Organic Soy May Not Be Free of GMO

by updated 2014/01/04

This subject of this previously published post has recently been back in the news, (and even on Facebook), so I thought it good to re-visit the controversy. Is organic soy milk guaranteed free of genetically modified soybeans? I asked the question of Nigel Tunnacliffe and he was nice enough to write the following answer. Nigel studied risk communication and public policy of GE foods at Simon Fraser University. He runs GE-Free Solutions, a certification and labeling company for non-GE foods. He is on the steering committee for the Society for a GE-Free BC, and covered the Pacific Rim Summit on Biotechnology and Bioenergy on behalf of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN).

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Are Organic Soybeans GMO Free?

Photo by “Stuck in Customs”

Before I answer Will’s question, I need to state that I am not an expert on organic certification, and have no experience with American legislation. My experience is with genetically engineered foods in Canada, but I hope that while I approach the subject from a Canadian anti-GE perspective, I can shed some light on the question in as relevant a way as possible. I should also state that I am in the business of certifying non-genetically engineered foods, so please understand that I do approach this subject from a slightly biased point of view.

Can organic soy be genetically engineered? The answer is yes and no. It depends on your definition of “can”. If you mean is organic soy “allowed” to be GE? Then the answer is no. Organic certification requires that a crop be non-GE. BC Certified Organic, Pro-cert, Ecocert, “Transgenesis (modification of a genome through introducing DNA fragments, genetic engineering) is incompatible with the principles of organic production.” Quality Assurance International “Organic refers to products that are produced without using conventional pesticides … or bioengineering.”  USDA National Organic Program: “A variety of methods used to genetically modify organisms or influence their growth and development by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes and are not considered compatible with organic production, (are not allowed). Such methods include cell fusion, microencapsulation and macroencapsulation, and recombinant DNA technology (including gene deletion, gene doubling, introducing a foreign gene, and changing the positions of genes when achieved by recombinant DNA technology).”

Clearly genetic engineering is not part of organic agriculture, so I believe this far we are all in agreement. The tricky part comes with how the standards are enforced.

If the question “can organic soy be GE?” Means “when I buy organic soy, is it possible that it is contaminated?” then the answer, unfortunately, is yes. It all comes down to the actual requirements under organic certification schemes. The Ecocert (a French multinational certifier) policy, sums it up the best:

a) Operators shall ensure that materials and products used do not come from genetic engineering. A written guarantee from suppliers shall be provided to the certifier whenever there is a variety from genetically modified produce, according to the official list available on the Health Canada Website.

b) As of April 1st, 2007, for reasons of prevention, all agricultural firms must specify in the production plans they submit annually for approval by the certifying body, any possible risks associated with the potential presence of GMOs. These plans must include measures to be put into place by the firm to control and overcome them, and must be updated whenever any changes occur regarding external or internal factors that might influence the organic integrity of the firm’s products.

The requirements stated are not so much of a concern as the conspicuous exclusion of a critical component…TESTING! And with testing, comes maximum allowable contamination. Our North American standards are woefully behind the times, leaving our producers vulnerable to having their exports turned away from European ports, where testing is sometimes done. There was even a case last year where a processor received a shipment of organic soybeans that were 20% GE.

What’s more, there are common ingredients found in organic processed products which can come from genetically engineered sources. For example, both vitamin C and xanthan gum are allowed in organic food. Vitamin C is commonly produced from the skins of corn kernels, and xanthan gum is produced by bacteria which are most commonly fed corn. Corn, of course, is one of the largest GE crops, and there is widespread contamination.

There is a growing movement to require testing for GMOs in organic food. There was a meeting back in March of all major players in organic agriculture and processing to call for GMO testing, but there was no follow-up press release, so the outcome is unknown. The promised report has also yet to surface. There are also organizations such as the Non-GMO Project and GE-Free Solutions, which carry out testing and certification for organic and conventional food.

So, what does this mean for you? First of all, there is no replacement for consumer education. If you are really concerned about eating GE foods, as I am, you read the ingredient panel even if a processed product is labeled as organic. With the exception of Hawaiian papaya, you are safe buying anything in the produce section (GE corn tastes bad, and is almost never sold as corn on the cob). For processed food, watch out for corn, soy, canola and their derivatives (of which there are many), and cotton seed, which is used in vegetable oil.  Some testing is being done to verify non-GE status of certain products.

However, despite the occasional contamination, buying organic is currently one of the safest bets, and definitely the safest alternatives to reading about every possible derivative of soy and corn, you can make as a consumer for avoiding GE ingredients.

Will Sig

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