The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the 15-member panel recommending organic policy to the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP), is expected to vote on whether to add three genetic engineering techniques to its list of excluded methods for organics.
The use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is prohibited in organic production and handling as excluded methods. Historically, such GE techniques involved cell fusion and recombinant DNA technology.
But, in November, the NOSB voted unanimously to approve a proposal on excluded methods terminology, which provides the first update in 21 years to definitions of technologies and methods used to genetically modify organisms such as synthetic biology, gene silencing and CRISPR-Cas.
And, with the rapid advancements in technology surrounding genetic engineering, the NOSB finds itself in a constant mode of vigilance to keep next-generation GE techniques out of organic production and handling, even if the footprint of such techniques are invisible in a finished product.
"We also understand that many of the new technologies do not lend themselves to testing. However, we still believe that the technology should be listed as an excluded method," reads a proposal by the NOSB's Materials/GMO subcommittee. "The Materials Subcommittee may put forward another discussion document to aid the NOP in determining how to enforce this prohibition when there is no means to test and prove an excluded method was used in production."
The proposal highlights three GE methods that have been determined to be considered an excluded method.
The first two are called cisgenesis and intragenesis and involve genetic manipulation within the same species, with cisgenesis being a method of gene insertion and intragenesis being a method of gene rearrangement. Transgenic modification involves introducing genes from other species.
The subcomittee's proposal said both cisgenesis and intragenesis "can create characteristics that are not possible within that individual with natural processes and can have unintended consequences."
The third is called agro-infiltration, where in vitro nucleic acids are introduced to plant leaves for infiltration. "The resulting plants could not have been achieved through natural processes and are a manipulation of the genetic code within the nucleus of the organism," the proposal reads.
The proposal also lists eight GE methods that require continued research. These include:
- Protoplast Fusion - There are many ways to achieve protoplast fusion and until the criteria about cell wall integrity is discussed, these technologies cannot yet be evaluated.
- Transposons - Used in animal vaccines. May be excluded in some situations but not others.
- Cell Fusion within Plant Family - The issue of detection of these varieties needs to be addressed before further policies can be adopted.
- Embryo rescue in plants - Many sources including Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) think this is not excluded but more study of the methods is needed
- Embryo transfer in animals(Embryo rescue in animals) - FiBL distinguishes embryo rescue in plants from animals
- TILLING or Eco-TILLING - Stands for Targeted Induced Local Lesions In Genomes. It is a type of mutagenesis combined with a new screening procedure.
- Doubled Haploid Technology - There are several ways to make double haploids and some do not involve genetic engineering but some do. Difficult to impossible to find using tests.
- Induced Mutagenesis - This is a very broad term and needs to be divided and classified based on what induces the mutations, chemicals, radiation, or other stresses.