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Should gene editing be part of organic production? USDA opens debate

July 30, 2019
Food & Drink

Greg Ibach, Under Secretary of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), has hinted that gene-editing methods should be allowed within organic production. The comments he made before the House Agriculture Subcommittee could lead to a loosening of the restrictive genetically modified organism (GMO) legislation, long-called for by both scientists and the Trump administration. Supporters of genetic engineering argue that it can be used to help increase production yield and nutrition at a time when food security is an increasing concern within the global food industry.

“As the National Organic Standards Board set the rules originally, GMOs are not eligible to be in the organic program. However, we’ve seen new technology, including gene-editing, that accomplishes things in shorter periods of time than a natural breeding process can. I think there is the opportunity 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 and to have drought and disease-resistant varieties, as well as higher-yield varieties available,” he says.

One of the hallmarks of the organic label is the prohibition of genetic engineering, meaning that this move would be drastic. Additionally, as biotechnology companies hold patents for their seeds, with four companies owning over 60 percent of global proprietary seed sales, it could be difficult to convince the organic seed growers to accept the technology. The Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association notes that organic seed promotes biodiversity, democratizes collective resources, celebrates seed quality over quantity and preserves agrarian tradition.

Meanwhile, in Europe, 126 research institutes have signed an open statement asking the European Court of Justice to reconsider the classification of gene-editing as GMO. The draconian laws require crops with even the smallest amount of CRISPR-mediated modification to conform to restrictive provisions. Boris Johnson, the new UK Prime Minister, has also echoed calls to relax laws related to genetically modified crops.

Much of the consumer suspicion around gene technology is focused around potential health fears, despite there being little evidence of any health impact. Additionally, many people perceive GMOs as unnatural, which is at odds with the current perception that natural and unadulterated diets lead to health and wellness. As a result, GMO-free claims are appearing most widely on products with an already natural or healthy profile.

By Katherine Durrell

Source: Food Ingredients First

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