Representing four food industry trade groups, the Grocery Manufacturers Association on June 12 filed a lawsuit against the state of Vermont, challenging the constitutionality of the state’s new GMO labeling law. Vermont’s Legislature passed the first no-strings attached, mandatory GMO labeling law, set to take effect in July 2016.

The new labeling law “exceeds the state’s authority under the United States Constitution and in light of this GMA has filed a complaint in federal district court in Vermont seeking to enjoin this senseless mandate,” GMA said in its complaint.

Anticipating such lawsuits, Vermont’s GMO labeling law also established a legal “Defense Fund” of $1.5 million. Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell on June 12 said, “it would be a heck of a fight, but we would zealously defend the law.”

To support the legal defense fund, Vermont ice cream producer Ben & Jerry’s, in the process of switching to all non-GMO ingredients, renamed its fudge brownie ice cream Food Fight! Fudge Brownie. During the month of July, the company will contribute $1 from each purchase at its Burlington and Waterbury scoop shops to the state’s Food Fight Fund.

“It is worth noting that Organic was the original ‘NON-GMO’, so always look for the USDA Certified Organic Seal on the label,” said Tom Harding, Founder of AgriSystems International, and Founding President of the Organic Trade Association.


USDA Organic Seal


On May 19, 2014, USDA National Organic Program issued final guidance to clarify labeling of foods in the “Made with Organic” category, as follows:  “Multi-ingredient agricultural products in the “Made with organic…” category must contain at least 70% certified organic ingredients (not including salt or water). These products may contain up to 30% of allowed non-organic ingredients. All ingredients, including the 30% non-organic ingredients, must be produced without GMOs or other prohibited substances such as most synthetic pesticides.”


What is the cost of preventing global warming? Not that expensive, really, if one considers switching to widely available and inexpensive organic farming practices, says Rodale Institute in a landmark White Paper published in May 2014.

In fact, says Rodale after conducting more than 30 years of ongoing field research, organic farming practices and improved land management can move agriculture from one of today’s primary sources of global warming and carbon pollution to a potential carbon sink powerful enough to sequester 100% of the world’s current annual CO2 emissions.

Or, as the Wall Street Journal reported in May 2014, “Organic practices could counteract the world’s yearly carbon dioxide output while producing the same amount of food as conventional farming…”

Rodale’s researchers point to organic farming as a way to reduce energy inputs, help minimize agriculture’s impact on global warming, and also help farmers adapt to rising global temperatures.

“Simply put, recent data from farming systems and pasture trials around the globe show that we could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices, which we term ‘regenerative organic agriculture.’ These practices work to maximize carbon fixation while minimizing the loss of that carbon once returned to the soil, reversing the greenhouse effect, said the study’s authors.

Conventional Agriculture Adds Heat

The global food system is estimated to account for one-third of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, says Anna Lappe, author of Diet for a Hot Planet. Much of the fossil fuel used in commercial agriculture comes not only from running tractors and machinery, but also because petroleum is a primary ingredient in synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, widely used in conventional agriculture.

While asserting that pesticides and GMOs are the only way to feed a rising global population, conventional agriculture and livestock production are today a significant part of the problem, says Rodale, and also are responsible for widespread clearing of forests, grasslands and prairies. Palm oil production alone, with its devastating destruction of the world’s largest rainforest region, is why Indonesia is the world’s third largest greenhouse gas producer.

Also, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is known to release large amounts of nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, a potent GHG and a primary threat to earth’s ozone layer. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer also is responsible for the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, an oxygen-depleted area the size of New Jersey in which no fish can survive.

Organic A Cool Solution

According to Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell University, author of Food, Energy and Society, organic agriculture has been shown to reduce energy inputs by 30%. Organic farming also conserves more water in the soil and reduces erosion. Also, healthy organic soils tie up carbon in the soil, helping to reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

“On-farm soil carbon sequestration can potentially sequester all of our current annual global greenhouse gas emissions of roughly 52 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (~52 GtCO2e). Indeed, if sequestration rates attained by exemplar cases were achieved on crop and pastureland across the globe, regenerative agriculture could sequester more than our current annual carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions,” concluded the Rodale study.

Farming in a Warmer Future

Changes in temperature caused by global warming could have dramatic effects on agriculture. Extreme weather, rising temperatures, drought and flood caused by global warming all could have an adverse impact on yield, disease and insect pests.

Organic farmers may be better able to adapt to climate change, in that healthy organic soils retain moisture better during drought, making it more available to plant roots. Also, organic soils percolate water better during floods, helping to decrease runoff and soil erosion.

According to Rodale Institute’s 30-year field trials, in good weather, yields for organic and conventional corn and soybeans are comparable. However, organic soils are 28-70% higher in production in periods of drought compared to conventional soils. Researchers at the University of Michigan similarly found that while yields are comparable in developed countries, organic farms in developing countries can produce 80% more than conventional farms.

Rodale also found that during flood, there is 25-50% more water infiltration in organic soils, thus preventing runoff and erosion. Carbon-rich organic soils act as a sponge: for every pound of carbon increased in the soil matter, you can add up to 40 lb. of additional water retention, says Rodale.

For developing nations, organic farming could make a huge difference in adapting to climate change. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, organic farming can be more conducive to food security in Africa than most conventional production systems, and it is more likely to be sustainable in the long term. Furthermore, the FAO found that organic agriculture could build up natural resources, strengthen communities, and improve human capacity, “thus improving food security by addressing many different causal factors simultaneously.”

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition reported, “Sustainable and organic agricultural systems offer the most resilience for agricultural production in the face of the extreme precipitation, prolonged droughts and increasingly uncertain regional climate regimes expected with rapid global warming.”

organic consumer driven farmer powered graphic

The organic products industry grew to be a $35-billion business in 2013, reported the Organic Trade Association (OTA) in May 2014. The reported 11.5% increase from 2012 is the fastest growth rate in the last five years. The OTA expects this growth will continue over the next two years.

 “Consumers are making the correlation between what we eat and our health, and that knowledge is spurring heightened consumer interest in organic products,” said Laura Batcha, executive director and CEO of OTA.

Organic products are comprised of foods, flowers, fiber, household products and pet food. Organic food sales, which accounts for about 92% of total organic sales, were $32.3 billion in 2013. Organic food sales broke the $30 billion mark in 2012 and, according to the OTA, now accounts for more than 4% of the $760 billion in annual food sales in the United States. While total foods sales have averaged an annual average growth of 3%, the growth rate of organic food sales has grown an average of 10% every year since 2010.

Although continued growth is expected in the sale of organic products, there is still confusion among consumers about what organic means. The message of organic can be lost next to the presence of “natural” products and the long debate around GMOs, cautioned the OTA.

“The entire organic industry needs to rally around helping consumers better understand and appreciate all the values that certified organic brings to the table,” said Batcha. “Consumer education is critical to grow the organic industry,” she added.



The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) held its public meeting April 29 – 2, 2014, in San Antonio, TX, to discuss a number of action items related to the Organic industry. This year, the spring meeting included many agenda items held over from the fall meeting, which was cancelled due to the partial government shutdown in October 2013. Of particular interest at the spring meeting was the discussion of synthetic methionine, streptomycin, and a disagreement over proposed changes in organic “sunset” rules between organic consumer advocacy and industry groups.

Synthetic Methionine – For the Birds?

A proposal to allow more flexible use of synthetic methionine by averaging the amount over the life of the bird in organic poultry feed and egg production failed to get the required two-thirds majority vote at the spring NOSB meeting. The decision concerned a number of organic egg and poultry producers who claim their birds are suffering from inadequate nutrition because of methionine supplementation restrictions. Several commenters shared compelling testimony on health and behavior issues their flocks were experiencing. The methionine discussion will go back to committee and may be included in the fall 2014 NOSB meeting in Louisville, KY. Meanwhile, existing rules for methionine apply, which is a hard cap of 2 lb. per ton of feed for broilers and layers, 3 lb. for turkeys and other fowl. Rodale’s New Farm magazine, however, reported that West Virginia University researchers found that producers could grow healthy birds without synthetic methionine – “as long as the birds had adequate access to pasture.”

Streptomycin – Into the Sunset

Streptomycin was the only remaining exception to the prohibition on the use of antibiotics in organic. Streptomycin is currently on the list to sunset in October 2014. Apple and pear growers petitioned that the sunset should be extended until October 2017 in order to find suitable alternatives, arguing that the drug is needed to treat fire blight, a bacterial disease that kills the shoots of trees. The NOSB motion to amend the current expiration from October 2014 to October 2017 and specifically annotate only for use on apple and pear crops for fire blight control failed. Therefore, Streptomycin will sunset as of October 2014. With this ruling, USDA Organic now prohibits the use of all antibiotics. According to Alesia Bock, Director of Agrisystems International, NOSB is committed to the phase-out of this material, and encourages research and development of acceptable alternative materials and/or methods to control fire blight in organic apple and pear crops.

Aquaculture – Back to Committee

All aquaculture materials proposed for organic farm-raised fish, shellfish, crustaceans, and algae were referred back to NOSB’s Livestock Subcommittee. Also, a motion was passed to require the NOP to publish draft aquaculture standards and updated Technical Reviews before the Livestock Subcommittee would consider any aquaculture material listings in the future.

Sunset Review Subject to Change

Disagreement and a protest by Organic Consumers Association (OCA) at the NOSB meeting concerned a move by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) that could potentially make it more difficult for the NOSB to phase out synthetic and non-organic materials from organic food. The OCA argued that the revised sunset review would not apply adequate pressure on the organic industry to find alternatives. In the past, materials were reviewed every five years. Currently, these materials need to be petitioned to remain on the list. The change allows for materials to remain on the list until they are petitioned to be removed. At the NOSB meeting, Dr. Lisa Brines of USDA NOP explained that NOP was given a directive from the Secretary of Agriculture to streamline Organic (NOP) rulemaking. There were two intended goals: 1) Create a thorough and transparent review process for all substances and allow for two public comment periods before the review process is complete; and 2) Ensure any changes to the list (petitioned or Sunset) is supported by two-thirds majority of NOSB. Some lawmakers are also protesting this change. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-Or.), authors of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, voiced their disapproval in an April 2014 letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, saying the policy change was “in conflict with both the letter and intent of the statute.” Recommendations about the sunset change will be further discussed at the next NOSB meeting.

On November 6, just one day after Washington State’s I-522 GMO labeling bill was narrowly defeated, USDA moved to deregulate two new GMO soybean varieties and a GMO apple genetically engineered to resist browning. Additionally, reports indicate that FDA may soon approve GMO salmon – the first genetically engineered animal for human consumption.

In approving Monsanto’s GMO soy, MON 87712, genetically engineered to produce higher yield by splicing in a light-sensitive gene from Arabidopsis thaliana or the mouse-ear cress plant, a common weed in Europe, USDA said in a Federal Register notice that it evaluated data submitted by Monsanto, an analysis of available scientific data, and public comments in determining that the GMO soybean is “unlikely to pose a plant pest risk” and is of “no significant impact.” At the same time, USDA recommended deregulating an herbicide-resistant GMO soybean made by BASF, plus a GMO apple genetically engineered to resist browning when sliced. The comment period for the BASF herbicide-resistant GMO soy and the GMO apple ended on December 10.

Monsanto also hopes to garner approval in 2014 of GMO corn, soy and cotton genetically engineered to be tolerant to applications of dicamba and 2,4-D (also known as Agent Orange), two potent and toxic synthetic herbicides that growers have had to resort to, as weed resistance to glyphosate, or “Roundup” has increased dramatically as a result of its overuse in GMO crop production.

In fact, GMO crops have increased overall pesticide use in the U.S. by 404 million pounds from 1996 through 2011, said Washington State University researcher Chuck Benbrook, Ph.D., in his 2012 study, “Impacts of Genetically Engineered Foods on Pesticide Use in the U.S. – the First 16 Years. According to USDA, glyphosate use alone increased by more than 6,500% from 1991 to 2010. Contrary to biotech’s claims that GMOs reduce the need for chemicals, overall pesticide use in 2011 was 20% higher on each acre planted to a GMO crop, compared to pesticide use on acres not planted to GMO crops, reported Benbrook.

The GMO apple, marketed under the “Arctic” brand by Okanagan Specialty Fruits in British Colombia, uses controversial technology originally developed in GMO potatoes to suppress the gene that turns apples brown when sliced. The GMO apple’s creator says browning has economic costs and that it has already engineered Golden Delicious and Granny Smith apples, with Fuji and Gala varieties next in line. Opponents of the GMO apple say browning is a natural indicator of an aging piece of fruit, and along with organic growers are concerned about GMO contamination of orchards, both organic and non-GMO, while also fearing that negative consumer perception may lead to a decline in apple sales in general.

Independent studies have found risks associated with the technology used in GMO apples. While most existing GMOs are designed to make new proteins, reports Melody Meyer, VP of Policy and Industry Relations for UNFI and President of the Organic Trade Association, in her blog Organic Matters, GMO apples make dsRNA in order to alter the way genes are expressed. Recent research has shown that dsRNA can transfer from plants to humans and other animals through ingesting food or by inhaling dust from the plant or absorption through the skin, and while RNA is a normal component of all cells, in dsRNA form it can have effects that depend on the species and tissues exposed to it.

Additionally, recent reports indicate that FDA may approve GMO salmon before the end of the year or in early 2014. The AquAdvantage salmon, created by Massachusetts-based biotech firm Aqua Bounty, is genetically engineered with a Chinook salmon growth gene and an “antifreeze” gene from an eel-like fish called the ocean pout, which makes the fish grow twice as fast as naturally occurring salmon. Paving the way for the prospect of imminent approval in the U.S., in late November Canada became the first country to approve commercial production of genetically engineered salmon eggs, stating that a panel of independent transgenics and fish containment technology experts found no risk to the environment or human health when the eggs are produced in contained facilities. Canada has not yet approved GMO salmon for human consumption.

Aqua Bounty assures regulators the safety of its production system, which includes producing the GMO salmon eggs in containment facilities on Prince Edward Island in Canada and then shipping them to a facility in Panama for maturation and processing before shipping cut fillets to the U.S. and other markets that allow genetically engineered foods. However, opponents stress that GMO salmon could escape into nature and threaten native species, and that there may be higher risk of cancer and allergies associated with consumption of GMO salmon. Also, recent reports have documented troubles at Aqua Bounty’s facilities in Panama, including lack of legally required permits and inspections, including a wastewater discharge permit, “lost” GMO salmon, and routine, destructive flooding in the area of the facility.

Several major retailers, including Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Aldi and Target, have announced they will not sell the GMO salmon in their stores. Also, in November, U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Jon Tester (D-MT) and Mark Begich (D-AK) co-sponsored a petition calling for the FDA not to approve the GMO salmon. To date, nearly 100,000 people in all 50 states have signed the petition.

But is it kosher? The Orthodox Union (OU) says GMO salmon is kosher, because it has fins and scales. However, eels, which lack scales, are not considered Kosher, creating a dilemma for observers who enjoy salmon lox with their bagels. “Creation of a part-fish, part-eel seems impermissible as a violation of the Torah’s prohibition to mix species,” says writer Lisa Kassner in the Jewish Journal. Natural Food Certifiers, is one of the few certifiers offering Organic, Kosher, and Non-GMO verification with its GMO Guard program, as well as Gluten Free and Vegan verification. NFC announced in April that it would not allow its “Apple K” logo to appear on products that contain GMOs, including the proposed GMO salmon.

AgriSystems continues to remind clients and consumers to make informed choices and let your voices be heard. If you prefer non-GMO ingredients, continue to look for and purchase currently available Certified Organic and/or Non-GMO verified products wherever possible.

OTA Food Safety Task Force urges FDA to base proposed produce safety and preventive controls (HACCP) rules on science and data, and not to conflict with existing USDA National Organic Program regulations.

While undeniably important as a major step in improving the safety of the United States’ food supply, FDA, as part of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), issued proposed rules that would have major impact on growers and handlers of organic produce.

In conveying the concerns of organic producers, the Organic Trade Association assembled a Food Safety Task Force, of which Agrisystems International served as a member, to analyze more than 2,000 pages of proposed regulations and provide FDA with key scientific data and comments to ensure the proposed rules align with the good and safe practices of certified organic growers adhering to strict USDA National Organic Program standards.

Consensus across the organic industry is that the current proposed rules as drafted could potentially decrease or eliminate organic products, and increase prices due to limited supply for consumers. Based on weekly task force meetings, member surveys to gain input on key concerns from organic industry constituents, and input from experts, OTA submitted comments before the November 22 deadline.

The key messages from Agrisystems International and the organic industry to FDA:  base food safety rules on science; don’t be overly prescriptive; and don’t conflict with existing USDA NOP regulations.

Full OTA Task Force comments to FDA on the proposed Produce Safety Rule can be reviewed here. Also, click here to review full comments regarding FDA’s proposed preventive controls (HACCP) rule and its potential impact on organic producers.

Proposed Produce Safety Rule

A primary concern for organic produce growers and handlers is FDA’s proposed imposition of a 9-month interval for the application of untreated manure to fields, and a 45-day interval for the application of compost containing any animal matter. Currently, the USDA National Organic Program requires a 90- or 120-day (situation dependent) minimal application interval for untreated manure and no application interval for composted manure. Feedback provided by OTA to FDA included:

  • Compost/Manure Application Intervals –OTA’s Task Force provided key data to reflect that FDA’s proposed 9 month application interval would be an economic burden to organic producers; may be in regulatory conflict with current USDA NOP precedent; and may not need to be that long to provide adequate food safety under certain controlled circumstances.
  • Agricultural Water – Under the proposed rule, testing methods and intervals are very prescriptive, said the organic industry task force, which recommended removing prescriptive metrics from the rule itself, and allowing industry the flexibility to create risk-assessment and testing controls based on the individual level of risk for that entity, similar to HACCP methodology.

Preventive Controls (HACCP) Proposed Rule

Agrisystems International, along with the OTA Food Safety Task Force, recommended the following guidelines to FDA in evaluating proposed preventive controls (HACCP) in organic production:

  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. Look to other regulatory rules already in place that address HACCP for processing (e.g., FDA seafood and juice; USDA meat), and ensure there are no conflicts.
  • Ensure that there is no conflict for mixed-use operations that both produce and package produce, so that it is clear whether they must meet one or both of the rules.
  • Focus on Risk and Supplier Verification, and less on “who owns the farm.”
  • Don’t discount other current and effective food safety programs that may already in place at the farm level, such as Good Agricultural Practices, or other third-party verification programs.
  • Periodic testing should be flexible enough to allow for the specific needs of the facility to be addressed in their food safety plan. Finished product testing is not an effective method of control.

In general, we are in agreement that food safety is everyone’s responsibility, and we appreciate the effort by FDA in the proposed rules to create structure to address food safety risks with human consumption of produce that is generally consumed raw. However, Agrisystems International will remain vigilant and involved on behalf of organic producers and our clientele in ensuring that any new food safety rules are aligned with regulations governing producers under the National Organic Program.

Not waiting for the government to take the lead in the labeling of genetically engineered or GMO foods, Whole Foods Market announced in March that it will require GMO transparency for any products sold in its stores by 2018, making it the first national grocery chain to set a deadline to label foods that contain GMO ingredients. Whole Foods also will require labeling for meat and dairy products if the animals were fed GMO grains. Certified organic foods will not have to carry the label since by definition, organic foods are prohibited from using GMO crops or ingredients. According to Co-CEO A.C. Gallo, the nation’s leading natural and organic products grocer is seeing sales increases of 15% to 30% for non-GMO verified products.

Whole Foods told USA Today that is currently sells more than 3,000 products that have gone through the non-GMO verification process, more than any other retailer in North America. Additionally, leading grocers including Whole Foods Market, Aldi’s, H-E-B, Trader Joe’s and PCC Natural Markets announced that they would not sell genetically engineered salmon, if FDA approves it. “We are committed to full GMO transparency within five years,” said Whole Foods Co-CEO Walter Robb. Following in Whole Foods’ footsteps, New Leaf Community Markets, a Santa Cruz, CA, natural foods retail chain, also announced that it will require labeling of GMOs by 2018.

In an effort to reduce paperwork and other burdensome aspects of organic certification, the National Organic Program (NOP) in April introduced Sound and Sensible, a new program designed to make it easier on producers while maintaining high standards, ensuring compliance, and protecting organic integrity. The Sound and Sensible initiative involves identifying and removing barriers to certification, streamlining the certification process, focusing enforcement on egregious violations, and correcting small issues before they become larger ones. NOP highlighted its Sound and Sensible program on the USDA blog as part of the Organic 101 series.

Five Principles of Sound and Sensible

  • Efficient Processes: Eliminate bureaucratic processes that do not contribute to organic integrity.
  • Streamlined Recordkeeping: Ensure that required records support organic integrity and are not a barrier for farms and businesses to maintain organic compliance.
  • Practical Plans: Support simple Organic System Plans that clearly capture organic practices.
  • Fair, Focused Enforcement: Focus enforcement on willful, egregious violators; handle minor violations in a way that leads to compliance; and publicize how enforcement protects the organic market.
  • Integrity First: Focus on factors that impact organic integrity, building consumer confidence that organic products meet defined standards from farm to market.

May 2013

Agrisystems International founder Tom Harding finalized the sale of the international organic consultancy to his longtime colleague Alesia Bock of ASI Consulting LLC in DeForest, WI. The transition to serve clients has been seamless, and Alesia brings 24 years of experience in the food industry, including regulatory, certification and quality roles covering USDA, FDA and NOP. Tom Harding will continue to work closely with Alesia over the next few years in serving Agrisystems International’s growing worldwide client base.

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