The National Organic Standards Board voted unanimously last week to update its U.S. standards to ban ingredients derived from new genetic engineering techniques from certified organic products.
The vote served as a recommendation by the NOSB to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. The board says it will ensure ingredients that are derived from new GE techniques will not wind up in organic certified foods and beverages.
“The NOSB is clear that GMOs do not belong in organic,” Dana Perls, senior food and technology campaigner for Friends of the Earth, told TriplePundit. “In the absence of strong federal regulations on the labeling and commercialization of genetic engineering, the organic standard continues to provide consumers with a transparent and clear way to avoid GMOs in the food they eat.”
One of the new GE methods the board is concerned about is synthetic biology, which designs and constructs new organisms to either produce something they would not normally produce or to edit DNA to stop certain traits from being expressed, according to FOE.
Some synthetic biology ingredients are ending up in food and consumer products without sufficient labeling, just as traditional GE ingredients do. GE ingredients in general lack adequate oversight, the group insists. And some are labeled as ‘natural,’ which is incredibly misleading to consumers. Although a few states passed mandatory GE labeling laws, the federal requirements are murky. Back in August, President Barack Obama signed a bill into law that preempts state GE labeling laws, virtually striking them down with what many call a lackluster federal labeling requirement. By contrast, 64 nations globally have far more stringent GE labeling laws, including the EU, Japan, Russia and China. The EU goes one step further and bans the cultivation of GE crops, with only minor exceptions, according to Just Label It.
What exists in the U.S. is a process that fast-tracks approval for new GE food products. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not even rely on its experts to determine if a GE food is safe. It instead uses biotechnology companies to vouch that the GE food they created is “not materially different in any respect relevant to food safety.” The FDA accepts the claims of the companies that produce GE food and tells them they have a “continuing responsibility” to ensure the safety of the food.
The environmental problems synthetic biology crops might create
Some of the products now banned from organic foods include synthetic biology stevia, saffron, coconut and cacao. Small farmers in the Global South typically produce these items. And there is concern that synthetic biology forms of these crops could harm the farmers that grow the traditional versions.
A key concern is that GE competitors could make the current push to grab land from communities in the Global South worse, land that small-scale farmers rely on as the source of their food and livelihood. Synthetic organisms may also impact ecosystems in ways that are unpredictable and permanent. As FOE states on its website, “A synthetic organism could swap genes with naturally occurring organisms or out-compete them, potentially disrupting entire ecosystems as a new class of invasive species.”
Synthetic vanilla flavoring already exists and is produced by a company called Evolva. It has the potential to gain a large part of the global vanilla flavor market. That would be bad for small farmers who produce natural vanilla, say groups like FOE.
A GE yeast is used to create synthetic biology vanilla. Sugar is fed to the GE yeast. Expanding sugarcane plantations to meet the demand for sugar to produce the vanila could exacerbate and even accelerate the destruction that is occurring of savannah and rain forest ecosystems in Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia. There is also a potential for the land vanilla farmers rely on to be harmed if synthetic biology vanilla flavoring replaces the natural variety, advocacy groups say.
Some companies already said they will not source synthetic biology vanilla flavor, including Ben and Jerry’s, Three Twins Ice Cream, Straus Family Creamery, Luna and Larry’s Coconut Bliss, Nestlé, and General Mills. Some companies, such as Nutiva and Dr. Bronner’s, pledged to avoid all synthetic biology ingredients.
Synthetic biology ingredients can already be found in some cosmetics and household products. Synthetic biology squalane, for example, is often used in cosmetics. It is produced by Amyris Biotechnologies and used in an estimated 300 products, mostly undisclosed. Solazyme produces synthetic biology algal oil, and like synthetic biology vanilla, sugar is needed to produce it. The algal oil produced via synthetic biology could displace coconut oil, which is sustainably produced, advocates say. Consumer product companies either currently using or planning to use synthetic biology ingredients include Ecover, Unilever and Procter and Gamble.
Image credit: Flickr/U.S. Department of Agriculture