How "Organic" Is Organic? New Calls For Testing Organic Foods For GMO's

Should organics be tested for GMOs?
A recent disturbing incident of GMO contamination of organic soybeans raises the question of whether organic foods should be tested for genetically modified material. The US National Organic Program (NOP) rules prohibit GMOs in organics but don’t require methods to prohibit GMO contamination or establish thresholds for adventitious GM presence. The Organic & Non-GMO Report asked organic industry experts if organics should be tested for GMOs.

A recent disturbing incident of GMO contamination of organic soybeans raises the question of whether organic foods should be tested for genetically modified material. The US National Organic Program (NOP) rules prohibit GMOs in organics but don’t require methods to prohibit GMO contamination or establish thresholds for adventitious GM presence. The Organic & Non-GMO Report asked organic industry experts if organics should be tested for GMOs.

According to Billy Hunter, an Iowa-based organic inspector, many organic food companies ignore the GM food threat. “Many companies have their heads in the sand about the issue,” he says. Hunter conducts inspections for organic certifiers such as Quality Assurance International and Oregon Tilth and for a non-GMO certification firm, giving him a unique perspective on the GMO threat.

“Heads in the sand doesn’t solve the problem”

Hunter says very little GMO testing is being done on organic crops and foods, such as corn and soy and processed products, that could contain adventitious GM material. “Organic companies don’t want to take on an expense when it isn’t mandated by consumer or regulatory pressure,” he says. As a result, no one knows the extent of GMO contamination of organics. “As long as we don’t do genetic testing, we won’t know,” says Hunter. “Having our heads in the sand doesn’t solve the problem. We are selling foodstuffs to the market that have GMO contamination.”

Michael Potter, president of Eden Foods, an organic food manufacturer, agrees with Hunter. “If you don’t test, you don’t know (how much GMOs are a problem in organics),” he says.  Eden Foods is one of a few organic food companies that require GMO testing.

The question of testing

Many organic food experts say GMO testing should not be required in organic certification. They say organic is a process-based certification, and a testing requirement would move organic to an end product-based certification, not to mention adding costs to farmers and processors.
“We do not certify a product as chemical-free, so why would we try and certify the  impossible standard of GMO-free? We certify the process,” says Brad Brummond, county extension agent and organic contact at North Dakota State University. “There is no statutory basis for a testing requirement, and the ‘excluded methods’ provision of the NOP regulation does not allow for penalizing a producer in the case of inadvertent contamination. Producers would, however. be penalized in the marketplace, regardless of how the contamination occurred,” says Mark Lipson, policy program director, Organic Farming Research Foundation

As Lipson indicated, farmers’ organic grains are sometimes tested for GMOs by grain buyers and rejected if they test positive. That should be the main role of GMO testing in organics, says Kathleen Delate, associate professor-organic crop specialist at Iowa State University. “GMO testing is a function of private contracts and not of the NOP, so it would be very difficult to have any testing mandated by the government, let alone have sufficient resources to police the testing,” she says.
Francis Thicke, an organic farmer based in Fairfield, Iowa, says the question of whether GMO testing should be required on organic foods leads to questions about the need for a GMO tolerance in organics. “To establish a GMO-contamination threshold for certified organic products would literally require an act of Congress, and would certainly bring on a raucous debate,” says Thicke.

Former National Organic Standards Board chairman Jim Riddle says a GMO threshold in organics is needed to help organic farmers seek legal remedies for losses suffered due to GMO contamination (see The Organic & Non-GMO Report, February 2007).

Tool for detecting contamination levels

The issue of GMO testing in organic is complex, says Dag Falck, organic program manager at Nature’s Path Foods, another organic food company that tests for GMOs. “It would not be congruent to simply add a requirement for GMO testing to organic standards,” says Falck. However, Falck believes that testing should be mandated in organic standards as a tool for detecting GMO contamination levels. “The only responsible ‘practice’ when it comes to elimination or reduction of GMOs includes the utilization of testing to determine where the contamination is present, and where it enters the organic systems.  Without testing we cannot ‘see’ the contamination, and are left guessing if our efforts to remain GMO-free are effective or not,” he says. Still, Falck believes adding a testing requirement to organic standards may be too much to ask since organic farmers and processors already face challenges with complex organic issues.

Seed contamination a real problem

Shawn Matteson, certification coordinator for a Montana chapter of Organic Crop Improvement Association, says seed grown as organic should be tested to confirm it is non-GMO. “I don’t think a non-GMO affidavit (stating that seed is non-GMO) is worth much unless the seed has been tested,” she says.
Mary-Howell Martens, an organic farmer and grain buyer in Penn Yan, New York, also sees GMO problems emerging from seed grown as organic. According to the NOP, organic farmers can buy conventional seed if “commercial quantities” of organic seed are not available. “Growing organic corn from such seed will probably result in a crop that will have over 2% contamination,” says Martens. Add this to later contamination that can easily result from pollen drift or commingling in grain handling, and the result is an organic crop containing a lot of GMOs.

“No idea where we stand”

Hunter believes GMO testing is “absolutely essential,” but that farmers shouldn’t bear the cost. “The cost has to be figured out without being on the backs of farmers. Perhaps some type of cost share,” he says. A good first step, says Hunter, would be to test representative samples using protein-based lateral flow strip tests, which are fast and inexpensive. “They can give you some idea what you have with GMO levels,” he says. If positive results show, other methods such as DNA-based polymerase chain reaction (PCR) could be used to quantify contamination levels. "At this point we have no idea where we stand. Without testing, something that is organic could be contaminated,” says Hunter. Ultimately, consumer demand may dictate the need for testing. “If consumers started demanding no GMOs, we would test no matter the inconvenience,” he says.

GMOs increase costs, decrease options for organic farmer

Genetically modified crops threaten the livelihoods of organic farmers through seed contamination, cross pollination of organic crops, and commingling in grain handling.
However, GM crops are causing other, not so obvious problems for organic farmers. A good example is Jack Olson, an organic farmer in Litchville, North Dakota, who grows organic soybeans, wheat, and other crops. Olson had to purchase a combine and a semi-trailer to harvest and transport his organic soybeans because contract operators didn’t want to go through the extra steps of cleaning their equipment to prevent GMO commingling.

"I’m $70,000 in the hole because of buying the combine and semi trailer,” says Olson. He had previously hired someone to combine his fields, but the operator didn’t want to wait while Olson cleaned and purged the combine to ensure it contained no GM soybeans.
“Custom operators just want to bring the combine into the field and work. It’s illogical for them to wait for me to clean and purge their combine; they’re losing money,” says Olson.  He also says they don’t like him touching their equipment.  Olson faced the same challenge with truckers who transported his soybeans to a processing facility. “Truckers don’t want to clean their semi and dry it down for one load of soybeans,” he says. But as with the combine, trucks need to be cleaned to make sure no GM material mixed with the organic soybeans.

So, instead of dealing with custom combine and truck operators, Olson purchased his own equipment.
GM crop production has also limited Olson’s farming production options; he doesn’t grow organic corn or canola due to the cross pollination threat from GM varieties. “Organic corn is selling for $12 per bushel. I would love to grow it but I can’t,” he says.
Olson also says that if GM wheat had been approved for production, it would have “shut me down as an organic farmer. It’s hard for one organic farmer to fight Monsanto,” he says.  Still, Olson puts up with the inconveniences because he is committed to organic agriculture. “At least we’re clean, that’s why we grow organic. It’s God’s way,” he says.