USDA Mulls Organic Gene-Altered Crops

By Pan Demetrakakes, Senior Editor

Jul 31, 2019

The Trump administration is apparently open to letting genetically modified, or bioengineered (BE), foods be classified as organic – a move that could complicate, if not roil, the organic market.

BE foods are now precluded from the organic label. Undersecretary of agriculture Greg Ibach testified before the House Agriculture Subcommittee earlier this month that the USDA might rethink that ban.

“I think there is the possibility to open the discussion to consider whether it is appropriate for some of these new technologies that include gene editing to be eligible to be used to enhance organic production,” Ibach said. Doing so would bring the benefits of BE crops, including insect and drought resistance and increased yield, to the organic market, he told the panel.

Ibach’s remarks were in line with the Trump administration taking a more permissive attitude toward BE foods, which is in line with its inclination to roll back regulations in general. President Trump signed in early June an executive order easing the approval process for BE crops and other agricultural technology.

Pushback on Ibach’s remarks was immediate. The Cornucopia Institute charged that allowing BE foods to be labeled organic would mostly benefit the large biotechnology companies that hold patents on most BE seeds. Genetically modified “seeds are not needed or wanted in organic agriculture,” the Institute declared in a blog post.

Label identification of BE foods will be mandatory at the beginning of 2022. Presumably that will stay in place even if BE food is allowed to be classified as organic. That will lead to a dilemma for farmers and many down the supply chain from them, including processors: Will many of the consumers who buy organic be put off by a BE label on organic products? Organic production requires a big commitment of time and resources, often years in advance, and anything that cuts into consumer acceptance would seriously upset return on investment.