( USDA )

U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Greg Ibach stirred a hornet’s nest when he recently said the agency’s National Organic Program may consider whether gene-edited crops could be allowed for organic growers.

In July 17 comments to the House Committee on Agriculture’s subcommittee on biotechnology, horticulture, and research, Ibach said the process of gene editing could help organic breeders create varieties resistant to drought and disease.

“I think there is the opportunity to open the discussion to consider whether it is appropriate for some of these new technologies, that include gene editing, to be eligible to be used to enhance organic production,” Ibach told the committee.

The Cornucopia Institute, an organic advocacy group, its website that it “vehemently” disagrees with Ibach’s statement.

In a July 31 letter posted on their website to Ibach and to the House Agriculture subcommittee on biotechnology and horticulture, the group said the organic marketplace is premised on being free from genetic modification.

“Ibach’s statements, in specific reference to gene-editing technology that alters only a plant’s existing genome, may have been an attempt to test the organic waters for acceptance,” the group said. “But organic consumers do not want gene-edited food.” 

The group cited a 2017 survey conducted by Natural Grocers, in which 70% of respondents said they buy organic specifically to avoid GMOs. 

“The organic label promises food produced without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, without antibiotics or other harmful pharmaceuticals, and without genetic engineering,” the group said. “Ignoring the fundamental intent of the USDA organic label renders it meaningless and threatens the $52.5 billion industry.”

Inviting supporters to file a petition objecting to Ibach’s comments, the Cornucopia Institute said 
“gene-editing techniques are not needed to resolve problems resulting from drought, pest resistance, and other challenges.”

“Instead of inviting chemical and biotechnology companies into organic agriculture, the USDA and House Agriculture Subcommittee should provide farmers the financial support they need to develop new cultivars that are not genetically engineered,” the group said.

Max Goldberg, founder of Organic Insider, said on the group’s website that the idea of gene-edited organic foods is a non-starter.

“For nearly everyone in our industry, the mere idea of having a discussion about allowing gene editing in organic is nothing short of heresy,” he said.