Current "organic" agricultural practices are arbitrary and in many ways, primitive, and organic standards unnecessarily restrict consumer choice. That could be remedied by expanding what is permitted under "organic" standards.
The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 required USDA to develop national standards for the production of "organic foods" because of consumer demand for food that was supposedly more healthful and produced with more sustainable farming methods than traditional farming. However, the national standards adopted in 2000 do not improve food safety, quality or nutrition – nor were they intended to. When the final National Organic Standards were issued in 2000, Secretary Dan Glickman said, "Let me be clear about one thing: the organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety, nor is 'organic' a value judgment about nutrition or quality." A successor, former Secretary of Agriculture, John Block, observed in 2014, "Yet USDA's own research shows consumers buy higher priced organic products because they mistakenly believe them safer and more nutritious."
In fact, often consumers' purchases are not truly organic at all. In two articles last year, the Washington Post's Peter Whoriskey exposed the dubiousness of the organic label and the alarming trend of fraudulent organic grains being imported here. For his May 1 article, "Why your 'organic' milk may not be organic," Whoriskey tracked a few milk producers to see whether they followed the Department of Agriculture's strict but weakly enforced guidelines for organic certification. Organic milk can cost twice as much as conventional milk, and, as Whoriskey observed, "if organic farms violate organic rules, consumers are being misled and overcharged."
The Post surveilled Aurora Organic Dairy—a major milk supplier for house organic brands sold by retailers such as Walmart and Costco—and found that the company appeared to violate rules about how often the cows were grass-fed, a key differential between conventional and organic milk production. The Post had several organic milk samples tested to measure for two fats that are more prevalent in organic milk (although in amounts inconsequential to human health), and most fell short.
Whoriskey reported that the integrity of the organic label rests on "an unusual system of inspections" that the head of the USDA's organic program calls "fairly unique." Organic producers pay a private inspector, approved by the USDA, to certify their products as organic; the agency checks in on those inspectors every few years. The USDA has only 82 certified inspection firms to supervise a massive organic supply chain of more than 31,000 farms and businesses worldwide. This leaves plenty of room for error and outright cheating and fosters a pay-to-play climate that benefits producers and inspectors at the expense of unwitting consumers.
The burgeoning organic market has also created a huge demand for imports in the United States. Most alarming is the importation of supposedly organic grains to be used as animal feed, from Ukraine, Turkey, India, and China, countries with dubious food-safety standards and enforcement.
But the Post's investigation shed doubts on the authenticity of these imported "organic" grains. In his May 12 article, Whoriskey reveals how 36 million pounds of soybeans from Ukraine, shipped through Turkey to California in 2016, "underwent a remarkable transformation" from conventional to organic. The fraud increased the value of the beans by $4 million, since organic grains sell for more than non-organic. Whoriskey found that at least 21 million pounds of the phony organic soybeans had already entered the food supply. And the Post reported on two other fraudulent shipments of organic grains in the past year that "were large enough to constitute a meaningful proportion of the U.S. supply of those commodities. All three were presented as organic, despite evidence to the contrary."
USDA reported that in 2016, U.S. farms and ranches sold $7.6 billion in (supposedly) certified organic commodities, up 23 percent from $6.2 billion the year before. Of 2016 sales, 56 percent was for crops ($4.2 billion), and the remaining 44 percent was for livestock, poultry, and related products.
The growth of organic foods, however, has not had a corresponding bump up in innovation to improve safety, quality or nutrition. In fact, evidence suggests just the opposite -- a lowering of food safety, quality and nutrition, and continuing burdens of organic production on the environment, especially its excessive use of water and arable land. Moreover, organic crop yields are typically lower and their retail prices significantly higher.
While progress in organic agriculture has been largely stagnant, innovation based on precise molecular techniques for the genetic improvement of food crops and food processing has been occurring in much of the world. This genetic engineering – primarily of commodity crops but increasingly of some specialty crops -- has contributed to more efficient, sustainable food production, and also to the introduction of traits appealing to consumers.
Crop plants have been genetically engineered (aka "genetically modified," or "bioengineered") to be fortified with important vitamins and minerals and to be drought-, flood-, pest-, disease- and herbicide-resistant, requiring less spraying of insecticides and other inputs and increasing yields. Likewise, animals can be genetically engineered to be more nutritious and disease-resistant, and to impose less stress on the natural environment (for example, by producing less-toxic manure). Such plant and animal innovations are critical not only to meet the global need for improved food quality and availability, but also for adaptation to the challenges of increasing population and a changing climate.
The original draft of the National Organic Standards proposed by USDA did not exclude crops improved with molecular genetic engineering techniques, or "GMOs," from organic practices as long as they met the specified organic production standards. But ultimately, in response to a deluge of anti-genetic engineering public comments from organizations and individuals, including the organic industry, which sought to prevent market share gains by the nascent plant biotechnology companies -- and because of anti-biotechnology sentiment in USDA's political leadership -- USDA used its discretion to exclude genetically engineered products from the definition of organic food.
Accordingly, by definition the 2000 National Organic Standards prohibit the use of the USDA Organic Label on food varieties derived from organisms created with molecular genetic engineering techniques, even when the foods are otherwise grown with complete fidelity to the requirements of organic production.
That exclusion is perhaps the most irrational aspect of the organic standards. Except for wild berries and wild mushrooms, virtually all the fruits, vegetables and grains in our diet have been genetically improved by one technique or another, including through what are called wide crosses, which move genes from one species or genus to another in ways that do not occur in nature. The newer, molecular techniques are just more precise and predictable extensions, or refinements, of earlier techniques for genetic modification.
The prohibition of "genetically engineered, organically produced" crops denies consumers nutritionally improved foods, such as rice fortified with the precursor of vitamin A; canola oil with enhanced levels of omega-3 fatty acids; apples that don't turn brown when cut; and potatoes that are bruise-resistant (and therefore, reduce waste) and have lower levels of the precursor of acrylamide, a carcinogen produced by cooking at high temperatures.
Thus, the exclusion from organic agriculture of plants made with molecular genetic engineering forfeits the benefits of higher yields and lower environmental burdens, explicit goals of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.
A major reason for the exclusion of GE products from the organic definition was to make organic food acceptable to consumers who did not want GE products at a time when the U.S. government did not require them to be specifically labeled. The FDA had determined that the process by which GE plant foods were improved did not in itself raise nutritional or safety concerns and so labeling was not required unless safety issues were raised by the product. Thus, as far as the U.S. government was concerned, there was no compelling reason or a requirement to label GE food products. Nevertheless, responding to pressure from activists and the organic and natural foods industries, several states enacted laws requiring GE food labeling, thus creating disparate labeling requirements, which would have created a significant problem for the industry. That led in 2016 to Congress passing a preemptive disclosure law that required USDA to establish a national policy for labeling "bioengineered" food.
The disclosure law does not in any way alter the current National Organic Standards, but it does provide an opening for the Secretary of Agriculture to consider modifying the definition of organic to include genetically engineered food, as originally proposed almost 30 years ago: Sec. 293 (f) of the labeling, or disclosure, law requires USDA to "consider establishing consistency between — (1) the national bioengineered food disclosure standard established under this section; and (2) the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (7 U.S.C. 6501 et seq.) and any rules or regulations implementing that Act."
With the ongoing oversight of regulatory agencies and the disclosure requirements for bioengineered food products, arguably they should now be eligible for the USDA organic seal if they comply with the requirements of both the National Organic Standards and the new bioengineered-food disclosure standards. No longer would consumers be denied the choice of purchasing food that is both organic and genetically engineered. As noted above, many of the latter increasingly boast traits and characteristics with palpable benefits to consumers, including biofortification of plants with vitamins and minerals, more healthful vegetable oils, leaner meats and reduced levels of allergens.
If consumers who protested the inclusion of bioengineered food within the "organic" definition three decades ago remain opposed, they could simply refuse to purchase organic products bearing the "bioengineered" label. For the rest of us, there is no reason we should be denied the opportunity.
USDA's proposed rule, the public comment period for which closed on August 25, 2017, posed questions relevant to the development of the bioengineered disclosure standard. However, those questions were formulated by the Obama Administration and it is unclear whether they represent the policy positions of the Trump Administration. Not included in the questions was any consideration of how the disclosure requirements of Sec.293(f) would relate to the National Organic Standards.
If consumers who protested the inclusion of bioengineered food within the "organic" definition three decades ago remain opposed, they could simply refuse to purchase organic products bearing the "bioengineered" label. There is no reason that others should be denied the opportunity to partake of "organic bioengineered" products.
Interestingly, the inclusion of gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR, which does not usually involve the insertion of "foreign" DNA, has been endorsed by a prominent a prominent voice in the organic movement. Klaas Martens, a third-generation grain and livestock farmer, who has farmed organically for more than a quarter-century, said he would be open to gene editing: "If it could be used in a way that enhanced the natural system, and mimicked it, then I would want to use it."
The Trump Administration should direct USDA to comply with Section 293(f) by amending the National Organic Standards to permit the inclusion of crops, animals and microorganisms (for example, to produce yogurt or alcoholic beverages) modified with the most precise and predictable genetic techniques. That would firmly establish the United States as the world's pacesetter in the creation of a new, welcome category of agricultural products that are both organic and bioengineered. It would favor consumer choice and encourage more sustainable agricultural practices.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology. John J. Cohrssen is an attorney who has served in a number of government posts in the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, including as counsel to the White House Biotechnology Working Group, associate director of the President's Council on Competitiveness, and counsel for the House Energy and Commerce Committee.