During a hearing earlier this summer, U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary Greg Ibach expressed interest in opening the discussion surrounding gene editing technologies and their possible uses in advancing organic agriculture.
However, in a letter delivered to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, the Organic Farmers Assn. (OFA) and 78 other organic farm organizations opposed allowing the use of gene editing technology in organic farming.
“We’ve seen new technology, including gene editing, that accomplishes things in shorter periods of times than a natural breeding process can,” Ibach said during the July 17 hearing. “I think there is an 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.”
The letter, signed by 79 organic farm organizations from across the nation, expresses strong opposition to allowing any form of genetic engineering in the organic standard and to dialogue about its possible inclusion. OFA urged USDA to instead bolster the organic market by focusing on building healthy soil and addressing the core issues affecting the domestic organic market today.
“Introducing any dialogue about any form of genetic engineering into organics would be a major distraction for the USDA [National Organic Program] and the National Organic Standards Board,” OFA director Kate Mendenhall said. “We have crucial issues in organic agriculture that need the department’s full attention, such as stopping organic import fraud, closing certification loopholes, enforcing our current organic standards equitably and uniformly and updating obsolete database technology.”
Gene editing and all other forms of genetic engineering are currently prohibited under the guidelines of organic certification. When USDA was first writing the national organic standards in 2001, the agency tried to allow genetic engineering, but the organic community responded with more than 400,000 comments demanding its prohibition, OFA said.
Since then, consumer acceptance of genetically engineered products has dropped precipitously, while certified organic food sales have seen consistent growth. OFA said it feels strongly that working with natural materials and cropping systems that prioritize biodiversity improves soil health, crop success and consumer interest.
“OFA encourages Secretary Perdue to abandon the idea of possibilities for genetic engineering in organic agriculture and commit to a national organic label that strives for continual improvement and strong organic integrity,” OFA said in a statement.