USDA Organic-Biotech report pulled

The USDA Report by Cyndi Barmore, The Unexplored Potential of Organic-Biotech Production, has recently been pulled from the USDA website. This is the USDA’s explanation:

On May 26, 2009, the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) posted a Global Agriculture Information Network (GAIN) report titled, “The Unexplored Potential of Organic-Biotech Production.”  This report should have been accompanied by a clear statement that the report does not represent the policy of the United States Government, and given this, the report has been removed from the agency’s Web site. It should be noted that USDA’s National Organic Program regulations exclude the use of genetically engineered organisms in organic production. Additionally, FAS has no role in the administration of the National Organic Program.

It turns out that there was a resounding negative response from certain organizations that do not like genetic engineering – and the very thought of organic + biotech is disconcerting. It led to a pile of emails sent in the USDA’s direction.

The Organic Consumer’s Association told a whopper when they first heard about it:

This USDA report attempting to make the case for “organic genetically engineering” is part of a well-funded campaign coordinated by Monsanto and their governmental, corporate, and non-profit partners to legitimize a dangerous and untested technology.

First of all, USDA employees are very careful about their contacts. Secondly, according to GE opponents, Monsanto is all about the chemicalz. So why would they be interested in GE organic crops, when they can’t sell their roundup herbicide to those farmers? Finally, the OCA has no evidence that the few people promoting the Organic-Biotech partnership, such as Pam Ronald, are funded by Monsanto in any way. No research in her laboratory is funded by any company, for example. This is a cynical attempt at poisoning the well. If they can prevent fans of organic from considering the arguments, then they have accomplished their goal.

The Grassroots Netroots Alliance issued a call to action, which may have been the source of the deluge of emails:

Please use the form below to tell the USDA that you (1) oppose their cynical attempt to promote genetic engineering as potentially organic

One wonders why they are so resistant to this possibility. If Organic agriculture is all about moving toward a more sustainable, biological way of farming, genetically engineered traits that can help that would be an ideal tool to include in that system. The GNA, however, tells us the reason for the opposition:

One reason consumers shop for things that are certified organic is to avoid the ubiquitous and unlabeled genetically engineered and nanotech products that have filled stores in recent years.
After so many years of beating back attempts to contaminate organic with untested technologies, it is very discouraging to learn that the USDA under Obama, just like under Clinton and Bush, is still trying to help industry destroy organic.

What would be “destroyed” is the perception that organic is a refuge for people with food fears. Without that psychological assurance, they fear that they will lose some customers. In my humble opinion, I think organic should be a positive vision of what agriculture should be, not a negative vision of what it shouldn’t.

Jill Richardson of La Vida Locavore says that putting the report up on the web in the first place was a no-no, but I think the knee-jerk closed-minded response of some people to this possibility is the real no-no. The signal they have sent to the USDA is ‘don’t think about how to make agriculture better – just satisfy our predispositions.

The Fanatic Cook noticed the report, and did give it some thought, for a millisecond:

“Organic-Biotech.” If ever there was an oxymoron.

Well I suppose you could use an ox in organic ag, but what about the moron? Tee hee. This is one of the problems that genetic engineering in organic agriculture faces – because of how the political lines were drawn early on in the history of organic standards, now people are just defending the standards as-is, without going back to what is the real basis for the exclusion. In other words, they are defending a historical contingency – something that people decided in the past before understanding how genetic engineering could be used to help organic production. And so the status quo is assumed to be the right way, without any thoughtful analysis whatsoever.

Indeed, if Bix at The Fanatic Cook thought about the meaning of Biotechnology, they would realize that organic is biotechnology. A technology using biology, from inserting genes with a gene gun, to making cheese with enzymes and fungi, is a bio-technology. Using cover crops, rotations, beneficial insects, and Bt-toxin producing bacteria are all biotechnologies – Organic is a term that refers to a specific set of biotechnology. The question is, will the organic system and its adherents be open to one more bio-technology in that system, or will we need to look elsewhere for a rational, scientific approach to growing crops?

In the meantime, I have uploaded the USDA report here so that you can still download and read it. The USDA should have never pulled the report form the site – a clarification that the agency is not taking a position on the issue, but is allowing discussion to take place would have been the proper response. Looks like it’s not just the organic folks that are too sensitive to the boat being rocked.

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Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He currently works as a Post Doctoral Research Associate for the USDA in Madison, WI. His favorite produce might just be squash.


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5 comments to USDA Organic-Biotech report pulled

  • Pam Ronald

    oh no. now we have the obama adminstration squelching scientific reports that are not politically correct?

  • Hmmm… do you suppose if we told one of those blowhards like Glenn Beck that it would get some mainstream media exposure? They’re really trying hard to find fault with Obama’s presidency. Haha. Actually the last thing I would want is someone as politically-polarizing as Beck talking about the issue.

  • Thanks for posting this. I was really frustrated when the report was pulled. When it was posted, I thought “finally, an opportunity for some real dialogue”. But, oh no, we can’t have that, says the organic fundamentalists.

    I agree, organic is *bio* technology!

  • Using cover crops, rotations, beneficial insects, and Bt-toxin producing bacteria are all biotechnologies – Organic is a term that refers to a specific set of biotechnology.

    Love this quote.

    However, your post is too depressing. Please have happier news to report in the future! ;p

  • Hi James, thanks for commenting.

    Bad news can be depressing. However, maybe I didn’t emphasize enough that there is some good news hidden in this – more people are thinking about it independently of each other! This is how movements start, the question is what is the critical mass before the powers-that-be take notice?
    If I could do anything about it, I would only have happy news!

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