There’s No Reason Why GMOs Shouldn’t Be Considered Organic

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Mischa Popoff Policy Advisor, Heartland Institute
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“How convenient to have one’s search for self-fulfillment glorified into the quest to save the planet.” — Bruce Thornton, Plagues of the Mind: The New Epidemic of False Knowledge, 1999.

The term “organic” does not exist in nature. It is a legal construct, devised by humans, as in “organic chemistry.”

Organic food-and-farm activists would like you to believe their brand preexists in nature the way fresh air and clean water do. It does not. It only exists because we have come up with a legal framework by which to define it; a mind-numbing legal framework. Just ask any organic farmer who’s behind on his paperwork.

If we were to decide tomorrow that certain GMOs would be acceptable as organic, as President Clinton and many leading academics suggest, we could simply rewrite the law. Or we can leave things the way they are, embroiled in controversy. Humans define what “organic” means either way.

Then there’s the notion that GMOs “contaminate” organic crops, as if we’re talking about dumping effluents into a pristine stream of brook trout. We’re not. We’re talking about politics, plain and simple.

GMOs have never been proven even remotely harmful. So if politicians should ever decide to agree with the oft-repeated claim made by organic activists that GMOs actually “contaminate” organic crops, it will be a political decision to devise a legal construct saying so, not a scientific decision.

Then why is the idea of GMO contamination embraced so fervently by organic activists?

Simple. Their aim is to sideline agricultural genetic engineering, and prevent GMO farming from moving forward; a devious gambit that’s worked marvelously: GMO flax, wheat, Golden Rice, Arctic Apples, innate potatoes… they’re all on the sideline, some for more than a decade.

Yes, the USDA National Organic Program stipulates how and when synthetic pesticides contaminate organic crops. This is because pesticides can be harmful if misused. (Canada’s organic standards, it’s worth noting, make no such stipulation.)

But there is nothing in America’s or Canada’s standards – repeat, NOTHING – that explains how or when GMOs “contaminate” an organic crop. Organic farmers are only prevented from planting GMO seed due to a radical-political aversion to this science that thrives in urban organic circles.

As mentioned above, the only scientific definition of “organic” is that of “organic chemistry” which is the chemistry of carbon-based life as opposed to inorganic chemistry which is the chemistry of all the other elements. All living things are based on carbon. All of our food (with the exception of minerals such as table salt) is, therefore, well and truly organic by this definition.

Unfortunately, the term “organic” was hijacked and politicized by those who propound an arcane system of growing crops based largely on superstition rather than science, in a government-sanctioned, honor-based, tax-subsidized marketing exercise. And while the organic movement may have had merit back when it focused on reducing the impact of synthetic pesticides and fertilizer, it lost all credibility when it turned to attacking GMOs.

Let’s be crystal clear. Not a single organic crop anywhere in America or Canada has ever lost organic certification as a result of pollen or plant-material drifting onto it from a GMO crop.

Not one.

Meanwhile, GMOs drastically reduce the impact of synthetic pesticides and fertilizer, while also providing unprecedented reductions in fossil-fuel consumption, achievements one might think organic activists would applaud and perhaps embrace.

Instead, an alarming number of GMO executives and academics have fallen for the organic activists’ clever ruse, many now believing that GMOs do indeed “contaminate” organic crops, to the point of fretting over how to prevent this “contamination” and, most absurdly, how to insure organic farmers against it, as if it was akin to a plague of locusts or a drought.

Apocryphal stories abound of organic shipments being rejected by buyers who, we are told, insist on absolute genetic purity. Meanwhile, 43 percent of American organic food tests positive for prohibited pesticides, a number that’s even higher in Canada. Why, don’t organic buyers ever reject THOSE loads?

It would appear organic stakeholders no longer care about synthetic pesticides or fertilizer, even when used fraudulently by organic farmers. They have concluded, erroneously, that the only way forward for organic farming is through a de facto ban on all new GMO crops, thereby curtailing the productive capacity of modern farming, and thereby making organic productivity seem better by comparison.

Nice try. But this baseless, negative marketing ploy is finally coming to light. And no… it is not “inflammatory” or “mean-spirited” to point this out. It’s the law.

Organic farmers are not required to keep their crops 100 percent, or 99 percent, or even 90 percent GMO free. In fact, they’re not required to observe any threshold limit on GMO content in their organic crops, organic seed production being the only possible exception.

And please don’t take only our word for this. According to IFOAM, the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements, “Any defined threshold will be chosen arbitrarily and does not reflect adherence to organic principles. Therefore IFOAM does not support the introduction of de minimis thresholds for genetic contamination.” We could not agree more.

Organic standards were written by organic stakeholders, so there is absolutely no excuse for these same stakeholders to now try to ignore them, and to fool others into doing the same. You can’t just make up law on-the-fly because you feel like it, or because you claim your buyers demand it.

There is, to be blunt, no such thing as contamination of an organic crop by GMOs, and no basis, in point of scientific fact, for a GMO-free definition of organic. The whole premise of being organic is, after all, pure artifice from start to finish, not bequeathed to the organic farming community by God, Gaia, or Mother Nature, but by man.

Consumers have certainly been led to believe it’s better to “go organic,” and have been convinced this means eliminating GMOs from their diet, above all else. Meanwhile, organic farming requires more fossil fuel, causes erosion, provides little if any discernible health benefit, and has resulted in inordinately high levels of food-borne illness outbreaks, even death, due to the organic industry’s failure to test for fecal coliforms resulting from improperly-composted manure!

So why exactly does every single up-and-coming GMO crop sit idly on the back burner in response to a media-driven backlash to this new field of agricultural science from organic activists?

Farmers and consumers are entitled to make whatever choices they want in a free market. They’re even entitled to believe they’re saving the planet in making these choices, even when they’re not. But this act of dietary faith can no longer be allowed to come at the expense of others.

The time has come to stop organic activists from creating controversy where none exists. We need to strengthen the peaceful coexistence that has always existed between organic and GMO farmers wherever GMOs are grown, and look forward to the day when we might even see the world’s first certified-organic, genetically-modified crop.

It would be mean-spirited to do otherwise.

This article was written with contributions from, and the support of the following people:

  • Mischa Popoff author of Is it Organic? and policy adviser for The Heartland Institute, former USDA organic inspector.
  • Hans-Jörg Jacobsen, Professor, Institut für Pflanzengenetik (Institute of Plant Genetics), Hanover, Germany, and Visiting Professor at Northeastern University, Boston.
  • Klaus Ammann, Professor Emeritus, FRSB, University of Bern, Switzerland.
  • Al B. Wagner, Professor and Extension Food Technologist, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension.
  • Jerzy Nowak, Professor Emeritus at the Department of Horticulture, Virginia Tech: Low Input Agriculture based on modification of rhizosphere and microdelivery of inputs via subsurface irrigation coupled with integrated sensor network and plant phenotyping.
  • Pierre Desrochers, Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Toronto, Mississauga, and co-author with Hiroko Shimizu of The Locavore’s Dilemma – In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet.
  • Bruce Thornton, Research Fellow, Hoover Institution, Professor of Classics and Humanities, California State University.
  • Robert Wager Biology Dept. Vancouver Island University
  • Patrick Moore, co-founder and 15-year leader of Greenpeace, now an independent ecologist and author of Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout: The Making of a Sensible Environmentalist, and leader of the Allow Golden Rice Now! campaign.
  • Al E. Slinkard, Professor Emeritus, Crop Development Centre, University of Saskatchewan.
  • Antonio Saltini, University of Bologna, Italy, author of the four-volume work Storico delle scienze agrarie (History of agrarian sciences in Western civilization).
  • Jay Lehr, Science Director at the Heartland Institute, author of more than 1,000 magazine and journal articles and 30 books.