Genetically modified livestock vaccines are causing consternation in the organic industry, which is having a hard time deciphering which vaccines are made with prohibited methods.
The conundrum of keeping genetically engineered vaccines out of organic production will be considered during the Oct. 28-30 meeting of the National Organic Standards Board, which advises the USDA on organic policy.
“The challenge is we need a new definition of ‘excluded method,’” said Jean Richardson, a retired environmental studies professor and an NOSB member who is studying the issue.
Vaccines produced with genetic engineering are officially banned from organic livestock production but in reality most certifiers don’t require farmers to document they’re using non-GE vaccines, according to an NOSB document that will be reviewed at the upcoming meeting.
Farmers and certifiers lack an easy way to identify vaccines that have been manufactured with genetic engineering, the document said.
“The problem is you really can’t tell them apart,” said Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, an organic industry watchdog group. “Even though a problem exists, there’s no way to currently enforce the prohibition.”
It’s known that vaccines for certain livestock diseases are made with genetically modified organisms — such as pathogens that have been altered not to cause illness but still trigger an immune response — but the brands are not readily discernible, according to the NOSB document.
The USDA has been reluctant to create a list of vaccines that specifies which ones rely on GMOs because it may inaccurately “imply a deficiency” in such products, the document said.
“They have excuses, but I don’t know if they’re valid excuses,” Kastel said.
Vaccines produced with some biotech methods do contain certain words on their labels — subunit, vector and chimera — that could assist organic farmers and certifiers, the NOSB document said.
However, it’s possible that other vaccines not flagged with those terms may also be produced with methods that should be excluded from organic production, said Richardson. That’s because the organic definition of biotechnology doesn’t neatly align with the USDA’s definition.
For example, some vaccine manufacturers use naturally occurring strands of DNA or bacterial viruses to reconfigure the genetic sequences of pathogens, the NOSB found. An NOSB working group that analyzed such methods was unable to agree whether they are excluded from organic production.
The USDA, which regulates organic standards, may ultimately need to set a cut-off date for new technologies, Richardson said. Techniques developed before that date would be considered “traditional breeding” and techniques developer afterward would be excluded from organics.
Another concern is that some information about how livestock vaccines are produced is submitted confidentially to the USDA, the NOSB document said.
Kastel said the USDA needs to determine which vaccines cannot be used on organic livestock but the agency has been hesitant to do so.
“Who is going to be the final arbiter?” he said.
Callyn Kircher, farm program manager for the organic certifier Oregon Tilth, said her agency is compiling a database of inputs used by farmers to see what vaccines are common in organic production.
The organization could then try to figure out if any are made with GMOs, she said.
While Oregon Tilth wants to prevent the introduction of genetically engineered vaccines into organic livestock, it’s waiting on guidance from the USDA’s National Organic Program on enforcing the prohibition, Kircher said. “We really don’t have clarity on that yet.”