January 9, 1998
The proposed rule to implement the Organic Foods Production Act has left the door open to use genetically engineered organisms in organic production. It has opened this door despite the fact that the National Organic Standards Board voted, almost unanimously, to prohibit the use of GEOs in organic production and handling systems. USDA has invited comment on the issue.
USDA and the National Organic Standards Board have seemingly arrived a different conclusions with respect to GEOs because they used different perspectives. USDA justified its position to consider the inclusion of this technology on the following basis:
In the time since the OFPA was passed, GEOs and their products have assumed a more significant role in agricultural production. The policy of the United States Government is that GEOs and their products should be regulated based on risk, not on how they are produced. (65875)
In other words USDA wants to include GEOs in organic systems because the technology is prevalent in other agricultural systems and because it's policy determines the use of materials in agricultural systems based on the level of risk.
The NOSB, on the other hand, voted to ban the technology because it determined that it was inconsistent with organic principles. USDA wants to decide the issue on the basis of "risk", the NOSB wants the issue decided on the basis of "appropriateness".
USDA's position is curious. In the first place the Organic Foods Production Act makes it clear that this is an agricultural production act, not a food safety act. It was this determination that put the legislation into the hands of the USDA instead of the FDA. The purpose of the Act is to "establish an organic certification program" to differentiate agricultural products "using organic methods".(OFPA 6503) It was not the purpose of the Act to assess risks or to promulgate a different food safety standard.
Furthermore, the proposed rule defines a system of organic farming and handling as:
"a system that is designed and managed to produce agricultural products by the use of methods and substances that . . .[use] . . .'where possible', cultural, biological and mechanical methods, as opposed to using substances, to fulfill any specific function within the system . . ."(65868)
This definition establishes the fact that what distinguishes an organic production system from a conventional one is the method of production (the organic system using cultural, biological and mechanical methods, instead of exogenous inputs) and that any deviation from that method must be justified based on need (i.e. where those methods are not "possible".
That definition is consistent with the NOSB's position regarding GEOs. The NOSB determined that GEOs were not integral to a natural biosystems method, that they were exogenous inputs and that they were not "necessary" to organic production.
While risk assessment may be a crucial function with respect to GEOs, especially ecological risks, such assessment has nothing to do with whether or not they are appropriate to organic production.
Furthermore, risk assessment in public policy has always been conducted using toxicological, rather than ecological methodologies. So the kind of risk assessment that would be conducted by public agencies (FDA, EPA, USDA) would not be appropriate to organic production, since organic production, as indicated in the above definition, is an ecological production system.
At the very least, if the USDA insists on imposing its risk assessment policy on the organic program, it must use a panel of scientists consisting of ecologists and evolutionary biologists, not toxicologists. As an ecological production system, organic agriculture relies on different branches of science. The research needed to determine the risks of GEOs for organic production must be based on potential ecological and biospheric disruptions, not just food safety or on farm risks.
Furthermore, the organic movement has always used a precautionary, rather than a risk assessment approach. In other words it has always operated on the old wisdom that it is better to be safe than sorry. This philosophy undoubtedly emerged from the experience of working with nature in agriculture. Organic farmers have known for decades that one can never know or anticipate all of the intricate interrelationships of nature, and so they have learned from experience that it is better to mitigate risks than to assume that one can assess them.
At the very least the organic community deserves some consistency between definition and implementation in this rule, and some respect for the century of experience that organic farmers bring to this ecological production system.
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Last Updated on 5/24/99
By Karen Lutz