The definition of "organic" food varies by state; some havestringent certification requirements and others have noguidelines at all. However, that's about to change -- and whenit does, biotechnology could be locked out of a market that theBoulder, Colo., magazine Organic Times estimates at $1.5 billionannually.

Opponents of genetic engineering have targeted organic foodsas the latest bastion that needs protecting from biotech.

Spurred on by the National Wildlife Federation newsletter, TheGene Exchange, the anti-biotech contingent sent about 20letters to the USDA last week urging the National OrganicStandards Board to bar engineered foods from certificationunder standards the Board is developing, USDA's Harold Ricker,assistant director of the transportation and marketing division,told BioWorld.

The newsletter, based in Washington, D.C., had issued an actionalert about the matter because the Board will meet the lastweek in September and the role of biotechnology may be onthe agenda. "...The Board will discuss "whether to recommendthat genetically engineered organisms be excluded from the listof materials approved for addition to organic products or asinputs into certified organic systems," according to thenewsletter's August 1993 issue.

Margaret Mellon and Jane Rissler, notable opponents ofbiotechnology, are the editors of The Gene Exchange. Bothrecently moved from the National Wildlife Federation to theUnion of Concerned Scientists.

The National Organic Standards Board, which serves the USDAbut is not actually part of the agency, was established underthe authority of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 aspart of that year's farm bill. It will issue recommendations forstandards probably this winter or early spring, USDA's Rickertold BioWorld. These will be published in the Federal Registerfor comment, and then the Board will develop final rules.

"I think it's an important issue," Jerry Caulder, chairman,president and chief executive officer of Mycogen Corp.(NASDAQ:MYCO) of San Diego told BioWorld. "The organic foodgrowers have to decide whether they want their food and theirconcept of growing food to remain a cult based on emotion andopinion, or do they want the definition of organic food to bebased on scientific data and defined from a non-biasedstandpoint."

Given the fact that the USDA estimates the retail value of foodat $286 billion, the annual market for organic foods, at $1.5billion, represents only a small fraction (about 0.5 percent).

Biotechnology proponents who wish to put in their two centswith the National Organic Standards Board should contact itbefore the end of this week, care of Hal Ricker,USDA/AMS/TMD, Room 4006, South Bldg., Box 96456,Washington, D.C. 20090-6456; (202) 720-2704; fax: (202) 690-0338.

-- David C. Holzman Washington Editor

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.