The National Organic Standards Board voted unanimously last year to update U.S. organic standards in order to exclude ingredients derived from next generation genetic engineering techniques such as gene editing. The vote will help ensure that ingredients derived from synthetic biological techniques will not be allowed in the production or final product of foods and beverages that are certified as organic.
According to Dana Perls, a food and technology policy campaigner with Friends of the Earth, “The Board’s hard-fought proactive stance on synthetic biology will both help preserve the integrity of organic standards and raise awareness about this virtually unregulated and unlabeled form of genetic engineering. It’s critical that organic standards treat new types of genetic engineering that are rapidly entering our food and consumer products as rigorously as the first generation of GMOs.”
Perls goes on to assert that synthetic biology ingredients are now entering food and consumer products in the absence of adequate health and environmental assessment, oversight and labeling and many are being falsely marketed as “natural.” Products with synthetic biology in development include Stevia, Saffron, Coconut and Cacao.
One of the most important concerns regarding synthetic biology is not related to health but rather social equity. It is very likeley that the large-scale development of certain synthetic replacements for key food ingredients will undermine the market for natural ingredients that currently are sourced from small farms and communities located predominantly in the southern hemisphere. The economic impact of a shift to bio-synthetic ingredients would likely be felt most by those communities already struggling from the effects of poverty and climate disruption.
By defining and defending the connection between the organic label and traditional soil-based agriculture we therefore support not just good health for those who can afford it, but also food, land, and cultural sovereignty for disadvantaged people around the world.
Current products already using synthetic biology in their development include gene-silenced apples, DuPont’s CRISPR waxy corn, and Canola oil engineered with gene editing techniques. As more products using these techniques come to market the public must be allowed to distinguish and choose between these synthetic and the authentic alternatives.
“The National Organic Standards Board has made clear that all kinds of genetic engineering are to be excluded from ‘organic.’” said Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst of The Center for Food Safety. “The public expects that government to actually assess the new foods that it is permitting on the market. Unfortunately, the government has failed to update its regulations to adequately assess these new kinds of genetically engineering. When the USDA approves those NOSB recommendations, consumers who want to avoid GMOs will be able to use the Organic Seal to know that the product is not a GMO.”
The Board’s announcement followed a growing trend of companies stating that they will not use ingredients produced via synthetic biology. The Non-GMO Project, North America’s only third party verification program for non-GMO food and products, also updated its restrictions last year so as to include synthetic biology and new gene editing techniques.
The pushback by conscientious companies against synthetic biology ingredients should be supported. Straus Family Creamery and Luna & Larry’s Coconut Bliss have already committed to not sourcing “natural vanillin.” (the first major synthetic biology ingredient to be marketed) while companies such as Nutiva and Dr. Bronner’s, have pledged to avoid synthetic biology ingredients altogether in their products.