Will FDA Alter the GMO Argument for Organic?


By Melody Meyer, UNFI

Why do consumers buy certified organic food? They cite the avoidance of persistent insecticides, herbicides and hormones, and to protect the health of their families and the environment. Another significant guarantee the organic label provides consumers is the lack of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs in organic production. A new initiative by U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and USDA aims to change public perception on GMO’s. How could the organic label be affected?

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The FDA recently announced that they will spend $3,000,000 with USDA to provide education and outreach to the public on the safety and benefits of crop biotechnology and food and animal feed ingredients derived from biotechnology.  Their goal is to inform consumers on the “positive” environmental, nutritional, food safety, economic, and humanitarian impacts of agricultural biotechnology and their benefits.

 But according to Dr. Charles Benbrook, a national food and Ag policy expert and Visiting Scholar in the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, “The FDA did not seek this funding nor does it relish the task, but as everyone knows in Washington D.C., the Congress controls agency budgets and the tasks that go along with federal funding.”

Questions abound over why, in an era when the federal government is supposed to be shrinking, along with the deficit, are public funds needed to educate the public about the benefits of a multi-billion dollar industry?

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And then there are issues about fairness and priorities. “FDA and USDA would better serve consumers by spending resources on educating the public about the benefits of organic farming, which does not rely on the toxic herbicides that many GMOs are designed to withstand.” said Kelly Damewood, Director of Policy & Government Affairs for CCOF.

Consumers have had reservations about GMOs, since their introduction in the 1990’s.  These concerns have grown with the increase of traditional transgenic GMO’s and their reliance on higher levels of increasingly toxic synthetic pesticides and herbicides. These concerns have nurtured the sales of organic and Non-GMO products. Will this well-documented dynamic be among the topics FDA educates consumers about?

New gene editing techniques like CRISPR-Cas9 and TALEN are purported to mimic traditional breeding techniques. They make it possible for scientists to make relatively precise changes within a single organism, by-passing the old GMO technologies that involve mixing genes from foreign species.

Organic Ag Products - Medium Rectangle

Both the private sector and FDA want to introduce these new GMO products to consumers without arousing the same fears and suspicion that followed the development of earlier biotech crops. They also wish to allay any fears on traditional biotech crops such as GMO corn, soy and cotton that have been modified to withstand heavier applications of herbicides.

Will the campaign to educate consumers on the safety of genetically engineered food alter the motivation for consumers who seek out the organic label? “Not likely,” according to Dr. Benbrook, “since numerous studies show consumers grow more wary about GMOs, not less, the more they learn about how they were created.”

FDA will be holding two public meetings in Charlotte, North Carolina, and San Francisco, California, regarding their Agricultural Biotechnology Education and Outreach Initiative. The purpose of the meetings is to provide the public with an opportunity to share information, experiences, and suggestions to help inform the development of this education and outreach initiative.

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