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Guest article: Mischa Popoff, author, Is it Organic?

GUEST ARTICLE: Phantom menace of GMOs keeps organic industry off target

Post a commentBy Mischa Popoff , 15-May-2014
Last updated the 14-Jul-2014 at 22:06 GMT

GUEST ARTICLE: Phantom menace of GMOs keeps organic industry off target

I worked for five years as a USDA-contract organic inspector after growing up on an organic grain farm in Saskatchewan. I had the pleasure of inspecting over 500 organic farms and processors, but I began questioning this career path when I realized the organic movement was becoming little more than a political movement, relying increasingly on imports, and aimed at taking farming back in time.

I still support the principles of organic production. But when the organic movement went anti-GMO, it was time for a major rethink. 

(Read a counterpoint to this article HERE from Steve Hoffman at Compass Natural.)

The organic movement could be perfectly valid once again, but only if it remains a niche production-system, and, crucially, if the captains of the organic movement drop their knee-jerk opposition to technology and start proving that organic food is being produced without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. How? Simple, through across-the-board, once-annual field testing.

Most people are shocked to learn that organic crops are not tested, and that exhaustive record-keeping and record-checking by for-profit agents of the USDA is what qualifies products for the lucrative 'USDA Organic' logo. There are plans afoot under the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) to begin spot-testing organic operations, but only one-time every 20 years, and only on end-product, long after substances prohibited in organic production have dissipated.

When the organic movement went anti-GMO, it was time for a major rethink

It was this slovenly attitude that opened the floodgates to cheap, USDA-certified organic raw ingredients imported from countries like China, Mexico and Argentina, to the point where there is now one certified-organic food processor in America for every two certified-organic farmers. So much for saving American organic family farms.

By applying loopholes in the law, these processors can, for instance, add water to USDA certified-organic apple-juice concentrate from abroad, put it in a carton and call it 'Product of the U.S.A.' even though the apples were grown, processed and certified under the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) by foreigners in a foreign land.

When trying to shut me up failed, my former colleagues turned to attacking my integrity, charging that I work for Monsanto, that I’m an 'extreme right-winger,' that I made up my credentials as an organic inspector, and that I plan to line my pockets by starting an organic testing lab, none of which is true. Finally, I was threatened, and have repeatedly been refused membership in my former professional organization, the International Organic Inspectors Association, a body on which I was once on the executive, and for which I organized the first ever 'Organic Testing' training seminar.

Mischa Popoff: 'I came to realize, as President Clinton did, that genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) should someday become part of the organic movement, at least on a case-by-case basis'

GMOs should become part of the organic movement

That’s what I got for urging those above me to test organic crops and livestock to ensure they’re safe and genuine. How silly of me. Then came something completely unforgivable in the minds of organic activists: I realized that modern, science-based farming presents no threat whatsoever to organic farming, whether we’re talking about the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides on neighboring conventional farms, or the new science of genetic engineering.

I came to realize, as President Clinton did, that genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) should someday become part of the organic movement, at least on a case-by-case basis. GMO Bt crops are the best example. Currently, organic farmers spray Bacillus thurengiensis, a microbial pesticide, over their fields, inhaling it as they go, and watching as it drifts into non-target areas affecting non-target organisms.

So, what scientists did over at that 'evil' company called Monsanto was they spliced Bt genes into corn, soy and cotton, thereby eliminating the need to spray, and ensuring that only insects that actually consume a farmer’s crop will be affected. And for believing this was a step forward in modern, environmentally-conscious farming, my former colleagues decided it was necessary to launch a full-frontal assault against my reputation.

Since when did Mother Nature rely on chemical mutagenesis?

Meanwhile, organic farmers use seeds that are produced with nuclear and chemical mutagenesis , haphazard processes that are unpredictable and distinctly UN-natural. They also make liberal use of inorganic, environmentally-persistent substances such as copper sulfate which have no corollary in nature. These are just two examples that do not fit the anti-GMO mantra used by longtime organic activists like Jim Riddle , that “GMOs are novel patented organisms that have never before been part of nature or part of the human diet.”

Stop and think… just how much copper sulfate do you think your ancestors used to consume in their diet? And when’s the last time Mother Nature relied on chemical mutagenesis?

Not a single organic crop has ever been de-certified as a result of coming into contact with GMO material in any way, including cross-pollination

Once done attacking GMOs here at home, activists like Riddle trot off to foreign lands like Iran in order to “help the Iranians develop their organic agriculture industry.” But how about helping American organic farmers instead? Remember, fully one-third of all domestic USDA certified-organic operations are processors, not farmers, which is like having a doctor for every two patients in a town. Clearly that doctor would need to treat outside patients to remain profitable, which is fine, until he starts ignoring his local patients to better serve the outside ones.

“Currently, organic farmers spray Bacillus thurengiensis, a microbial pesticide, over their fields, inhaling it as they go, and watching as it drifts into non-target areas affecting non-target organisms. .. Monsanto spliced Bt genes into corn, soy and cotton, thereby eliminating the need to spray, and ensuring that only insects that actually consume a farmer’s crop will be affected.”

Meanwhile, there is in point-of-fact no such thing as contamination of an organic crop by GMOs. According to the very rules for organic production that organic stakeholders like Riddle wrote, organic farmers are not allowed to make use of GMOs, the same as they’re not allowed to make use of the herbicide Roundup.

But not a single organic crop has ever been de-certified as a result of an organic crop coming into contact with GMO material in any way, including cross-pollination.

This is not to say some activist farmers have not tried claiming their organic crops were threatened by the mere presence of GMOs. But, in all such cases, these farmers ended up plowing their crops under before any testing could be done, and as such appear not to have followed the rules of organic production in the first place.

It’s time for all the organic fear-mongering to end. Please, leave me and the field of agricultural science alone, and get back to tending your organic crops.

Mischa Popoff is a former organic farmer and USDA-contract organic inspector. 

He is the author of the book, Is it Organic? and works as a policy advisor for The Heartland Institute where he has co-authored many articles alongside science director Jay Lehr.

Contact him about this article at mischa@isitorganic.ca

Read a counterpoint to this article from Steve Hoffman at Compass Natural HERE

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