|March 5, 2004:
In YOUR opinion, what is the primary goal of organic agriculture
today? Is it to reduce the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers,
transgenic products, antibiotics and hormones on as many acres
and animals as possible and encourage superior sustainable agronomic
practices? Or is it to produce chemically pure food 'free' of
undesirable contaminants? If these two goals come into conflict,
which goal should take precedence?
||Many of the consumers
I've talked to recently were offended that the organic
food they paid so dearly for might be contaminated. They
may blame Monsanto and make a little noise about lawsuits
and making the polluter pay, but they may also stop buying
the food if it is no longer perceived as sufficiently
pure. Do any of us have a doubt who will pay the highest
price for this loss of consumer confidence?
As we in the organic community move past the “first
level” questions of standards and differing certifier
interpretations, we are being confronted by much more difficult
“second level” questions that cut painfully close
to the core of our definition of organic agriculture.
I’ve posed this and other questions to several people
within the organic community over the past month because I
see a real crisis emerging concerning the conflicting perception
and reality about what organic food is or should be. This
crisis is being precipitated by GMO contamination and the
contradiction between what consumers expect and what organic
farmers are able to deliver.
A recent news report from Great Britain announced that 10
out of 25 organic and health food products containing soybeans
sampled by University of Glamorgan researchers in Wales tested
positive at between 0.07% to slightly above 0.1% for traces
of transgenic products. This report was publicized in the
prestigious scientific journal, Nature, under the title “Many
‘So-Called’ Organic Foods Contain Genetically
Modified Soya” and contained phrases like “damaged
credibility” to describe organic food. The implication,
loud and clear, is that organic food is fraudulent and that
organic farmers and certifiers are misleading the public.
At the same time, I was recently told by 3 different people
that they had heard that “there are no longer any certified
organic soybeans in the United States”. Their incorrect
but deeply held assumption was that when organic soybeans
test positive for traces of GMOs, then the crop automatically
loses its organic certification. When told that such soybeans,
if legitimately USDA NOP certified, are commonly being used
in organic products as long as the processor doesn’t
object, these folks stared at me, obviously horrified and
Process vs. Product
The USDA National Organic Program is quite clear that incidental
GMO contamination is not a labeling violation or a cause for
de-certification as long as the farmer can demonstrate they
did not willfully use products of transgenic technology. The
National Organic Program Standards describe a “process”-based
organic certification system. If a farmer does everything
agronomically within the organic standards, then the product
will be considered certified organic, even if there are traces
of contamination. Buyers may still reject the products, if
their market is stringent about purity, but that is at the
discretion of the buyer and does not usually affect organic
certification of the farmer or the product as long as the
farmer did not knowingly bring the GMOs onto their farm.
Transgenes patented by corporations are lurking in the non-GMO seed we buy
and hovering in the air around us. And unless we contact
the companies immediately to retrieve their, we can
be held liable for theft. Of course this is unfair!
But because this is reality, organic farmers simply
MUST proactively document that they are doing everything
within their control to avoid these interloping genes.
Contrast this to a “product”-based approach that
would determine eligibility for organic certification solely
on whether a food item passes certain chemical purity tests.
Over the past few months, I have talked to a surprising number
of consumers who firmly believe that organic food is indeed
judged on a “product” basis, that it is pure of
all contaminants and is routinely tested, and that this perceived
purity is the main reason they pay the premium price to ‘protect’
their health and that of their family.
It has been well proved that humans have contaminated the
entire planet with pesticides and industrial contaminants,
even Antarctica. It would now be nearly impossible to reliably
produce organic food that would test “FREE” of
pesticides, and soon, it may be impossible to produce certain
crops that are “FREE” from traces of GMO contamination.
Will organic consumers understand that a trace of GMO is
far better than 100%? Many of the consumers I've talked to
recently do not fully comprehend that idea. Some were offended
that the organic food they paid so dearly for might be contaminated.
They may "blame" Monsanto and make a little noise
about lawsuits and making the polluter pay, but they may also
stop buying the food if it is no longer perceived as sufficiently
Do any of us have a doubt who will pay the highest price
for this loss of consumer confidence? It isn’t likely
to be Monsanto. It will instead be the poor organic farmers
who do everything possible within their ability to meet the
standards, but are just damn unlucky. There was much wisdom
in NOP choosing a process-based organic certification system—it
provides valuable protection for farmers—but if the
consumers lose faith in the “product,” that may
As we reach this rather difficult second level of questions,
we need to seriously consider what we believe organic agriculture
should accomplish, if indeed we can’t accomplish everything.
Should we focus on environmental, social, and health benefits,
or should we focus on food purity?
Loss of confidence or dawning of reality?
||Pollen drift gets more of the attention,
but the seed supply and unclean equipment present much
There is increasing evidence that a large percent of the
corn, soybean, cotton and canola non-GMO conventional seed
would test positive for transgenes, if it was tested. A recent
Organic Farming Research Foundation survey reported most farmers
felt that seed was their primary risk point for GMO contamination
on their farms, and our conversations with scientists and
seed companies around the country over the past few months
indicate that this assumption is probably correct. Pollen
drift gets more of the attention, but the seed supply and
unclean equipment present much greater risks.
The Association of Seed Certifying Agencies sets a 1% threshold
for non-GMO corn in its IP system used by state crop improvement
associations. However, there is probably a fairly wide range
of how different seed companies are testing and labeling their
seed from non-GMO varieties, depending on how stringently
they respect the non-GMO needs of their customers. Organic
seed companies carefully test each seed lot of certain crops,
using highly accurate PCR DNA tests, and they reject lots
that exceed a maximum threshold. There is no guarantee or
documentation that conventional seed companies are being that
As more information emerges about
the GMO contamination of the seed supply, it is increasingly
likely that more organic crops – grown completely
within the NOP standards using the seed loophole - will
produce grain that could test positive for GMO contamination.
We recently requested a test on a good non-GMO corn hybrid
that is not available as organic seed. The result was 0.46%,
perhaps not bad for a conventional seed lot, but still twice
the threshold used by the leading organic corn seed company
and a level that might trigger rejection in the human food
grade market. Ken Roseboro, editor of the publication Non-GMO
states that rejection levels for GMO contamination in non-GMO
crops at elevators in the Midwest vary, but that 0.1% is a
common threshold. Several organic grain suppliers require
this threshold, as well as the Soil Association in the UK.
Roseboro thinks that someone growing seed with a 0.46% of
contamination might have a hard time selling the crop as non-GMO,
considering further contamination could happen from cross
pollination and co-mingling during harvest, transport, and
This should be of more concern because of the organic seed
‘loophole’ in the NOP. Under NOP standards, organic
farmers are obligated to purchase organic seed unless they
can’t find the variety, quality and quantity they need.
Most certifiers are enforcing this by requiring that farmers
check with 3 likely sources for organic seed before buying
conventional seed. As more information emerges about the GMO
contamination of the seed supply, it is increasingly likely
that more organic crops – grown completely within the
NOP standards using the seed loophole - will produce grain
that could test positive for GMO contamination.
||. . . if consumers lose confidence
in organic crops due to unintentional contamination, will
a portion of this acreage be returned to conventional?
And then, what have we accomplished?
But, what if organic farmers simply can't buy sufficiently
"GMO-free" seed? This is a major concern for farmers
growing corn, soybeans, cotton and canola. Does that mean
that there should no longer be organic corn and soybeans produced?
According to a USDA Economic Research Service report, there
were 268,018 acres of organic corn and soybeans in 2001 in
the US. No doubt considerably more acreage is planned for
2004. With those two crops accounting for such a large percentage
of American organic acreage, if consumers lose confidence
in organic crops due to unintentional contamination, will
a portion of this acreage be returned to conventional? And
then, what have we accomplished?
What can we do?
Now for a few more difficult questions. Knowing the risk
of GMO contamination, do you, as an organic farmer, have a
detailed proactive GMO control plan in place, actively tracking
and preventing as much contamination as possible at all likely
risk points, especially from seed, pollen drift, accidental
mixing in equipment and from GMO-derived manufactured agricultural
products (inoculants, microbial products, animal vitamins,
medications, etc)? Do you think that organic farmers would
implement such a plan if their certifier didn’t require
If it is shown that a large percentage of the non-GMO seed
on the market carries traces of transgenic DNA, would you
feel that it is your responsibility as an organic farmer to
actively support and encourage organic and heirloom seed operations
and switch to varieties available from them? Or will you continue
to use the loophole in the NOP rules, allowing you to buy
conventional and possibly contaminated non-GMO seed if your
specific desired variety is not available as organic, knowing
that by doing so, you may be supporting the very companies
causing the contamination? Would you buy organic seed if it
Perhaps it is time to ask ourselves
that unpleasant question – if indeed GMO contamination
of organic products is occurring, how much avoidance
are we responsible for?
In the OFRF survey mentioned earlier, only about half the
respondents indicated that they have taken some measures to
protect their organic farms against GMO contamination and
only 17% said that some portion of their farm seed, inputs
or products had been tested. Perhaps it is time to ask ourselves
that unpleasant question – if indeed GMO contamination
of organic products is occurring, how much avoidance are we
responsible for? What measures should we be taking to prove
that we are doing our ‘due diligence’ to minimize
Ken Roseboro tells a chilling story about a transitioning
Ohio farmer who is sure he did everything right, carefully
using tested seed, clean equipment, and sufficient isolation,
but still had his non-GMO soybeans rejected at the elevator
on the basis of a positive GMO test. Where did the contamination
come from? Possibly the custom combine was not sufficiently
cleaned, or maybe it was from volunteer soybeans, dropped
by equipment the previous year. The farmer doesn’t know
how the crop got tainted, he was doing everything his certifier
required, but he feels very unsure of how to avoid similar
contamination in the future.
At our feed mill, we're asked fairly regularly to “participate”
in the "asking three likely sources" game. Someone
calls asking for a particular Pioneer corn hybrid which of
course we don't have because Pioneer does not produce organic
seed and no one else can legally produce Pioneer varieties.
We’ve gotten a little cynical about conveniently being
one of the three unsuccessful sources because that simply
isn’t the point. The point is that organic farmers should
be seriously sourcing organic seed, not simply because it
is an NOP certification requirement, but because organic seed
provides the only real measure of protection against GMO seed
||The point is that organic farmers
should be seriously sourcing organic seed, not simply
because it is an NOP certification requirement, but because
organic seed provides the only real measure of protection
against GMO seed contamination.
Along with hundreds of others, we listened with horror to
Percy Schmeiser’s tale of corporate greed, legal injustice,
and farmer impotence at the recent Pennsylvania Association
for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) conference. Transgenes
patented by corporations that hire unscrupulous investigators
and lawyers are aggressively marching onto our farms, lurking
in the non-GMO seed we buy and hovering in the air around
us. The corporations don’t care how the genes got there,
they now have established legal precedence proving that farmers
“know or ought to know” when those precious genes
have snuck uninvited into our fields. And unless we contact
the companies immediately to retrieve their genes which we
can’t see and destroy our crops in the process, then
we can be held liable for theft.
Of course this is unfair! Of course this is a flagrant example
of the legal system being subverted from all that is logical,
honest and fair! But because this is reality, organic farmers
simply MUST proactively document that they are doing everything
within their control to avoid these interloping genes, regardless
of whether corporations “should” be taking responsibility
for the contamination and consequences.
I was deeply impressed by the answers I received to the question
at the beginning of this article, especially from long-time
New York organic farmer, Rivka Davis. She says, “In
my opinion, the primary goal of organic agriculture is (or
should be) to get as close to sustainable agriculture as possible
… bearing in mind that none of us knows what a really
sustainable agriculture would look like, especially one that
stands any chance of feeding six billion people.
"As far as ‘chemically
pure food’? The rain, as has been said, falleth
on the just and on the unjust. And the rain has pesticides
in it. ‘Chemically pure’ is not a possible
option. Should we then throw up our hands and say ‘there's
no such thing as organic’?"
“We know a lot of things it isn't. Practices that destroy
the soil, the genetic base, the farmers, and/or damage the
consumers certainly aren't sustainable; but there are many
techniques whose long -term sustainability we don't know,
such as genetic engineering, and there are many practices
that are clearly not long-term sustainable that are permitted
in current organic agriculture, such as using mined water
to irrigate a crop that is then shipped across the country
or the world using fossil fuels, with the aid of fossil fueled
equipment and the labor of underpaid workers and, often, underpaid
“In many ways, this whole system is long-term not sustainable
in areas that are not under the farmers' control. Many of
the people expecting ecological perfection from the farmers
are very far from it in their own lives, as they drive their
fossil-fueled vehicles to the market, demanding a convenient
full range of out-of-season organic produce year round.
“As far as ‘chemically pure food’? The
rain, as has been said, falleth on the just and on the unjust.
And the rain has pesticides in it. ‘Chemically pure’
is not a possible option. Should we then throw up our hands
and say ‘there's no such thing as organic’?
“There's nothing useful about that reaction, except
maybe to those who are trying to co-opt organic into just
another marketing label. We need to keep trying to get as
close as we can; but we need to work within current reality
as our starting point. As a long term goal, we need to get
the chemicals back out of the rain; but we can't do that either
by pretending they're not there, or by adding to them.
||"We could probably encourage
rain forests in developing countries be slashed and burned
to produce ‘pure’ food (corn and soybeans,
for example) for export to developed countries if we wish
to only eat ‘pure’ food . . . Is this sustainable
“So, yes indeed, those goals can be in conflict: an
attempt to insist on total perfection right now can set the
bar so high that people give up on organic altogether as impossible;
and this is a setback, not a gain, in trying to clean up the
land and the rain. But setting the bar too low is a danger,
also. If we say we can't attain perfection now, so we're going
to set a few minimal standards and say that this will do,
without any attempt to get closer to where we need to be eventually,
that won't clean up the system either.”
Harriet Behar, an organic farmer and inspector from Wisconsin,
observed that “We could probably encourage rain forests
in developing countries be slashed and burned to produce ‘pure’
food (corn and soybeans, for example) for export to developed
countries if we wish to only eat ‘pure’ food,
and at the same time, tell all of the organic farmers in Iowa
that they should give up on growing any corn or beans, since
the risk of contamination either in the field or in processing
is too great to guarantee absolute purity. Is this sustainable
These are complex issues to ponder.
The definition of organic
This week, I had the privilege of joining a group at Cornell
University—researchers and few colleagues from The Rodale
Institute®—to discuss another interesting series
- Can organic agriculture produce
sufficient food to feed the world with current and projected
- Can organic agriculture be economically
competitive with conventional agriculture when doing an
all-inclusive economic analysis?
- Do we want to feed the world with
organic agriculture alone, or do we want to 'ecologize'
- Would feeding the world with organic
agriculture require more land being allocated to agriculture?
- Organic practices are often more
environmentally benign, but not always. Should certain practices
currently allowed under certified organic production be
reconsidered to make it more so?
The group concurred that high input ‘conventional’
agriculture is reaching a dead and destructive end and that
we must adopt a better model that is more environmentally
benign, with special emphasis on biodiversity and soil quality.
But the new model must be highly productive in food quantity
and quality, it must be economically rewarding for farmers,
and it must be adaptable to widely different climatic, technological,
and social conditions, especially on depleted and marginal
tropical land. We agreed that high input farming isn’t
doing an adequate job with these criteria, that intentional
organic farming presents a valuable and promising model to
work from, but can organic agriculture, as we know it today,
address all the agricultural needs of the world that are so
urgent? We weren’t entirely sure.
Organic agriculture is NOT simply
“conventional without the chemicals/GMOs”
or “going back to the way farming was100 years.”
Nor is it “organic by neglect,” simply putting
seeds in the ground and letting nature takes its course.
As organic farmers, it is imperative that we actively communicate
the broader definition and purpose of organic agriculture.
Organic agriculture is NOT simply “conventional without
the chemicals/GMOs” or “going back to the way
farming was100 years.” Nor is it “organic by neglect,”
simply putting seeds in the ground and letting nature takes
its course. NO!
Organic farming is a deliberate system of superior agronomic
practices that intentionally and carefully build a healthy
soil and produce healthy plants that naturally resist insects
and diseases. Organic farming is about purposefully increasing
biodiversity of domesticated and wild species, it is about
empowering and strengthening small and mid-size farms, it
is about treating our soil, our workers, our natural resources
and each other with respect. It is about good tasting food
that doesn’t travel halfway around the globe to bloat
corporate coffers. Organic agriculture is truly farming like
there IS a tomorrow, knowing that our children who we love
will be the ones coping with the consequences of today’s
actions. Organic farming is about improving that tomorrow
for them, today.
Do we want traces of GMOs in organic food? Of course we don’t.
Should the biotech companies bear the burden and pay the costs
for contamination? Of course they should. But is it worth
jeopardizing the long-term security of organic farmers on
the basis of trace GMO contamination? No! There simply is
too much at stake to do that.
For helpful strategies to protect
against GMO contamination, check out:
practical steps to reduce GMO contamination.