in the organic program. However, we’ve seen new technology, including gene-editing, that accomplishes things in shorter periods of time than a natural breeding process can. 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 to have drought and disease-resistant varieties, as well as higher-yield varieties available.”

The National Organic Standards (NOS), promulgated in 2002 (on the basis of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990) by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) — on which Beyond Pesticides Executive Director Jay Feldman sat from 2010 to 2015) — now prohibit genetically engineered crops in certified organic agriculture. The history of genetic engineering and organics goes back to 1990, when USDA proposed an initial, and much-criticized, iteration of a set of rules about organic agriculture; those rules not only permitted genetically bioengineered (GE or GMO) crops, but also, allowed use of sewage sludge and irradiation. After significant public outcry and an historic number of public comments, the final rule proscribed all three.

In the NOSB Policy and Procedures Manual, “Principles of Organic Production and Handling,” section 1.11, states: “Genetic engineering (recombinant and technology) is a synthetic process designed to control nature at the molecular level, with the potential for unforeseen consequences. As such, it is not compatible with the principles of organic agriculture (either production or handling). Genetically engineered/modified organisms (GE/GMOs) and products produced by or through the use of genetic engineering are prohibited.”

Proponents say gene editing is different from the GE processes that have been used widely in non-organic agriculture to date. Those GE techniques typically have employed gene transfer — moving selected genes for some desirable trait from one plant (or bacteria) species into another. A well-known example is Monsanto’s iconic Roundup Resistant soybean: its genetically engineered resistance to the impacts of glyphosate allowed use of the company’s glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup to kill weeds without killing the soybean plant. With wide adoption of the seed, Roundup’s use spiked, as did the inevitable issue of glyphosate resistance in the soybean plant itself.

GE is based on an out-of-date theory of “one gene–one effect” and ignores pleiotropy. Thus, a gene that makes a plant tolerant of glyphosate is assumed not to have other effects that might be important ecologically or nutritionally. Even the effect of herbicide tolerance itself may result in the presence of toxic metabolites of the herbicide in food.

Gene editing is described as different from gene transfer GE technology. It is described by a National Geographic article as simply the removal of certain bits of DNA (genes) from a plant cell’s genome “in order to control traits. The cell’s genetic structure then repairs itself automatically, minus the targeted gene.” The changes to the genome made by gene editing are permanent — they are passed on to the seeds the edited plant will generate. As various new gene editing technologies — such as TALENs, CRISPR-Cas9, and ZFN — have become available, industry has touted them as the next agricultural revolution, promising outcomes from increased yields, disease resistance, and crops that don’t trigger allergies, to better flavors and nutrition, decreased fat content, and drought resistance, among many potential benefits.

Last year (2018) saw the entry of the first gene-edited crop in the U.S. — rapeseed, the seed source of canola oil. The Guardian reports that more are coming down the pike, including a shelf-stable soybean oil whose oil will contain less saturated fat (from Minnesota-based Calyxt), and an improved variety of waxy corn that is used as a thickener and stabilizer in food products (from Corteva Agriscience, the agriculture division of DowDuPont).

Federal regulators at USDA have said that because such crops don’t contain “foreign” DNA, they should not require the (already inadequate) regulation and testing required for GMOs. The European Union’s highest court sees it differently: the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) in Luxembourg ruled in late July that gene-edited crops must be regulated by the same strict rules as are conventional GMOs in Europe. USDA said in June that it would not regulate crops whose genetic changes could have been produced with conventional breeding — those that have been gene-edited. Some scientists consider these processes to be humanly accelerated versions of what can happen through more conventional breeding means, providing some of the rationale for the potential ruling. A different federal agency, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has suggested it might treat all intentionally edited food products as drugs, which could mean far more intensive oversight and regulation.

Meanwhile, Beyond Pesticides and other advocates in the organic community are clear: gene editing, for the purposes of regulation of organics, should be included in the definition of genetic engineering, and has no place in organic production or in the National Organic Standards. Further, the myriad issues surrounding GE technologies and GMOs — health and environment impacts, contamination of organic production, resistance, and labeling, among others, should be far more seriously addressed, and regulation decisions based on science rather than on benefit to industry.

In July, Beyond Pesticides wrote in a Daily News Blog entry, “All genetically engineered (GE) organisms — plants, animals, or microorganisms — should be subjected to systematic assessments of human and environmental effects and indirect economic effects (such as contamination of organic or non-GE crops leading to rejection in foreign markets, spread of resistant pests, etc.) before being allowed on the market. These assessments must be made available to the public for comment. All products from GE organisms in the marketplace should be labeled as such to allow consumer choice and to permit tracking of unintended health effects. Companies that develop GE organisms should be required to disclose any GE trait, marker genes, or other genetic constructs that might be present in a commercial GE seed product, including traits and genes for obsolete, no-longer-marketed traits. In addition, the definition of genetic engineering should be broad enough to include all the newer genetic engineering techniques, such as RNAi or the new gene-editing technologies (such as CRISPR-cas9, TALEN, ZNF, and meganucleases).”

Organic agriculture is a safe and implementable approach to food production that eliminates many of the risks of chemical and GE farming and food products. The burgeoning popularity of organically grown food is no surprise, given all the downsides of the chemical-intensive, monocultural practices of industrial agriculture. To have genuine consumer choice, the public needs to trust what the certified organic label represents. As genetically engineered technologies and products proliferate, even absent adequate assessment, protecting the integrity of that organic label is critical. During the House Committee on Agriculture’s Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research’s mid-July hearing on assessing the effectiveness of the NOP, the House committe chair, Rep. Stacey Plaskett, said, “The power of the organic seal is in its integrity — in the trust that consumers place in it. It’s our job here in Washington, both here and at USDA, to ensure we’re safeguarding the integrity of the National Organic Program.”

Under Secretary Ibach’s comments portend an alarming violation of that trust and integrity. Stay engaged on this and other developments in organics, biotechnology in agriculture, and the integrity of the organic label through Beyond Pesticides’ Daily News Blog and journal, Pesticides and You.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: https://www.foodingredientsfirst.com/news/should-gene-editing-be-part-of-organic-production-usda-opens-debate.html

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2 Responses to “At Congressional Hearing, USDA Proposes Allowing Genetic Engineering (“Editing”) in Certified Organic Food”

  1. 1
    Dawn Matney Says:

    This is so frightening. Does the usda have the right o approve such things across the board without public input? This is as bad or worse than Obama appointing Michael Taylor ‘the food czar’. How can fooling w Mother Nature be considered so safe by them? Beside the known estrogen icnaffectsmof so many pesticides, how is it possible for them just to simply approve this, one presentation? I say NO, label it, but of course do they label GMO or roundup ready crop foods now, NO. This is a travesty, and with the growing cancer rates and other illnesses and problems caused by estrogen in foods.!There is no long term testing or evidence it is safe and not Harmful to human beings. Glyphosate causes mismanagement of minerals in the body. Who knows what Hm and gE foods May do to future generations. A good article about delayed reaction is on ‘Voices I’m our Genes website. It details Scandinavian record keeping from the 1800’s I believe. The affect of famine affected the second generation not the first. I wish there was more to do to stop our government from deciding the mad scientists doing things just because they can and that we should eat it. Very disturbing.

  2. 2
    Marta Greenleaf Says:

    Absolutely disgusting. Leave our already diluted, organic standards alone.

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