T R A N S I T I ON S
by Steve Sprinkel
La Farge, Wisconsin
Anti-GMO Struggles Converge in mid-February
As if they had been planned for in advance, no fewer than six important events
from around the world came together with genetically modified agriculture as
the main focus. In the United Kingdom, press coverage on GMOs in the food
supply severely tested the strength of the Labor Government of Prime Minister
Tony Blair, while in Cartagena, Colombia, representatives from over 170
countries tried, and failed, to agree on an international protocol on
Biosecurity (see accompanying article, " Frankenstein Incorporated."
In Lincoln, Nebraska, The Organic Crop Improvement Association International
(OCIA) general membership dealt with a host of GMO-related issues that may
have a future impact on organic farmers and consumers. To demonstrate how dire
these circumstances are, it was proposed to OCIAís membership that the
international organic certifier adopt a number of even more restrictive
standards to assure that GMO contamination did not occur. Among those that did
not pass: that any harvesting or handling equipment to be used in organic
production should have not handled or harvested a GMO crop or product prior to
being used in organic production. So great is the concern over GMO
contamination, that some felt that it should be required that equipment be
exclusively dedicated to non-GMO production.
Some of these concerns were abated somewhat during a presentation to OCIA
members, given by Dr. John Fagan, an expert in crop genetics, who has
conducted extensive research on GMO food identification, at Genetic ID, his
facility in Fairfield, Iowa. Dr. Fagan said that " portions of the actual crop
have to be in an analyzed sample in order to identify genetically altered
organisms." Therefore, it now seems less likely that dust from GMO crop
residues are sufficient to have a certified organic crop rejected after
genetic analysis. But, as one quality assurance officer recently told me: "
nothing is for certain with this GMO business. Its like nuclear radiation."
This critical, new feature in maintaining organic integrity was underscored in
February when Wisconsinís Terra Prima, Inc., suffered huge losses when its
Apache Brands corn chips tested positive for genetically engineered corn,
despite tracing the corn to an organic grower in Texas. According to company
official Charles Walker, Terra Prima was forced to pull product from stores in
seven European countries when the contamination was discovered.
Dedicating equipment solely to organic production was argued to be impractical
by the OCIA majority, but in this Brave New Era of "novel foods", no one,
however competently trained, is absolutely certain about a technology that has
been proven to mutate on its own in nature.
Making The List
At the National Organic Standards Board meeting in Washington, DC in mid-
February, a comprehensive list of all GMO-derived natural production inputs
was formally created. Some in attendance were surprised that disallowing GMOs
also included materials from soybeans, corn and cotton crop residues that are
used in production as fertilizers. The shoe was suddenly on the other foot
when USDA National Organic Program Director Keith Jones reminded the board
that what the organic community said that they wanted was a complete ban on
GMOs under the organic label-and that there was no opportunity for any sort of
Checking It Twice
On the very same day, February 11th, in Lincoln, OCIA producer-members Jim
Gerritsen and John Simmons independently drafted pretty much the same list,
which was referred to the OCIA international standards committee. Similar
interpretations were discussed on February 28 at the annual meeting of the
Organic Growers and Buyers Association ( OGBA) a 450-member organic
certification organization headquartered in the Minneapolis area. Thirty seven
"naturals" are now affected by potential GMO contamination, from feed
supplements to soil inoculants to organic fertilizers and compost ingredients.
Animal Wastes: The Next Frontier
Conventional manure, from animals fed GMO feeds or grazed on GMO pastures, was
also a subject that was discussed, but without a clear conclusion. Dr. Fagan,
from Genetic ID, was uncertain about the long-term affects of GMO-based
manures applied to certified organic production fields. He did say that
identifiable "GMO crop residue remains and actually accumulates without
degradation" in fields where GMO crops have been grown for successive years.
The key issue is whether or not a successive crop will be contaminated because
it absorbs the DNA marker gene used in GMO production. No one knows, because
it may not have been studied. If it has been studied, the results have not
been published very widely. There are some soil and plant experts that believe
that plants do take up molecules rather than depending exclusively on ion-
exchange at the root zone. This may be the ultimate test of those theories.
Imagine for a moment that fields do remain contaminated where Roundup Ready or
Bt varieties have been grown. If you are a farmer involved in conventional as
well as organic production, it might make a bit of sense to not use the GMO
crops for a year or two to see how this struggle plays out. Better yet, donít
go there at all.
If you are an OCIA producer-member, you donít have to make the decision
independently. OCIA now requires that all members not plant GMO varieties on
their conventional acreage in transition or use any other GMO substance in
production. There is a market for non-GMO crop products that donít yet qualify
as organically produced. One facility in Illinois plans to handle a million
bushels of non-GMO conventional soybeans in 1999.
Greenpeace and the Thirty Versus the US EPA
In the midst of all the organic meetings and the GMO scandal in the United
Kingdom, Greenpeace ( plus thirty co-plaintiffs)filed their long-awaited
lawsuit against the US EPA. The suit calls for an injunction against the
release of further GMO crop or production substances, and charges EPA with
violating numerous federal laws and regulations. Charles Margulies, the
director of the Greenpeace Genetic Engineering Campaign was amazed at the
timely coincidence of so many negatives for multinational corporate/government
GMO proponents in so short a time-frame. From Health Canadaís rejection of
Monsantoís rBGH, to the month-long GMO blow-out in London, to the Cartagena
conference, to the Greenpeace filing, it gave many activists cause for
rejuvenation and rededication.
However, if you are an organic consumer or farmer, you have good reason for
feeling surrounded. If you are a strict non-GMO consumer, restaurants and most
processed foods are off-limits. And very strict attention must be continually
paid to processors and manufacturers of products that come under the organic
label. What may be sought eventually is a consumer-based drive to require Non-
GMO labeling on processed foods with the word "organic" on the label. The
NOSBís proposed alterations to the National List Procedure did not receive a
2/3 majority vote in the recent meeting, but there is little reason to think
that the processor-distributor sector wonít try again.
Not that this should be taken lightly. What was left standing were the non-
production processing substances that were erroneously placed on the List long
ago. There is no category for processing aids or non-ingredient substances.
Essentially, all such things were banned by law from being used in any product
that will be USDA certified organically produced.
For gardeners and farmers alike, seed sources are being heavily monopolized,
and if the Securities Exchange Commission wants to bite into a real issue, the
consolidation of the seed industry is ready to dig into.
And, if you are an organic farmer, a "Yield Gard" Bt corn crop a quarter of a
mile away may drop its pollen on your corn field if the wind is just right. If
you are growing organic cucumbers near GMO cotton or squash, the bees may
bring the contaminating genetics to your crop, flower by flower.
Some organic advocates proposed advertising in mainstream farm journals,
advising the conventional farm sector that GMO crops would cause "genetic
drift", and render certified organic crops unfit for the organic market. While
this may still happen in some regional journals, others argue that such a
warning to farm neighbors places the responsibility for contamination on the
wrong people, and that it would lead more to confrontation than to education.
Warnings to Monsanto, DeKalb, Mycogen, and Pioneer might be more appropriate.
I personally feel that it would be better to merely make the Risk Management
Division of the USDA Farm Service Agency aware of our problems, and to inquire
about crop insurance for genetic contamination. Sort of coverage against
genetic hail, if you will. As this issue goes to the printer, I havenít heard
back yet from the various officials to whom I posted this brief memorandum:
"Various organizations in the organic farming community are concerned about
the contamination of certified organically produced crops by accidental
pollination from genetically modified crops, chiefly, but not limited to,
organic corn, cotton and cucurbit crops for the 1999 season. Recently a
valuable consignment of certified organic corn chips was pulled from retail
stores in the EU after genetic analysis identified that the product contained
The certified organic corn crop in particular will be much more valuable this
coming season, owing to the fact that the USDA authorized an interim organic
meat label on 14 January. For the first time in decades, organic farmers will
have a vital reason to produce corn on a much larger scale. Previously, sweet
corn, food grade corn, pop corn and corn grown for oil processing were the
only markets that organic farmers could enjoy. Feed corn for organic livestock
will be planted on much greater acreages than before.
Some of you at USDA are aware of the field methods used in seed corn
production to assure that seed remains true. Seed producers, handlers and
vendors also take precautions to assure that individual corn varieties are
segregated at all times, from the field to end-user sales. This system is
somewhat illustrative of the quality assurance system utilized in certified
organic production. Organic crops are segregated in the field ( usually by no
more than 25-30 feet from where synthetics are applied to an adjacent
conventional crop) and strict handling protocols are followed which call for
careful cleaning of combines, field wagons, augers, bins, trucks and cleaning-
The most potentially threatening circumstance for certified organic production
is when that crop is grown in close proximity to a GMO crop. Corn pollen
frequently travels further than the obligatory 25-30 foot buffer area used in
organic certification. Bees and other insects pollinate cucurbits and cotton,
and the flight perimeter for these insects is dependably one mile and often
wider. In the various winter season meetings of organic producers, the
potential for contamination has been a frequent discussion piece. GMO
laboratory analysis for all crops, including organic crops, will become a more
routine practice in the export field, particularly to the EU and Japan.
Therefore, this is a preliminary query to USDA, asking for assistance in
determining how organic producers may obtain crop insurance for GMO
I hope that we can develop some conversation related to this recent
development. Genetically modified agriculture may severely compromise domestic
organic producers and markets as well as international trade.
Sincerely, Steve Sprinkel, vice president, Texas Organic Growers Association
You might try "putting a bug in the ear" of your local crop insurance
contacts, just to see how they react to such a proposal. The bottom line is
that there is no analytical tolerance set for GMO contamination. In the case
of synthetic chemicals, testing can determine if crops or soil have residues
within a parts-per-million allowance adhered to by most organic certification
organizations. If your corn or cotton seed is tested as positive for GMO,
there is no way to measure the amount of contamination. If the GMO markers are
there, they are there. As we learned in the case of the corn chips, the bag
may have said they were organic, but the lab said otherwise.
Until recently, IFOAM accreditation for organic certifiers was generally the
theater in which uniform organic standards for export were staged. The
International Federation of Organic Farming Movements, which has accredited a
number of US-based certifiers like California Certified Organic Farmers and
Oregon Tilth, is no longer the only traffic cop on the organic beat. For the
past year, certifiers, lead by the Organic Trade Association, have been trying
to formulate a private sector National Organic Standard, and an accreditation
system to monitor compliance. An entity called International Organic
Accreditation Services was proposed to perform the same functions as IFOAM and
to be have a formal relationship with IFOAM.
As we have discussed before, one crucial feature of the USDA National Organic
Program, was the accreditation of certifiers. Owing to the long-delayed
implementation of the Organic Foods Production Act, that accreditation
capability has also been stymied. It goes beyond paradox that while private
and public sector regulation has been in slow-motion, the production,
manufacture and distribution of organically produced products has broken every
speed limit ever posted.
However, a STOP signal has gone up recently at a crossroads we will reach at
the end of June, 1999.
That barrier will be imposed internationally, and according to Audrey Talley
of the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, the only way around it is if you
have ISO in your gas tank.
The International Standards Organization, based in Geneva Switzerland, has
managed manufacturing standards and certification compliance in many
industries for years. You may have seen the letters ANSI on a piece of
specialty equipment around the farm. ANSI is the ISO accreditation
organization here in the US. ANSI stands for the American National Standards
Institute, and they have been around since 1918, figuring out how to make sure
that electrical wiring, airplane bolts and load bearing devices all met the
same rigorous requirements.
According to USDA, the rules for organic export will, as of July 1st, be
maintained by ISO-compliant entities or the beans will not be unloaded. Who is
ISO compliant? Federal and state governments are, and some organic certifiers
are close, like Farm Verified Organic and Quality Assurance International.
The stumbling blocks to compliance are not insuperably complex, but they do
compromise the foundation of the grassroots organic certification movement in
the United States, right to the core. Basically, the three chief attributes
that cause a private certifier to not be ISO-compliant are: that any
certification agency can not operate on the basis of membership, that
certification decisions can not be made by a peer-review styled agency (
farmers certifying farmers is the conflict-of-interest issue here), and
lastly, that operating revenues can not be based on fees that are derived from
a percentage of sales.
If the three characteristics listed above describe how your certification
organization operates, you may need to put Lizzy in the shop for an overhaul.
Lizzy worked good on the organic backroads for years, but the old truck may
not make it up the onramp to that fancy ISO international freeway yonder. Now,
you can get back to the business of building a better domestic market, which,
ISO or no ISO, is always a good thing to work on, or you can swallow this ugly
regulatory pill. Or you may have to unload some of your durum pasta and
soybeans until the National Organic Program is rolling.
It is with a sense of relief that we note that the NOSB was created to be ISO
compliant, and that this model was generally imitated, for example, when Iowa
created its organic law last year. As a matter of fact, one shortcut proposed
by Ms. Talley at the FAS, is that state organic programs, such as those in
Texas, Colorado and Washington, self-certify to the USDA that they are ISO-
compliant, and additionally, that those state agencies also certify private
agencies operating within their legal geography as ISO compliant, once the
private organizations have re-organized themselves according to ISO 65. If you
operate in a state with an organic law and/or certification program, make
contact with those officials to find out what you can do to help push
accreditation of organic certifiers forward.
There are many on-going debates over which avenue to take besides ISO. OCIA
will continue to pursue IFOAM accreditation as well as work on ISO compliance,
and in addition seek accreditation from yet another Euro-based organization
called RVA. The Organic Trade Association is still pursuing the proposed
functions of the International Organic Accreditation Services, and yet these
deliberations are a day late, many dollars short, and still in search of that
illusive superiority of authority various claimed by USDA, IFOAM, and RVA. It
all boils down to who is in charge here. Besides the federal governmentís
authority, the labyrinth of trade rules and compliance, both private and
public, has never been made clear. On the first of July, it will be organic
farmers who have to pay for all the past intransigence and maneuvering.
The Good News
The new OCIA Iowa Chapter No.3, grew from 11 members to 70 in 1998, and nearly
forty more farmers are applying for certification this year. Illinois has 20
new applicants on its list. OGBA recorded a 100% increase in the number of
certification clients last year. Mark Schwartz, the founder of Little Bear
Trading Company and current chairman of the OGBA hopes that within a few years
they will be able to have an applicant inspected, reviewed and certified in a
matter of weeks. In order to make that happen, Mr. Schwartz taught himself
about computerization and is designing a web-based system for OGBA. John
Moore, the OCIA International executive director, reports that certification
turn-around time is improving, despite the fact that the number of applicants
continues to grow and some newly certified operations are much more complex
and take a greater amount of expertise to evaluate. Both Mr. Moore and current
OCIA president Dave Welch, a Nebraska organic farmer, have done an admirable
job of keeping OCIA on course after a few years of adversity. Fairfield, Iowa
organic grain producer Steve Hickenbottom is working towards formal
cooperation with growers in his area, and the same is true for Kevin Brussel
in Illinois, Fred Prow in Indiana, and Carmen Fernholtz in Minnesota. Allen
Moody an executive at Coulee Region Organic Production Pool in La Farge,
Wisconsin said recently that one of the biggest feathers in their cap is that
they shipped vegetables backwards last season- to California. The vegetables
rode west on a route lubricated by all that high quality Organic Valley
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