Position on Genetic Engineering and Genetically Modified Organisms
May 21, 2002
The introduction of Genetic Engineering into agriculture has confronted the organic movement with new challenges. The purpose of this position is to provide IFOAM and its internal bodies with the Federation's position on Genetic Engineering; and to guide IFOAM members in the development of their own positions.
The position has a twofold perspective:
* A political focus on what IFOAM wants.
* A practical focus on what is feasible. (This is especially relevant
in relationship to standards. Organic agriculture operates according to
set requirements and it is critical that those requirements are
Based on this position, strategies will be developed. Public materials and statements by IFOAM shall follow this position.
This position does not set detailed standards for organic production,
inspection, certification or accreditation. That is the function of the
IFOAM Norms (the IFOAM Basic Standards and the IFOAM Accreditation
Criteria). Nevertheless, this position provides general guidance on the
development of appropriate standards and criteria.
Definitions and terminology
IFOAM uses the following definitions:
Genetic engineering (GE)
Genetic engineering is a set of techniques from molecular biology (such
as recombinant DNA) by which the genetic material of plants, animals,
micro-organisms, cells and other biological units are altered in ways
or with results that could not be obtained by methods of natural mating
and reproduction or natural recombination. Techniques of genetic
modification include, but are not limited to: recombinant DNA, cell
fusion, micro and macro injection, encapsulation, gene deletion and
doubling. Genetically engineered organisms do not include organisms
resulting from techniques such as conjugation, transduction and natural
Genetically Modified Organism (GMO)
A plant, animal, or microorganism that is transformed by genetic engineering.
A product that is the result of Genetic Engineering is called a
"product of Genetic engineering" or a "derivative of GMOs" depending on
IFOAM insists on precise definitions and terminology regarding genetic
engineering and opposes any effort to divert the GMO debate by
introducing terms such as "modern bio-technology".
Genetic Engineering in agriculture
IFOAM is opposed to genetic engineering in agriculture, in view of the
unprecedented danger it represents for the entire biosphere and the
particular economic and environmental risks it poses for organic
producers. IFOAM believes that genetic engineering in agriculture
causes, or may cause:
* Negative and irreversible environmental impacts
* Release of organisms which have never before existed in nature and which cannot be recalled
* Pollution of the gene-pool of cultivated crops, micro-organisms and animals
* Pollution off farm organisms
* Denial of free choice, both for farmers and consumers
* Violation of farmers' fundamental property rights and endangerment of their economic independence
* Practices which are incompatible with the principles of sustainable agriculture
* Unacceptable threats to human health
Therefore, IFOAM calls for a ban on GMOs in all agriculture.
While IFOAM is advocating a total ban on GMOs in all agriculture, we
cannot ignore the fact that GMOs are already in use, in some countries
even in wide-spread use. Therefore IFOAM must develop positions that
are dealing with this.
Labelling of Genetically Engineered agriculture products
IFOAM urges the introduction of mandatory and comprehensive labelling
for genetically engineered agricultural products for two main reasons:
1. A rapidly growing number of consumers throughout the world do not
want to consume genetically engineered agricultural products. Mandatory
and comprehensive labelling is necessary in order to secure the right
of consumer choice.
2. The labelling of genetically modified/engineered food is of
particular importance to producers and consumers of organic food, as
well to organic inspection and certification bodies. This is because
certain products from conventional agriculture or of non-agricultural
origin are still permitted in organic production. In order to ensure
that genetic engineering does not enter the organic production chain
through such compounds, reliable and comprehensive labelling is needed.
Labelling should not be limited to those agricultural products which
contain or consist of genetically modified organisms; it should also
cover agricultural products which are produced with genetically
IFOAM does not support the concept of "substantial equivalence".
IFOAM does not consider this method to be a sound determinant of food
safety. Further, IFOAM does not feel it is a valid criterion for
determining which genetically engineered agricultural products should
fall within the scope of products to be labelled. The
"substantial equivalence" approach only tells consumers something about
the composition of the end product. It does not disclose the 'history'
or production method of the product, which is of greater interest to
Genetic Engineering is excluded in organic agriculture
IFOAM is opposed to the use of Genetic Engineering in organic
agriculture, and in the processing of organic products. This
prohibition of genetic engineering applies to genetically engineered
plants, animals, and micro-organisms. It also applies to products of
genetically engineered organisms such as enzymes and amino acids,
irrespective of whether or not they are detectable in the final
IFOAM accepts the reality that organic producers operate in the world
and cannot be completely isolated from environmental pollution or the
effects of global development. Therefore it is IFOAM's position that we
need to find a realistic balance between the rejection of GE in organic
production and the practicalities of avoiding a distant link between
organic production and genetic engineering.
A few examples of this are: some inputs used in the organic
production system may be indirectly affected by genetic engineering,
e.g. composted household waste can come from households where some
people have consumed GE food; animal manure can come from farms that
have used GE products as feed stuffs; or a food processing aid can have
been produced with the use of a GE processing aid or enzyme. There may
also be unforeseen problems arising in animal keeping.
GMO contamination and testing
The only true guarantee for avoiding GMO contamination is a ban on
GMOs, which IFOAM strongly advocates. IFOAM also supports the
establishment of GMO-free zones and countries, where possible.
IFOAM advocates a total ban on Genetic Engineering. At the same time
IFOAM recognises that some GMOs have already been released for
commercial use and others are used in field trials. In these situations
the emphasis shall be on reducing the risk for contamination by
containing the genetically engineered product.
IFOAM is opposed to any approach that forces organic producers to bear
the burden of problems caused by others. It is IFOAM's position that
the responsibility for GE gene contamination lies with the polluters.
The producers and the users of GMOs must be held fully responsible for
preventing the spread of the GMOs and their properties. Organic farmers
should not have to prove their crops are uncontaminated. Governments
are urged to pass legislation that makes GMO companies liable for all
genetic pollution caused by the products they own, and to establish
satisfactory buffer zones between GMO crops and any other crops.
This approach is not predicated on the de-certification of organic
producers due to contamination, but rather on the right of all farmers
not to have their farms contaminated by genetic pollution.
The potential of GMO contamination does not alter the traditional
approach of certifying organic as a "production method" rather than an
end-product guarantee. Organic products are not defined or certified as
being "free" of unwanted pollution. Just as organic farmers cannot
guarantee zero contamination from pesticides they do not use
themselves, there is no way for them to guarantee that organic products
will not be polluted by traces of GMOs.
Contamination that results from circumstances beyond the control of the
operator will not necessarily alter the organic status of the
operation. The level of such unavoidable contamination will range from
non-detectable to very low, depending on a number of factors, most of
them outside the control of the producers. Any defined threshold will
be chosen arbitrarily and does not reflect adherence to organic
principles. Therefore IFOAM does not support the introduction of de
minimis thresholds for genetic contamination. Because of this,
mandatory testing for genetic contamination should not be introduced
for the verification of organic production. However, testing is a tool
available to certification bodies to utilise in certain specified
situations, such as when negligence or fraud is suspected or to assess
if established safeguards are sufficient.
Nevertheless, organic producers and operators shall take all reasonable
measures to minimise and manage the risk of contamination. This is
especially important for seeds, because if the seeds used by organic
producers are contaminated it has an impact on future production.
Special efforts shall be made by organic producers to ensure that the
seeds they use are not contaminated. Organic certification bodies shall
assure that all operators implement the necessary precautionary
measures, and if needed, assist operators with generic advice and
information. Organic sector associations shall assist their members to
obtain uncontaminated seeds. IFOAM should in turn assist with this on
the global level.
There may be those in the organic market, who wish to impose more
stringent contamination requirements that will vary in different
countries, and possibly also for different products. This is not
generally supported by IFOAM, as it is confusing and may exclude
organic producers from market access. It also undermines efforts to
create a coherent position. Nevertheless, IFOAM recognises this may be
unavoidable and is in line with the consumers right to choose. It is
also a more dynamic and flexible approach than establishing compulsory
standards. Therefore IFOAM maintains a neutral stance to such
Marketing of organic products and information about organic agriculture
Organic certification shall not imply it is a "GE-free" certification.
Rather it shall be presented as guaranteeing "production without
GE/GMOs". As there is no guarantee that organic products are 100% free
from any GMO pollution, organic products shall not be marketed as
"GE-free", unless there are specific safeguards and certification
procedures for that specific product. Organic producers and
associations shall actively inform the consumers of this fact to ensure
fair marketing claims and to avoid future debates about consumer
Adopted by the IFOAM World Board, Canada, May 2002