Agribusiness watchdog OrganicEye today demanded the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) hold a public hearing — or face litigation — on the use of mRNA and other genetically engineered vaccines in organic livestock production.
The use of such genetically modified products violates the legal definition of “organic,” the group said.
The request comes after reports that the USDA and some organic certifiers have “quietly looked the other way” as commercial livestock producers have begun using genetically engineered vaccines in animals producing organic-certified meat, eggs and dairy products, according to OrganicEye.
One of the most important differences — perhaps the key difference — between conventional and organic food is the organic label’s strict prohibition on genetically modified farm inputs and ingredients, as laid out in the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.
OrganicEye said that rather than enforcing this rule, the USDA has sanctioned a “don’t ask, don’t tell” protocol — pushed by Big Ag — that allows producers to administer genetically engineered vaccines to animals and still label them “organic.”
The issue is urgent, according to Mark Kastel, executive director of Wisconsin-based OrganicEye, because of the imminent use of mRNA vaccines for livestock, which are currently being developed with massive funding from government and industry.
“The impetus for us to act now is the impending introduction of vaccines for livestock produced using mRNA technology similar to that used by Pfizer and Moderna to produce their respective versions of the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine,” Kastel stated.
“There is a continuing controversy in the country concerning this new technology and we should work to preserve organics as the last safe haven for eaters who want to secure a truly ‘natural’ diet,” he added.
It is “unacceptable,” the nonprofit stated, for the USDA to “kick the can down the road” on this highly controversial issue.
OrganicEye is calling on the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to convene a meeting of all stakeholders, not only with industry interests who want these vaccines, Kastel told The Defender, but also with “people who have a concern — whether they’re farmers that don’t need them and feel they’re being competitively injured by competing against these livestock factories, or whether they’re consumers who have a general concern about genetic engineering and the food supply.”
“They have a right to be heard,” he said.
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A corrupted oversight process
Synthetic materials are by default banned in organics, unless they have been explicitly permitted because they are deemed “essential” to production and have been evaluated and determined to be safe for human health and the environment.
Congress created the NOSB in the 1990s to recommend industry standards for regulating such materials. It is a powerful advisory board — the USDA cannot allow any synthetic substances in organic production unless the NOSB has explicitly approved and recommended them.
The board was designed to represent stakeholders from across the organics industry, including small farmers and consumers, but it has increasingly become dominated by powerful agribusiness lobbyists — and as a result, increasingly subordinate to agribusiness’ dictates.
The first question that must be investigated, Kastel said, is whether vaccines are “essential” for livestock at all. They are generally not required in livestock production “other than some state regulations pertaining to interstate transportation of livestock,” he said.
But many producers, particularly in industrial agriculture, vaccinate their animals anyway to “mitigate risks.”
Kastel said a hearing would allow the public to investigate whether “there’s any good justification coming from anybody other than people involved in conventional livestock production for the use of vaccines.”
Or, maybe animals “maintained in a healthy environment with plenty of outdoor access and pasture for ruminants like beef and dairy cows on family-scale farms,” don’t need any vaccines at all — let alone genetically modified ones, he said.
Many vaccines previously approved for organic production have been phased out and replaced with vaccines produced through genetic modification.
At recent NOSB meetings, accredited organic certifiers admitted that they do not check to see whether vaccines used violate the prohibition against genetic engineering — despite the fact that federal regulations mandate their review.
In response, the NOSB recommended the USDA approve a regulatory amendment allowing for the use of these genetically modified vaccines in organic production in cases where the traditionally produced vaccine was no longer available.
In a policy brief also released today, OrganicEye called this move “likely illegal” because “in all cases, vaccines produced using methods of genetic engineering/modification are clearly forbidden by the national organic standards and are currently excluded from use.”
The USDA did not enact that recommendation and has stated it won’t act in this regulatory area.
In other words, Kastel said, the USDA is saying they “have no intention to do new rulemaking,” and are instead letting things stand — taking a “don’t ask, don’t tell,” approach to regulating GMO vaccines.
Dr. Hubert Karreman, doctor of veterinary medicine, North Carolina dairy farmer, charter fellow of the American College of Veterinary Botanical Medicine and former NOSB member, said that instead, the USDA could and should “create a very clear, easily understandable categorization system such that organic farmers don’t use a genetically engineered vaccine by mistake.”
OrganicEye charges the USDA’s reluctance to create that system is due to the influence of “powerful lobbyists and industry interests, mostly with expertise in conventional livestock production as in the case of vaccines,” who have an interest in producers continuing to rely on vaccines, rather than “providing more healthful and secure living environments for domesticated animals.”
In its policy brief, OrganicEye proposed the USDA create a clear categorization for vaccines, review all vaccines for safety prior to approval — including for the persistence of “foreign” DNA, RNA and antibodies in meat — and develop a way to deal with concerns that arise from that review, including removing such vaccines from the market if need be.
OrganicEye is also promoting a campaign to put pressure on the Biden administration to reduce its dependence on political appointees from corporate agribusiness in organic regulatory oversight — a practice that has resulted in the legally questionable conduct the group is protesting.