The question of “tolerance levels” for genetic contamination of organic crops is coming to the forefront of the organic industry, experts say.
Organic advocates say cross-pollination with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, is a threat to farmers but they’ve yet to arrive at a consensus for handling the issue.
“The question is what threshold are we going to accept for genetic contamination?” said Holli Cederholm, general manager of the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association.
The topic was discussed at a recent meeting of the Organic Seed Alliance in Corvallis, Ore.
In the case of OSGATA, its members have adopted a zero tolerance policy toward GMOs, meaning that any detectable level of contamination is unacceptable.
GMOs are “excluded” from the materials that can be used by organic farmers, but the USDA protocols for growing organic crops focus on farming practices rather than genetic purity.
The National Organic Standards Board, a committee that advises the USDA, is now preparing to discuss potential testing and protocols for such cross-pollination.
The NOSB’s next meeting is April 29-May 2 in San Antonio, Texas.
The organic industry should not rush into setting a “tolerance” for genetic contamination without corresponding liability for biotech developers, said Michael Sligh, a director for the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA.
“The question of tolerance is not just where you set it, but what happens when you cross that threshold and who is responsible for that cost,” he said.
In 2012, a biotech advisory committee urged the USDA to consider launching a crop insurance pilot program to compensate farmers harmed by cross-pollination from GMOs.
However, some organic advocates believe the liability burden should be shouldered by the companies that own patents for genetically modified crops.
Another issue is determining the level of GMOs in seeds used by organic farmers.
“We don’t know the state of contamination of our seed stocks,” said Sligh.
Larger sample sizes of tested seeds can greatly reduce error rates — 10,000 seeds will provide a much greater confidence level than 3,000, said Cederholm.
“There’s a huge jump statistically when you look at different sample sizes,” she said.
Farmers can improve the reliability of testing by focusing on seeds grown in higher-risk areas, like a field located by a neighbor who grows GMOs, she said.
Aside from genetic contamination, organic advocates expect controversy over several other GMO-related issues.
The upcoming year is likely to be “pivotal” in the public debate over genetic engineering, said George Kimbrell, attorney for the Center for Food Safety, a non-profit group that has battled biotech crops in court.
Labeling will continue to be a high profile issue, with Oregon taking the center stage in 2014, Kimbrell said.
Supporters are trying to get an initiative that would require labeling of GMO ingredients in food products on the ballot for November.
While a similar measure failed in Washington state last year, voter turnout is expected to be much higher in Oregon for the general election, which bodes well for the initiative’s chances, he said.
“This will be the national battlefield for labeling,” Kimbrell said.
At the same time, Congress and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are likely to face pressure to pre-empt rules for genetically engineered crops at the state level, he said.
Public awareness of the GMO controversy will probably continue increasing due to USDA recommendations that crops tolerant of the 2,4-D herbicide be deregulated, Kimbrell said.
Likewise, the potential approval of genetically engineered salmon in spring by the FDA would likely cause a big stir, he said.
“It’s a way to engage people not involved in the issue,” Kimbrell said.