Genetic Engineering and Organic Food:
The proposed USDA rule on organic agriculture
 Annie Kirschenmann and
Fred Kirschenmann
Keywords:  United States of America; Governmental organization; Genetic engineering; Sustainable agriculture; Labelling; Public acceptance.
Correct citation: Kirschenmann, A. and Kirschenmann, F. (1998), "Genetic Engineering and Organic Food: The proposed USDA rule on organic agriculture." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 34, p. 18-21.

In December 1997 the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued the National Organic Program (NOP), which establishes standards for organic agricultural products. Although the US organic food industry has for a long time demanded a federal organic standard, they are rejecting USDA’ s proposed organic rule. In its present version, the proposed rule would allow the application of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into organic agricultural practice.

One of the definitions for organic principles that is widely agreed on is formulated by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). IFOAM is an international body which serves as a forum to exchange knowledge on organic agriculture. It sets and regularly revises organic standards. These standards distinguish organic from high-input farming based on their distinctively divergent agricultural practices. Organic systems use cultural, biological and mechanical methods instead of exogenous inputs such as chemical fertilizers or pesticides wherever possible. Any deviation from that method must be justified on the basis of need. For example, synthetic pheromone traps with substances to attract insects, have always been allowed in organic production since these traps are a sustainable tool in monitoring and controlling insect populations. According to the IFOAM principles, organic systems have demonstrated that production and processing has been possible without GMOs. Therefore, there can be no demonstrated need for GMOs in these systems. For instance, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) has for many years been used as a biopesticide in organic agriculture to control infestations by lepidopterans such as caterpillars. For IFOAM, organic agriculture has no need for transgenic crops which express the same anti-lepidopteran protein.

The proposed federal organic programme
The organic industry in the USA consists of certified growers, processors, manufacturers, and distributors of organic foods and fibres. Since 1990 sales have increased yearly by 20 per cent, reaching US$ 3.3 billion in 1996. The sales of organically produced dairy products have even increased by more than 100 per cent per year. Since there are differences in the standards of the 33 private certifiers and between states agencies, a federal organic standard was requested by consumers, environmentalists and the US organic industry.
The evolution of a regulation on organic food started in 1990 when the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) was passed by the US Congress as part of the 1990 Farm Bill. The OFPA is a production practices regulation. This means that it was designed to monitor the way food is produced, rather than monitor food safety. As a consequence, it was put under the jurisdiction of the USDA. However, the implementation of the OFPA has to be ruled by the NOP. The NOP is intended to establish national standards for the organic production and handling of agricultural product as well as a certification system and labelling requirements. Therefore, in 1992 the OFPA mandated the creation of a National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to advise the USDA in the formulation of the proposed rule. The NOSB is composed of 15 members representing the food processing industry, farmers’ , consumers’  and environmental organizations. It is a Federal Advisory Board that is authorized to determine which materials are allowed in the National List of materials for use in organic production and processing. The NOSB advised the USDA to exclude GMOs from organic food production.
The NOSB submitted its final recommendations to the Secretary of Agriculture in 1996. The draft for an NOP was subsequently reviewed by various federal bureaucracies, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The proposed rule was published in December 1997.
The proposed rule is now in a public comment period and the USDA will review and respond to all comments. They will make any changes that they deem necessary and finally publish the  official rule. Until then, there is no federal organic programme in the USA.

Genetically modified organisms
When the USDA released its draft for an NOP in December of 1997, the organic industry was unpleasantly surprised to find that the draft includes possible use of GMOs in organic production and processing, despite the NOSB’ s recommendation of prohibition.
NOSB based its decision that GMOs are inappropriate for organic agriculture on the principle consideration that organic agriculture functions by using natural ecosystems rather than exogenous technologies. However, USDA wants to include GMOs in organic systems because it is "the policy of the United States Government . . . that GMOs and their products should be regulated based on risk, not on how they are produced". USDA’ s position is in contradiction with the purpose of the OFPA to "establish an organic certification programme" that would differentiate agricultural products "using organic methods". However, if allowance of GMOs in organic systems is based on risk assessment, a different form of risk assessment would have to be applied. Usually, US government agencies apply toxicological methods for the assessment of risks. As USDA’ s own definition stipulates, organic systems are ecological systems. Consequently, instead of a toxicological approach, an ecological risk assessment that determines ecological disruption would have to be applied.
In organic agriculture, a risk assessment approach has always been rejected. It is feared that the knowledge of anticipating all of the possible interrelationships of ecosystems is still too limited. Instead, a precautionary principle is pursued based on the assumption that it is better to reduce risks than to assume that one can assess and control them.

Other controversial methods
The proposed NOP rule has lead to other controversies as well. For instance, the USDA is also considering allowing the irradiation of organic food, a process which uses ionizing radiation to kill bacteria in food. Furthermore, it is considering the application of sewage sludge as a field fertilizer, and the use of numerous products, such as potassium sulphate and chilean nitrate. These substances have traditionally been prohibited in organic farming and food production systems. Furthermore, the NOP proposal eliminates the "restricted use" category. This category is traditionally used by organic certifiers and limits the use of certain materials, for instance pesticides that are generated from certain plant species.
The proposed NOP also has lenient animal husbandry standards. It allows for landless animal husbandry, which is strictly forbidden in organic production by IFOAM standards. Antibiotics are allowed, requiring only the same withdrawal periods established by the FDA for conventional livestock. Traditionally, organic certifiers have required at least double the FDA withdrawal times, or not allowed the use of antibiotics at all.
The rule also does not specifically prohibit materials derived from dead livestock or wastes from livestock slaughter, processing or rendering facilities. These materials are suspected to be the leading cause of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, like "mad cow" disease.

Impacts on consumers and trade relations
At present, certifiers, growers and manufacturers are virtually unanimous in their opposition to the NOP proposal. Consumer organizations such as the Pure Food Campaign have criticized the present NOP proposal because it explicitly prohibits private certification programmes from exceeding the federal organic standard. Certifiers that are willing to apply more rigid criteria to organic production, for instance by excluding GMOs, would not be allowed to use their private, distinctive certification mark. In the USA labelling of food produced by GMOs is not compulsory. When GMOs are introduced in standards of organic agriculture, this would limit consumer choice since there would be no guarantee for food free from GMOs.
Additionally, US organic production standards, as proposed in the rule, would not meet international organic standards, such as those of IFOAM, the European Union (EU) or the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC), (see box).
Since the USDA proposed rule does not allow US private certifiers to exceed the standard established by USDA, it would make it impossible for US certifiers to provide the necessary proof of equivalence to the EU standard. The USDA is therefore considering that US based certifiers could certify to two different standards, one for the USA and one for the EU. However, this is not made clear in the rule. Most likely, importers would require that products destined for the EU be screened for equivalency on a lot by lot basis. Several US based international private certifiers have already indicated that they will not abandon their own organic standards. If forced by US regulation, they will probably consider moving their headquarters out of the USA.
The proposed rule requires that product imported into the US is "at least" equivalent to the US standard. Should the rule be enacted as proposed, the USA could become a market for products that do not meet other international organic standards, and therefore could not enter most other international markets under this label.

International organic food standards

Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC)
The CAC is an intergovernmental food standards body which was established in 1962 under the auspices of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO). The Codex gained considerable importance with the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO), as it may be used as a reference point in the resolution of international trade disputes. This food standards body has numerous committees on various aspects of food policy, one of which is the "Committee on Food Labelling". This committee meets each year to agree on food labelling guidelines. Among the topics currently on the agenda are the implications of modern biotechnology for food labelling and the "draft guidelines for the production, processing, labelling, and marketing of organically produced foods". The latter is expected to be advanced at the next meeting in May 1998 to the last step in the 8-step procedure for adoption of Codex rules. Although not yet finalized, the Codex organic guidelines nonetheless provide an important indication of the state of the art around the world. The Codex organic guidelines exclude all forms of genetically engineered organisms and products derived from them at all stages of production and processing of products labelled organic. 

EU Regulation 2092/91
In the European Union, products labelled "organic" (or "ecological" or "biological", depending on the language) must meet production requirements contained in EU Regulation 2092/91. This law currently only excludes the use of genetically modified micro-organisms in food processing, but the inclusion of livestock standards is currently going through the legislative process. In adopting this proposal, the European Parliament introduced a number of amendments by which the use of genetic engineering would be prohibited for all products sold in the EU as "organic". The EU Commission has included these amendments in their revised draft, which has now been forwarded to the Council of Ministers for the final decision. The EU Commissioner for Agriculture, Franz Fischler, has gone on record as opposing the use of genetic engineering in organic products. In the meantime, the responsible competent authorities in all member states of the EU are observing a prohibition, and a number have enacted national legislation which exclude genetic engineering in organic products.

Annie Kirschenmann/ Fred Kirschenmann

Farm Verified Organic, Rural Route 1, Box 40a Medina ND, 58467 USA. Phone (+1) 701 486 3578; Fax (+1) 701 486 3580; E-mail farmvo@daktel.com


Personal communication with L. Bullard (IFOAM)

Contributions to the Biotechnology and Development Monitor are not covered by any copyright. Exerpts may be translated or reproduced without prior permission (with exception of parts reproduced from third sources), with acknowledgement of source.


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