Identify Crops Derived from Biotechnology, Support Organic Production As A Choice: The Organic Trade Association’s comment on the marketing of crops derived from biotechnology
Docket Number FGIS-2000-001a
Submitted by Tom Hutcheson,
Associate Policy Director
February 28, 2001
The Organic Trade Association (OTA) is pleased to have the opportunity to comment on the questions raised in this advance notice of proposed rulemaking.
Adopting for this comment the terms used in the notice, OTA will use the term “biotechnology-derived” as synonymous with “genetically engineered” and “genetically modified.” These terms include 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. As these techniques involve the breaking of chemical bonds, the resulting product is considered synthetic for the purposes of organic production and the techniques used are therefore considered methods which are excluded by definition from organic production (unless specifically recommended by the National Organic Standards Board and subsequently approved by the National Organic Program). Such methods include cell fusion, microencapsulation and macroencapsulation, and recombinant DNA technology (including gene deletion, gene doubling, introducing a foreign gene, and changing the positions of genes when achieved by recombinant DNA technology).
The key point for OTA is that the marketing of organic products by USDA be treated equally as crops derived from biotechnology. The final rule for the National Organic Program, effective February 20, 2001 [TMD-00-02-FR] established the place of organic production, labeling and marketing within USDA. As crops derived from biotechnology are prohibited from organic production, OTA is concerned that USDA avoid even the appearance of favoring one production method over the other. Therefore, OTA requests that the value of any marketing by USDA of crops derived from biotechnology be equal in value to the marketing by USDA of organic products.
In order to “lend order to the development of voluntary identity preservation and product segregation procedures,” OTA believes that USDA should support vigorously all voluntary segregation practices, at least until segregation becomes mandated by law, and should develop programs to train agricultural handlers in segregating grains and produce. In addition, USDA should financially support testing for GMOs so that identity preservation can be achieved.
OTA also notes, regarding the statement that biotechnology crops have value added, that organic products are also value-added products, as the high level of education and advanced skills—including environmental protection skills—required of the organic producer add enough value for consumers to pay considerably more for organic product than for its conventional counterpart. If value is really added to biotechnology crops, OTA wonders why those crops have not seemed to garner additional profit for their growers in the marketplace. Also, if biotechnology crops have added value, then they are not substantially equivalent to other crops and should be labeled—if only to indicate to consumers the presence of this added value in the marketplace.
1) In light of changes in the marketplace brought about by biotechnology, what specific programs or processes are being used to market grains, oilseeds, fruits, vegetables, and nuts in the domestic, export, and import markets? Please be specific, and include information on obstacles encountered in marketing these products.
Organic products, including grains, oilseeds, fruits, vegetables, and nuts, have been marketed for many more years than products which use biotechnology-derived ingredients.
Changes in the marketplace are only one aspect of the changes brought about by the introduction of this new technology. For organic producers, the production of organic product has been affected as well, because the use of biotechnology has made organic production more difficult. In fact, certain lots of organic product have lost value because of the proximate production or use of biotechnology-derived crops and the subsequent contamination of organic product.
As questions have arisen regarding the ecological wisdom of growing and eating foods derived from biotechnology, some concerned consumers have turned to organic foods. Nonetheless, due to the possibility of contamination by pollen drift or other means, OTA does not recommend that its members market any product as “GMO-free”.
OTA considers the lack of mandatory labeling of biotechnology-derived products—which leaves the provenance of the non-protein derivatives of such products unknown—a very serious obstacle to the effective marketing of organic products.
2) What additional costs and benefits are generally associated with the practices being used to market grains, oilseeds, fruits, vegetables, or nuts? Please provide details and quantifiable cost and benefit estimates.
The relatively new biotechnology industry needs standardization, transparency, and full disclosure of conflicts of interest. The costs for segregating crops derived from biotechnology, and for responsibly marketing those crops and their products, should be borne by biotechnology producers and users, not those who do not wish to participate in the biotechnology food stream.
3) Would a set of U.S. standards upon which to base IP or other marketing systems facilitate market development? If so, are there any specific national or international standards or guidelines that should serve as the basis for the U.S. standards? What role should USDA have in establishing these standards?
Current IP crops have as much as 2% variability (not including GMO contamination) in their genes, though seeds with the claim “GMO-free” may do better at present, as there is not yet a uniform background presence of GMO pollen in the US and there are still many crops without GM varieties.
Europe’s 1% tolerance for GMOs is a very strict standard and might not be regularly achievable without accompanying policies such as liability for GMO drift or mandatory neighbor notification of GM crop plantings. If such policies were put into place, a 1% tolerance would be satisfactory to OTA.
USDA should propose a standard based on research which compares pollination conditions and both spatial and temporal planting patterns in the US to those parameters in Europe and elsewhere. Europe’s 1% tolerance should then be adjusted appropriately.
4) As more certifying companies and organizations evolve to review and verify the performance of food company IP systems, should USDA have a role in the accreditation of these certifying companies and organizations? Would a USDA accreditation of these certifying companies and organizations serve to facilitate marketing?
Yes; this is the only way consumers can be assured of the validity of test results. In so doing, however, USDA should not abdicate its responsibility for reviewing and verifying segregation measures in the operations of companies that threaten IP—the producers and handlers of genetically-modified foods and food products.
If USDA were to accredit such companies, many consumers would benefit from the choice being made available in this way. But the burden would remain on the non-biotechnology producers and handlers.
5) USDA is in the process of developing a program for accrediting qualified commercial and public laboratories for the analytical detection of grains and oilseeds derived from biotechnology. Should USDA expand this program for other commercialized crops? Should USDA include laboratories outside the United States in the accreditation program? If so, how would this help facilitate the marketing of U.S. crops?
All products of biotechnology should be detectable by qualified laboratories, including legumes, tubers, fruits, and vegetables. Any accreditation must recognize that as assessment techniques are refined, new methods must be able to be used as soon as they have been accepted by the scientific community. Peer review of new techniques should be sufficient to allow an accredited laboratory to use those new techniques.
If USDA were to operate an international program, the importation of non-biotechnology ingredients would be significantly facilitated. This would aid the organic industry.
US producers should not be put at risk because of non-accredited testing in a foreign country. Products sold under accredited testing programs should be universally recognized as being what they claim to be. This recognition would especially help facilitate the export of non-biotechnology crops.
6) Should USDA provide, for a fee, direct product certification for crops derived from biotechnology based on an audit-based quality assurance process? Should the same be done for other crops?
USDA should require that all products derived from biotechnology be identified as such in the marketplace, but certification of the process by USDA is not necessary. Certification by non-governmental entities should be allowed, and any certification that is done should be in compliance with ISO Guide 65.
The future of the organic industry is at risk without a way of segregating GMOs. This program is essential in order for organic producers to have recourse in the case of contamination. Any additional criteria for this biotechnology certification are outside the scope of this comment, but no statement should be allowed which implies that foods produced from biotechnology are better or safer than any other food.
For other crops, the service should be available but voluntary. The issue at hand is crops derived from biotechnology, and it is the precipitous marketing of those crops which is causing problems for the organic industry.
7) Should USDA provide direct analytical detection services and certification for crops derived from biotechnology? Should the same be done for other crops?
Yes, unquestionably. Without this service, producers of IP crops and organic products may be unable to perform their mission successfully, as they do not currently have the tools to be duly diligent in the segregation of their products from the products of biotechnology. Requiring organic producers to take on that task would be overly burdensome to the organic industry, and USDA should not hold policies which increase the difficulty of organic production. This certification should be in compliance with ISO Guide 65.
For other crops, the service should be available but voluntary. As above, the issue at hand is crops derived from biotechnology, and it is the precipitous marketing of those crops which is causing problems for the organic industry.
8) If USDA involvement (e.g., standards, certifying agent verification, direct certification, testing, etc.) is necessary, at what point of the marketing system should such involvement begin and end?
All products of agricultural biotechnology should be labeled throughout the food system. This should be mandated for all producers of agricultural biotechnology products. If this system were in place, there would be no need for the certification of non-biotechnology products as such. Organic producers are proud and eager to label their foods, as the value added by organic producers translates into significant price increases in the market.
9) How should a fee structure be determined for such services?
The biotechnology industry should pay for all costs associated with production, distribution, and marketing. Given those necessary conditions, OTA has no comment on how those fees should be structured.
10) Should such involvement be limited to U.S.-produced crops or expanded to imported crops?
USDA should do whatever is necessary to identify and label imported biotechnology crops.
11) Should USDA establish definitions of crops derived from biotechnology or for crops not derived from biotechnology as part of the current U.S. quality grades and standards? If so, what technical capabilities, resources, data, etc., would USDA require?
There never has been a need to define crops not derived from biotechnology, and there is not one now. The only needs are to define crops derived from biotechnology and to distinguish them in the marketplace.
USDA should use the definition in the final rule for the National Organic Program: Biotechnology includes “…methods used to genetically modify organisms or influence their growth and development by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes…. Such methods include cell fusion, microencapsulation and macroencapsulation, and recombinant DNA technology (including gene deletion, gene doubling, introducing a foreign gene, and changing the positions of genes when achieved by recombinant DNA technology.”
USDA should also ban for human consumption any food product which is the result of cloning.
Addendum: USDA welcomes your comments on these and other relevant issues related to the marketing of grains, oilseeds, fruits, vegetables, and nuts in today's evolving marketplace.
OTA would like to stress that whatever resources are dedicated to crops derived from biotechnology, an equal amount of resources should be dedicated to organic agriculture. There is no reason to promote one product at the expense of another. Crops derived from biotechnology are potentially quite harmful to organic crops, both through pollen drift and through ecological effects such as increased insect resistance to Bt toxins.