GMOs in organic agriculture: public discussions begin in the US

The possibility of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) being allowed in organic agriculture, a topic previously considered unfathomable, has recently been the subject of public discussion at US government meetings.    

In 2019, Greg Ibach, the former US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs, suggested that it might be time to consider whether new technologies, such as gene editing, could be permitted in organic production.    

This issue resurfaced at the fall 2022 National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting in Sacramento, California.    

NOSB member Rick Greenwood raised the question of whether GMOs could play a role in the organic program's future. He highlighted the potential benefits of GMOs, such as root stock that can grow in arid climates and high salinity soils, which could help expand agriculture in regions like Africa and the desert. Greenwood also drew parallels between GMOs in agriculture and their life-saving applications in medicine.    

Jerry D'Amore, another NOSB member, agreed that the subject is worthy of an open-minded evaluation. Both members expressed concerns that without embracing the potential benefits of GMOs, organic agriculture may become less adaptive to changing climates and increased demand.    

Currently, GMOs are prohibited in organic production. However, the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 does not specifically mention biotechnology, genetic engineering, or genetically modified organisms. Any decision to allow GMOs in organic would likely come from the 15-member National Organic Standards Board, which could then recommend the change to the USDA.    

Opponents argue that allowing GMOs in organic agriculture would undermine the principles of organic farming and cause catastrophic harm to the USDA organic seal, damaging consumer trust in the industry.  As public discussions on the topic continue, organic brands must remain vigilant and engage in the conversation to ensure that the principles of organic farming are upheld.