“The biggest threat to organic food is GM,” said Christopher Stopes, IFOAM EU president, during a presentation at the Natural & Organics Products Europe Show in London.
Stopes warned the audience that Europe has already taken significant steps towards GM foods by passing new laws that allow Member States to ‘make their own rules’ – reiterating that allowing EU wide cultivation and consumption of genetically modified products is the biggest barrier to the development of the organic farming and food sector.
While seen by many as a positive step towards banning GM, the fact that European countries can now decide ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on the question of GM crop cultivation means that the chance of growth in GM crop cultivation is very real, the organic food regulation and certification expert said.
Even in countries where the chance of cultivation is seen to be low, and the government or regulatory agencies have pushed for bans for several years, Stopes suggests that simply by having the ultimate power to ban or allow crop cultivation many countries have a high chance of accepting them in the long term.
Hand in hand
So, could organic food production and biotechnologies like GM ever work together?
When asked by FoodNavigator whether feeding nine billion people by 2050 would mean that organic production methods and GM would have to find a way to go hand in hand, Stopes suggested that some biotechnologies and certain genetic modification methods could be acceptable in organic production – while others never will be.
“I think it’s worth distinguishing genetic modification and the introduction and manipulation events across species,” said Stopes – adding that cross-species manipulation is something that could never be taken as ‘organic’.
“It has untold potential harm, some of which is clear already from the evidence of large scale production in America,” he claimed.
However, the organic expert also noted that other biotechnologies that could be classed as ‘GM’ – saying that advanced rapid breeding methods and marker assisted breeding “can be really beneficial”.
“I don’t think the organic movement is against ‘science’ as such – and advanced biosciences have enormous opportunity,” he said.
Organically acceptable biotech?
According to Stopes, there is also a stark contrast between the ways that some biotech and large-scale agri-businesses operate - with some big biotech firms working in a way that could, perhaps, go hand in hand with the organic sector over the long term.
He noted that while some biotech giants, like Monsanto, have invested heavily in genetic modification events across species, others like Syngenta have focused on ‘advanced biosciences’, “some of which are already organically acceptable.”
Stopes said that depending on the way these technologies and organic standards continue to develop, it could be that even more biotechnologies, and rapid breeding and screening methodologies become acceptable and widely used in the organic food system.
“So there are biotechnological routes that are already, or could in the future be, acceptable to our whole system view of food and farming,” he said. “But that certainly does not include modification across species.”