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 Knowledge for the CommonWealth

USDA's Rule on Organic Agriculture and Biotechnology

Crop and Soil Environmental News, September 1998

Charles Hagedorn
Extension Biotechnology Specialist

The National Organic Program (NOP)
In December 1997, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued the National Organic Program (NOP), which established standards for organic agricultural products. Although the U. S. organic food industry has for a long time demanded a federal organic standard, they have now rejected USDA's proposed organic rule. In its present version, the proposed rule would allow the application of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into organic agricultural practices. The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) formulates one of the definitions for organic principles that are widely agreed on.

Development of the NOP
IFOAM is an international body that serves as a forum to exchange knowledge on organic agriculture. It sets and regularly revises organic standards. These standards distinguish organic from high-input farming based on their distinctively different agricultural practices. Organic systems use cultural, biological and mechanical methods instead of inputs such as chemical fertilizers or pesticides wherever possible. Any deviation from that method must be justified on the basis of need. For example, synthetic pheromone traps with substances to attract insects, have always been allowed in organic production since these traps are a sustainable tool in monitoring and controlling insect populations. According to the IFOAM principles, organic systems have demonstrated that production and processing has been possible without GMOs. Therefore, there can be no demonstrated need for GMOs in these systems. For instance, Bacillus thuringiensis, (Bt) has for many years been used as a biopesticide in organic agriculture to control infestations by lepidopteran insects such as caterpillars. For IFOAM, organic agriculture has no need for transgenic crops, which express the same anti-lepidopteran protein. The proposed federal organic program would have allowed transgenic crops as part of the NOP standards.

The Organic Food Community
The organic industry in the US consists of certified growers, processors, manufacturers, and distributors of organic foods and fibers. Since 1990, sales have increased yearly by 20 percent, reaching US $3.2 billion in 1996. The sales of organically produced dairy products have even increased by more than 100 percent per year. Since there are differences in the standards of the 33 private certifiers and between state agencies, a federal organic standard was requested by consumers, environmentalists and the US organic industry. The evolution of a regulation on organic food started in 1990 when the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) was passed by the US Congress as part of the 1990 Farm Bill. The OFPA is a production practices regulation. This means that it was designed to monitor the way food is produced, rather than monitor food safety. As a consequence, it was put under the jurisdiction of the USDA. However, the implementation of the OFPA has to be ruled by the NOP. The NOP is intended to establish national standards for the organic production and handling of agricultural product as well as a certification system and labeling requirements. Therefore, in 1992 the OFPA mandated the creation of a National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to advise the USDA in the formulation of the proposed rule.

The NOSB is composed of 15 members representing the food processing industry, farmers, consumers, and environmental organizations. It is a Federal Advisory Board that is authorized to determine which materials are allowed in the National List of materials for use in organic production and processing. The NOSB advised the USDA to exclude GMOs from organic food production. The NOSB submitted its final recommendations to the Secretary of Agriculture in 1996. The draft for an NOP was subsequently reviewed by various federal bureaucracies, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The proposed rule was published in December 1997. The proposed rule went through the public comment period in 1998.

Response to the NPO Draft
When the USDA released its draft for an NOP in December 1997, the organic industry was unpleasantly surprised to find that the draft includes possible use of GMOs in organic production and processing, despite the NOSBs recommendation of prohibition. NOSB based its decision that GMOs are inappropriate for organic agriculture on the principle consideration that organic agriculture functions by using natural ecosystems rather than exogenous technologies. However, USDA wanted to include GMOs in organic systems because it is the policy of the United States Government that GMOs and their products should be regulated based on risk, not on how they are produced. USDA's position was in contradiction with the purpose of the OFPA to establish an organic certification program that would differentiate agricultural products using organic methods. However, if allowance of GMOs in organic systems were based on risk assessment, a different form of risk assessment would have to be applied.

Usually, US government agencies apply toxicological methods for the assessment of risks. As USDA's own definition stipulates, organic systems are ecological systems. Consequently, instead of a toxicological approach, an ecological risk assessment that determines ecological disruption would have to be applied. In organic agriculture, a risk assessment approach has always been rejected. It is feared that the knowledge of anticipating all of the possible interrelationships of ecosystems is still too limited. Instead, a precautionary principle is pursued based on the assumption that it is better to reduce risks than to assume that one can assess and control them.

The proposed NOP rule led to other controversies as well. For instance, the USDA also considered allowing the irradiation of organic food, a process that uses ionizing radiation to kill bacteria in food. Furthermore, USDA considered the application of sewage sludge (biosolids) as a field fertilizer, and the use of numerous products, such as potassium sulfate and Chilean nitrate. These substances have traditionally been prohibited in organic farming and food production systems. Also, the NOP proposal eliminated the "restricted use" category. This category is traditionally used by organic certifiers and limits the use of certain materials, for instance pesticides that are generated from certain plant species. The proposed NOP also had lenient animal husbandry standards. It allowed for landless animal husbandry, which is strictly forbidden in organic production by IFOAM standards. Antibiotics were to be allowed, requiring only the same withdrawal periods established by the FDA for conventional livestock. Traditionally, organic certifiers have required at least double the FDA withdrawal times, or not allowed the use of antibiotics at all. The rule also did not specifically prohibit materials derived from dead livestock or wastes from livestock slaughter, processing or rendering facilities. These materials are suspected to be the leading cause of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, like "mad cow" disease.

Public Comment and USDA's Response
During the 1998 public comment period, organic certifiers, growers, and manufacturers are virtually unanimous in their opposition to the NOP proposal. Consumer organizations such as the Pure Food Campaign criticized the NOP proposal because it explicitly prohibits private certification programs from exceeding the federal organic standard. Certifiers that are willing to apply more rigid criteria to organic production, for instance by excluding GMOs would not be allowed to use their private, distinctive certification mark. In the US, labeling of food produced by GMOs is not compulsory. When GMOs are introduced in standards of organic agriculture, this would limit consumer choice since there would be no guarantee for food free from GMOs. Additionally, US organic production standards, as proposed in the rule, would not meet international organic standards, such as those of IFOAM, the European Union (EU), or the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC). Since the USDA proposed rule did not allow US private certifiers to exceed the standard established by USDA, it would make it impossible for US certifiers to provide the necessary proof of equivalence to the EU standard.

The USDA was, therefore, considering that US based certifiers could certify to two different standards, one for the US and one for the EU. However, this was not made clear in the rule. Most likely, importers would require that products destined for the EU be screened for equivalency on a lot by lot basis. Several US based international private certifiers indicated that they would not abandon their own organic standards. If forced by US regulation to do so, they would probably consider moving their headquarters out of the US. The proposed rule also required that products imported into the US be at least equivalent to the US standard. If the rule had been enacted as proposed, the USA could have become a market for products that did not meet other international organic standards, and, therefore, could not have entered most other international markets under the organic label.

During the public comment period, USDA received an unprecedented 230,000 comments, predominately negative. As a result of these comments, Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman announced this past summer that USDA will fundamentally revamp the NOP rule and exclude genetic engineering, biosolids, and irradiation from organic agriculture. The response to the Secretary's announcement has been positive but cautious. The National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, the Organic Trade Organization, and the Consumers Union have all commended the Secretary for his statement, but also emphasized how far USDA will have to go to produce a rule acceptable to the entire organic community. Beyond the three main items of controversy are many other important and difficult issues, including restoring the role of the NOSB, strengthening livestock standards, and eliminating the bias against small- and medium-sized operations. The organic community has warned that failure to repair these and other critical defects will render a rewritten rule that is once again unacceptable.

At present, attention has now shifted to the process USDA will use as it rewrites the NOP rule. Many of those who generated comments are insisting that USDA establish an open process that includes a strong role for the NOSB.

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