Dean Bushey

Why Did the Organic Community Not Originally Adopt GMOs, and Now Gene Editing?

If you are worried about the chemicals that might be in your food, about long term sustainability of farms and their effect on the environment; and you also want food that is nutritious, healthy and at a reasonable price, then buying at the farmers market gives you a unique opportunity to get information about products straight from the producer.

The first stall you see has a huge pile of really nice looking sweet corn. The farmer selling her goods said this was grown in the next county from a new variety that she was able to purchase this year. Her farm decided to try this because they could grow this corn without plowing their field, since they have had some soil erosion issues the past few years from too much rain. She also adds that they didn’t have to apply insecticides or fungicides, so that was good, and she assures you that their family loved the taste of this variety. You decide to buy a dozen and head to the next booth.

The farmer at the next stall is selling apples and oranges. He explains that this is his first harvest from his new apple orchard that he planted with dwarf trees. He can grow more trees in less space and they don’t get the black spot disease that has been such a problem in this area, and he said you won’t believe this, but you can cut these apples in the morning for your kid’s lunch box and they won’t be brown by noon when they are ready to eat. They look great so you buy some.

He also has oranges which you have not seen lately because the citrus greening disease has killed all the trees in the area. You ask him how he managed to get oranges, and he explains that there is a new kind of tree that isn’t affected by this disease and the oranges are juicy and sweet. Wow, are the kids going to excited to have oranges again!

Dean Bushey
Dean Bushey
Dean Bushey,
Global Regulatory Manager for Research at Bayer Crop Science

The next stall has something your youngest has not been able to eat since he was a little over a year old when you discovered he’s allergic to peanuts. Now you see a stall that is selling peanuts and peanut butter products that claim to be allergen free. That seems too good to be true so you ask the young lady behind the bench how this is possible? She tells you it’s a new variety that doesn’t produce the proteins that cause the allergic response; otherwise, you would never know it is any different. You buy a small bottle and decide to ask the doctor if it is safe for your son.

You take your groceries and head for home feeling pretty good about the great fresh, local products you just bought.

So you pull into your driveway and your neighbor is also just getting home. You explain all the great things you just bought and how good you feel about following the local fresh market movement. It turns out that she is a plant scientist and has some knowledge about the new varieties that you mentioned and he says; “You know that they are not ‘organic’?!” She points out that they all have been genetically altered to produce these traits that you are so excited about and therefore are disqualified for use in certified organic production.

Why can’t an apple be organic and genetically engineered? Aren’t most of the plants we eat mutants of some original crop that has been selected over many years of cultivation?

The original US Organic Food Protection Act (OFPA) passed by congress in 1990 provided the USDA just three guidelines. First, to be organic, foods must be produced and handled without the use of synthetic chemicals. Second, the foods must not be produced on land that had had any prohibited substances, including synthetic chemicals, applied during the immediately preceding three years. Third, the foods must be produced and handled in compliance with an organic plan agreed to by the producer, the handler, and a certifying agent (See 7 U.S.C. 6504). The organic label was intended by US Department of Agriculture to be a marketing tool and not a statement by the government about food safety. The first legislation proposed in 1997 did not prohibit GMOs, it was not until the second proposed rule in 2000 when GMOs in organic production and handling was excluded. So how did the GMO exemption get into the legislation?

The mid-90s were a time when many new GM crops were being registered in the Americas and in Europe; over 40 between 1995 and 2000. Regulations, as with any new technology, were extensive because of a lack of experience and knowledge. The environmentalists picked up on the release of these new organisms into what they saw as a well-balanced ecosystem. The European consumers were also just recovering from the BSE (mad-cow disease) and other food-related scares which caused a complete distrust of their regulatory agencies. The precautionary principle was adopted by many countries and the anti-GMO movement had started. The US saw a growing acceptance that the consumer has the “right to know” about the food they eat. This latter issue was the beginning of over a decade of debate in the US over food labeling laws, leading ultimately to the prospect of new disclosure laws for GMO and “natural” food claims. Many of these factors led to the exclusion of GMO by the global certified organic community.

Flash forward 15-plus years, now we have millions of hectares of tested material, a multitude of studies, and billions of human experiences with no evidence of safety problems from GM crops. Can science, experience, and time now address the issues that were a concern in the late 1990s? How does emotion and opportunistic marketing get in the way of evolving our food supplies and ensuring affordable nutritious choices are available for consumers?

Innovative plant breeding methods like gene editing, marker assisted breeding, gene knock-outs, etc. offer new opportunities to address consumer choice needs and improve seeds for organic food production. Questions are being raised as to their fit for organic laws and certification standards. With them an opportunity to have a transparent and open discussion, to inform and engage society and policy makers, and make sure that the decisions we take for the future are driven by science and passionately embraced.

The global organic produce market was valued in 2015 at $72 billion USD with 43 million hectares of organic agricultural land worldwide. By 2020 the organic food and beverage market is expected to reach $211 billion USD. In 2015, after 20 years of commercial cultivation, the net farm income benefit of GM crops is estimated as $168 billion USD from 181 million hectares planted annually worldwide. Bayer supplies organic, conventional and GM seeds to selected markets and supports informed consumer choice.

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