By Talia Rudee
The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) has voted unanimously to update U.S. organic standards to exclude ingredients derived from next-generation genetic engineering and gene editing.
This recommendation to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program will ensure that ingredients derived from new genetic engineering techniques, including synthetic biology, will not be allowed in the production or final product of foods and beverages that are certified organic. Synthetic biology is a new set of genetic-engineering techniques that include using synthetic DNA to re-engineer organisms to produce substances they would not normally produce or to edit DNA so as to silence the expression of certain traits; applications we’ve covered to date include the development of bioplastics and ‘closed-loop poop.’
Despite growing concerns about the possible impacts of synthetic biology organisms on human health and the environment and a lack of independent safety assessment, the FDA has allowed items such as synthetic biology vanilla – a product designed to replace natural vanillin flavoring from vanilla beans, DuPont’s CRISPR waxy corn and other similarly created food and cosmetic ingredients to enter the market without regulation. Existing regulations that identify GE crops and food ingredients as “Generally Regarded As Safe” use an outdated process with minimal testing requirements that rely on companies to self-evaluate the safety of their products.
“Unfortunately, the government has failed to update its regulations to adequately assess these new kinds of genetically engineering,” said Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety. “When the USDA approves the NOSB recommendations, consumers who want to avoid GMOs will be ale to use the Organic Seal to know that the product is not a GMO.”
The Board’s announcement follows 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, recently updated its standards so as to include synthetic biology and new gene-editing techniques.
Companies such as Ben and Jerry’s, Three Twins Ice Cream, Straus Family Creamery, Luna & Larry’s Coconut Bliss, Nestlé, and General Mills have committed to “…not source vanilla flavor produced through synthetic biology” – the first major synthetic biology ingredient to enter food and beverages, marketed as “natural vanillin.”
“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,” said Dana Perls, food and technology policy campaigner with Friends of the Earth. “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.”