Should GMOs be allowed in organic food? USDA sparks debate
USDA Undersecretary of Agriculture Greg Ibach testified before the House Agriculture Subcommittee this month that plants grown with the aid of genetically modified organisms and gene editing could be allowed to be certified organic in the future.
"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," he said.
Currently, organic standards prohibit genetic engineering and GMOs to be certified under that label. In June, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that instructed federal agencies to be more lenient on the approvals for genetic crop modifications and other forms of agricultural biotech.
The current organic certification requires that products with the organic label lack antibiotics, artificial colors, genetically modified ingredients and synthetic pesticides. GMOs made the list because they are not naturally occurring, a value which is at the root of the organic movement. However, Ibach's comments show that policymakers are considering GMO as a possible addition to the list of acceptable practices for organic farming.
GMOs have been a touchy subject in recent years. A 2018 study by the Hartman Group found that nearly half the respondents would avoid purchasing products with GMOs. At that same time, 60% of consumers in one study admitted they don't know much about GMOs, according to a presentation at the IFT19 conference by Intertek. Still, with widespread skepticism of so-called "frankenfoods," companies are voluntarily acknowledging or removing GMO ingredients from their products.
While these genetically altered foods are often seen in an unfavorable light by consumers, about 12% of global agricultural land is still planted each year with genetically modified crops. In the U.S., those numbers are even higher for certain crops. The Grocery Manufacturers Association said about 90% of the nation's corn, soybean and sugar beet crops are genetically modified, which translates to up to 75% of the products in a grocery store that are made with ingredients derived from crops that were genetically modified.
The reason for the prevalence of GMOs boils down to practicality. A World Resources Institute report published this month said urgent changes in the global food system are needed to make sure there is enough food for an estimated 10 billion people by 2050. One of the primary solutions the report named was increasing the number of bioengineered crops in both quantity and variety of species. Feeding the planet in the future is a concern for the organic farming community, but there is still hesitation given that consumers have an aversion to GMOs.
Despite the predominant scientific consensus that GMO food is safe and items made with these ingredients are just as nutritious as their counterparts, many still don't trust them. As consumers increasingly value transparency, changing the acceptability of GMO ingredients in organic food production could result in backlash. Although a 2018 study in Agriculture and Human Values showed about two-thirds of consumers didn't notice a GMO label on a product, of those who did, more than half of the consumers said the label influenced them not to buy the product. It may also be difficult for the USDA to keep track of since there are different GE methods.
"The allowance of any GE techniques under the organic label raises legitimate 'slippery slope' concerns," Cornucopia's Director of Domestic Policy Marie Burcham said in a statement. "The USDA would be hard-pressed to find the resources to track allowed GE technologies and products in the organic sector, assuming they could summon the will."
Even if GMOs are allowed in organics, it organic producers may still want to consider keeping GMOs out of their farming practices. While organic food sales increased by an average of 10% per year between 2010 and 2016, that pace has cooled to 6% for the past two years, according to a report from Rabobank. While the growth of the industry is slowing, prices for organic products are also dropping, which could encourage organic shoppers to buy more products. But they might not do so if there are GMOs included in those foods.
The importance of having a guarantee that organic means non-GMO may become even more important when the new labeling laws go into effect next year since not all products containing GMO ingredients fall under the labeling requirements. Having the organic label be synonymous with GMO-free could be one way for some producers to present added value to those consumers who care about keeping modification out of their foods.