What is Organic

Two races on a collision course

Two racesWhile Oregon,Colorado and several other states are racing to put GMO labeling initiatives on their state ballots, a very different sprint is occurring at the USDA. The two competitive dashes appear to be heading in opposite directions and could end up cycling back in a grand collision of values and money. One team seeks to bring as many new bio-engineered products to the farm and dining table as quickly as possible. The other tag team is speeding ahead with state labeling initiatives in over 30 states. What happens when we finally have national mandatory labeling and many of our crops are dominated by genetically modified species?

In 1992 the FDA ruled that they were “not aware of any information showing that foods derived by these new (GMO) methods differ from other foods in any meaningful or material way.” They ruled that “as a class, foods developed by the new (GMO) techniques do not present any different or greater safety concern than foods developed by traditional plant breeding.”

Soon after this ruling the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) began reviewing and approving deregulation for GMO entities in our food supply. Companies such as Monsanto and Syngenta continue to request deregulation of certain new species of life that they exclusively own and patent. The USDA agency reviews the new products under the pretext that they do not differ from their non-genetically modified cousins. More often than not the new patented food entities get approved for planting in the US after a 30-day comment period.

So it wasn’t with much surprise that I received two very different emails vying for attention in my inbox. Side by side they nestled each banners for opposing foot races. The first headline read “The California bill to label genetically engineered (GE) food is headed for a vote in the State Senate this week….” The other started with: “Dear BRS Stakeholder….”

“The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is announcing today the availability of several biotechnology regulatory actions. It went on to explain that the J.R. Simplot Company is seeking non-regulated status for GMO potatoes engineered to reduce black spot bruise.  Syngenta Seeds, Inc., and Bayer CropScience AG are seeking non-regulated status of soybeans genetically engineered for more herbicide resistance. Additionally, Monsanto and Forage Genetics International are seeking non-regulated status of GMO alfalfa.”

In all cases the agency made available preliminary findings of No Significant Impact. Essentially it plans to grant the requests to deregulate three new genetically engineered crops after a 30 day comment period once the findings are published in the Federal Register.

I live in a world of many ironic contradictions but these two emails represented two polar extreme marathons. The participants in these two races are diametrically opposed and both are passionately sprinting towards very different goals. In my mind it is difficult to determine a winner, although I see the biotech companies with an advantage of money and FDA rulings in their game.

I am left only with questions and certain hopeful ruminations. If products are labeled, will more consumers demand non GMO ingredients in their food? How would nationally mandatory labeling affect the advancement of new crop varieties? Would traditional breeding come into fashion again? Would the patent holders give up their rights to own our seed supply?

The final outcome will be evident once these races have been won or lost. Keep your eye on the game.





9 thoughts on “Two races on a collision course”

  1. Hi Melody,

    Thanks for that post.

    An interesting trade-off. It may be the two policies are in synch, actually, and offer a means of co-existence. I wonder:

    Would relaxed regulations for the introduction of products of genetic engineering be an acceptable price to pay to get GMO labeling?

    Would the biotech industry drop its opposition to labeling if it would streamline product introduction?

    In 1988, I called genetic engineering a ‘crazy chase down a dead-end street’ to an audience composed mostly of pesticide industry executives. Commercialization of genetic engineering at that point was a series of fumbles and setbacks. While a relatively small handful of ‘killer apps’ of GMOs introduced since then have been successful and profitable, I would argue most intended products of genetic engineering have failed to deliver on their promises to investors, not because of regulations or anything anti-GMO activists have done but because they offered no added value in the marketplace. The added expense and complexity of genetic engineering weren’t worth it. Classical breeding that uses advanced genetic screening methods offer a more certain and time-tested path to success.

    The reality is that organic and GMOs both exist, so we have de facto co-existence. Labeling does not stop GMOs and the experience in Europe shows that while there may be some increased cost for those who market GMOs and reduced consumer demand, those producers and manufacturers continue to make products from GMOs. The US actually has some of the least restrictive laws governing the release of GMOs in the world. I won’t say that they are entirely voluntary or it is self-regulation, but the US has the closest to industry self-regulation of any set of regulations found in the world.

    In my opinion, anti-GMO activists have concentrated on the labeling and intellectual property aspects of biotechnology, but have neglected the third, which goes with relaxed regulation and an increased reliance on voluntary compliance. That is the question of liability for damages caused by the release of GMOs and adventitious presence. Resolving adventitious presence will be more important for the co-existence of organic and GMO than labeling or intellectual property. The three are, of course, inextricably entangled.

    “Everybody loses from potato bruises”. That sign used to be in almost every potato packinghouse I visited, but now I hardly ever see it.

    Brian Baker

  2. Hi, I’m simply at a loss as to why not let consumer demand pull the industry into supplying non gmo products? I see GMO free claims on products today. Why is there a need to do anything else, particularly state by state. All I can see is it driving up costs to consumers, particularly here in Oregon where we have one if not the highest rate of childhood hunger in the nation. I’m trying to understand and so far I do not see the point.


    1. Thank you for reading my blog and making a comment! It’s a good question you pose.
      Ultimately we all want federal mandatory labeling which will solve the state by state issue.
      Right now not all products that could be labeled Non-GMO are not always labeled as such. Organic products inherently mean non-GMO by their production methods and sometimes they aren’t labeled. We also have some products on the market labeled non-GMO that have no GMO risk. So it can be very confusing for the customer to determine if they are eating GMO products. It is all about the right to know what is in our food.

      The other ( and I believe) most important factor is that labeling Non-GMO costs money for the supplier to achieve. Rather than burden the Non-GMO producer with extra costs it makes more financial sense to require labeling of GMO products as standard practice. There are studies that show that labeling changes do not lead to increased food costs. Making suppliers pay for non-GMO status probably does.

      I agree we need to address childhood hunger and the UNFI Foundation supports organizations that do this. Ultimately the federal government should help fund school and summer food programs to help address this issue.

      Once again I appreciate your comment.

      1. Hi, Thanks for your reply and clearing up what the GMO labeling is trying to accomplish- allowing consumers to know what they purchase. From my perspective, I’m just not to the point where I believe we need to be funding the creation and administration of additional regulations when, in this case, just like kosher products the market and third party authentication seems to work. Dean

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