Organic Exchange Responds to GMO/Organic Cotton Controversy

organic exchange photo

Credit: Organic Exchange

Non-profit organization Organic Exchange has published a response to the headline-grabbing "organic cotton fraud" news, that major retailers--including H&M;, C&A;, and Tchibo--are knowingly selling genetically modified (GMO) cotton from India as organic cotton. The news was initially published in the German edition of the Financial Times, on Friday January 22, 2010, the article states "not every product that is labeled as organic cotton is truly organic." OE weighs in on the controversy, and shows us where the contamination of GMO material in certified organic cotton is possible:Organic Exchange states that while GMO contamination in organic cotton is growing in India--where it is estimated that up to 70% of conventional cotton is produced using GMO seed--this is also true for all other regions that grow both organic and GMO cotton. OE expands on the threat of GMO to the organic cotton industry, below.

Contamination can occur at the farm where GMO and organic crops are grown too close together and cross pollination takes place. The resulting seed on the fringes of the organic cotton crop may then contain the BT gene, which is the most common GMO variety.

Organic farming standards deal with this by setting 'buffer zones' which specify the distance required between organic and conventional fields. There is no doubt that in India that the widespread use of GMO poses a threat to the integrity of the organic cotton industry, but it is an issue that it being taken seriously by all stakeholders.

Accidental Contamination Possible During Cotton Processing
Opportunities also exist for accidental contamination to occur as the majority of organic cotton is processed in the same machinery as conventional/GMO cotton. However, current product integrity standards require each production plant to be fully cleaned out before a run of organic cotton starts, and there are strict requirements to keep the organic fibre physically separated and independently tracked, so that there is no chance of commingling or confusing with conventional fibre.

OE brings up a point that is often overlooked: "'organic' is not a purity claim," it refers to the how the crop is grown, organically, more below.

GMO Contamination: Outside of Farmer's Control?

In some cases, a very small amount of contamination may occur due to factors outside of the farmer's control. Certifiers conduct tests on plant, seed or soil to ensure that any pesticide residues and/or GMO's are below a fine tolerance, and do not indicate deliberate fraud or carelessness on the part of the farmer.

APEDA Sanctions Certifiers, Shows System of Checks and Balances
The FT article also infers that certain certifiers knowingly certified cotton as being organic when they knew that GMO seed had been used. In fact this was not the case. APEDA, the organisation that regulates organic production in India, sanctioned two certifiers for non-conformities in their certification processes rather than for fraud and both these companies immediately made the needed changes and the sanctions were
subsequently lifted.

In all systems there is a set of checks and balances, and the fact that APEDA uncovered problems is a much an indication that the monitoring system is working as it is an indication of the problems themselves. It is important to support the continued improvement of regulations, certification and enforcement.

The Organic Exchange concludes that the controversy comes down to one of intent. Organic farming techniques are still beneficial, and should not be discouraged simply because there is a risk of contamination by GMO. Brands and retailers are also becoming more involved with their supply chains to ensure claims on their final products. What do you think of the organic cotton controversy? Tell us in the comments section, below.

Thanks to Céleste Lilore of Restore Clothing, for tipping us to the news on Organic Exchange.

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