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Consumers Score Two Wins—Right in Monsanto’s Backyard

New GMO technologies such as cloning, nanotechnology, synthetic biology—technologies sometimes referred to as GMO 2.0—won’t be allowed in organics, thanks to a recent decision by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). 

The NOSB, which held its fall (November 16 – 18) meeting in St. Louis, Mo., home to Monsanto headquarters, also voted to get the controversial food additive carrageenan out of organics.

Keeping GMOs out of organic and dropping carrageenan from the list of allowed substances in organic were two of the hot-button issues at the latest NOSB meeting. Both votes were big wins for consumers. The third and arguably hottest topic—whether hydroponic “container” production methods violate USDA organic standards—was kicked back to a subcommittee for further evaluation.

Just say ‘no’ to GMOs in organic

As we reported a few weeks ago, Melody Meyer, a member of the Organic Trade Association (OTA), wrote in a recent blog post that she wanted gene editing, a dangerous new form of genetic engineering, to be allowed in organic. In response, OCA and other groups pressured the NOSB to pass its Excluded Methods Terminology Proposal to update and further define the criteria for evaluating all methods of genetic engineering—including CRISPR,  cell fusionRNA interference and recombinant DNA technologies, along with gene editing technologies.

Up until passing the proposal, the NOSB had been working from outdated excluded methods definitions that could have resulted in GMO 2.0 technologies being allowed under organic standards. Excluded methods were defined only as: "A variety of methods used to genetically modify organisms or influence their growth and development by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes and are not considered compatible with organic production."

Following the recent vote, the NOSB will now submit a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and the incoming secretary of agriculture under the new administration to provide them more information on the NOSB’s work to eliminate threats from GMO incursion into organic agriculture. The letter calls for compensation to organic farmers from the biotech industry for GMO incursions and contamination on organic farms, and for clear leadership from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on this issue.

No more carrageenan? We’ll see . . . 

Ever since carrageenan was added to the National Organics Program’s (NOP) list of approved synthetic substances in 1995, OCA and other groups committed to upholding organic standards have argued  that it should be delisted. Yet every five years, when carrageenan came up for review under the NOSB’s sunset provision, the NOSB re-approved it.

Until now. After lengthy deliberation, and after agreeing that alternative additives are available, NOSB board members voted 10-3 to recommend that carrageenan be removed from the NOP’s National List of substances approved for organic. Unfortunately, the battle isn’t won yet. Industry representatives immediately declared that they will take their case to the USDA to allow the continued use of carrageenan.

OCA will continue to oppose carrageenan, which is added to foods like infant formula, dairy products, deli meats, salad dressings, toothpaste, pet food, and vegan products as an emulsifier or thickener, because it does not meet all three of the following OFPA criteria: 1) essential to organic products; 2) safe to humans and the environment; and, 3) compatible with organic practices. 

More here on what carrageenan is, and the health issues it has been linked to.

Hydroponic controversy—can soil-less produce be ‘organic’?

NOSB board members were supposed to vote at the fall meeting on whether or not hydroponically grown produce can be certified organic, but they delayed the decision pending further research.

Hydroponic produce, says the Cornucopia Institute, is generally grown under artificial lighting, indoors, and on an industrial scale. The enormous growth in hydroponic agriculture has resulted in this type of production taking much of the winter market share for crops such as peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes. 

Hydroponically grown produce is sold without labels that tell consumers the products were grown using hydroponic methods, instead of in soil. Its proponents prefer to call it “container” production, in order to get around the USDA’s official postion on hydroponics:

Observing the framework of organic farming based on its foundation of sound management of soil biology and ecology, it becomes clear that systems of crop production that eliminate soil from the system, such as hydroponics or aeroponics, can not be considered as examples of acceptable organic farming practices. Hydroponics, the production of plants in nutrient rich solutions or moist inert material, or aeroponics, a variation in which plant roots are suspended in air and continually misted with nutrient solution, have their place in production agriculture, but certainly cannot be classified as certified organic growing methods due to their exclusion of the soil-plant ecology intrinsic to organic farming systems and USDA/NOP regulations governing them.

Our allies at Cornucopia Institute (who oppose organic certification for hydroponics), summed up the controversy and current situation like this:

The decision to delay the vote was a big win for the hydroponics lobby that wants to maintain the status quo. Currently some certifiers are allowing hydroponic operations to be labeled organic, while others do not because of a lack of guidance from the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP).

Language in the Organic Foods Production Act and the current federal regulations clearly indicate that good soil stewardship is a prerequisite to qualify for organic certification. In 2010 the NOSB reinforced the soil prerequisite by passing recommendations that reiterated the prohibition of hydroponic certification. The National Organic Program never acted on these recommendations.

Since then, an industry-friendly USDA has allowed some of the largest certifiers, including California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and Quality Assurance International (QAI), to certify hydroponically produced tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, and berries at an alarming rate.

A proposal to allow hydroponics at last week’s NOSB meeting would have overturned the board’s 2010 recommendation and would have required two-thirds of the 14 NOSB members present at the meeting to vote in its favor.

Consumers will have to wait until the next NOSB meeting, in spring 2017, for a decision on hydroponics in organic.

Patrick Kerrigan is retail coordinator and NOSB liaison for the Organic Consumers Association