Chapter 2

Organic Crop Certification

Genetically Engineered Products

National Organic Program Policy

The use of genetically engineered (GE) crops is specifically prohibited in certified organic production systems. Section 205.105 of the USDA National Organic Program standards states: “To be sold or labeled as ‘100 percent organic’… the product must be produced and handled without the use of excluded methods including 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. 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). Such methods do not include the use of traditional breeding, conjugation, fermentation, hybridization, in vitro fertilization, or tissue culture.” To meet the USDA organic regulations, farmers and processors must show they aren’t using GMO products and that they are protecting their products from contact with prohibited substances, such as GMOs, from farm to table.

Traditional Plant Breeding Versus Genetic Engineering

Traditional Plant Breeding

Traditional plant breeding has been going on for hundreds of years, and is still commonly used today. Traditional breeding can involve simple selection of plants with favorable traits, such as high yield or better flavor, for replanting. In doing so year after year, the farmers created new strains of crops. Another form of plant breeding is cross-pollination, which involves intentionally transferring the pollen of a flower from one plant to the stigma of a flower from another plant of the same or closely related species. Successful pollination results in viable seeds. When the seeds grow one or more of the offspring plants will exhibit beneficial traits.

Genetic Engineering (GE)

Genetic engineering (GE) is not just an extension of conventional breeding. In fact, it differs profoundly. As a general rule, traditional plant breeding develops new plant varieties by the process of selection, and seeks to achieve expression of genetic material, which is already present within a species. Genetic engineering works primarily through insertion of genetic material, although gene insertion must also be followed up by selection.

Benefits and Risks Associated with Genetic Modification

Few topics in agriculture are more polarizing than genetic engineering (GE), the process of manipulating an organism’s genetic material—including genes from other species—in an effort to produce desired traits such as pest resistance or drought tolerance. There are benefits and risks of GE, although to what extent GE can solve the world’s agricultural problems and help the environment is a debatable aspect of this technology.


Many crops such as rice, maize, and potatoes are being genetically engineered in several ways. Proponents argue that the benefits are many: 1) higher crop yields 2) more nutritious food 3) crops can be grown in harsh environments 4) they are more resistant to pests thus eliminating the use of potentially hazardous pesticides 5) undesirable characteristics can be removed 6) food can have a better flavor and a longer shelf life, and 7) they can also be used as a cheap source of medicine. For example, studies performed by the USDA Economic Research Service in 2000 and 2002 have generally, but not invariably, documented a reduction in pesticide use in certain conventional cropping systems as a result of the adoption of GE varieties (Fernandez-Cornejo et al., 2002).


Although genetic modification has been around for almost three decades and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has deemed GMOs safe, many consumers still balk at the idea of mixing the genes of entirely different organisms. Wary consumers talk of “Frankenfoods” and express concern about hidden allergens and other undiscovered biological effects. Organic growers worry that the pests will develop resistance to Bt, an important organic insecticide. Environmentalists and farmers fear the creation of “superweeds” when pollen from herbicide-tolerant crops is inadvertently transferred to wild plants. And farmers who grow non-GM crops under organic certification or for export into countries that ban GM foods worry that genetic drift will contaminate their non-GM plantings.

Best Management Practices in Preventing GMO Contamination

Since different types of agriculture are practiced on adjoining fields, suitable measures during planting, cultivation, harvest, transport, storage, and processing are needed in order to prevent the accidental mixing of GMO and non-GMO materials. Contamination may result from seed impurities, wind or insect-borne cross-pollination, volunteer or feral plants, and/or inadequate harvest and handling practices.

GMO Pollen Contamination of Organically Grown Crops

Non-GMO farmers run the constant risk of their crops being contaminated by pollen from patented genetically modified plants. However, if detectable levels of GE material are found in a crop it does not constitute a violation of NOP standards and regulations, as long as a grower has not intentionally planted GE seed and has taken reasonable steps to avoid contact with GE pollen or seed or both. The USDA indicated in a December 2004 letter to the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture that no grower has ever lost certification due to the presence of GE products in their organic product.

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