Big Organic sells out

Last Thursday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) had approved the unrestricted planting of genetically modified alfalfa sold by Monsanto Co. and Forge Genetics. Nevermind the protests from organic food groups and public health advocates, as well as about 250,000 citizens. The Atlantic reports:

With this announcement, the Obama administration showed whose side it is on in the battle between proponents of sustainable, organic agriculture and the big businesses that profit from conventional, chemical agriculture. Big Ag won. It wasn’t even close.

Alfalfa is the leading source of hay for cattle, so if you consume beef or dairy, you’re eating alfalfa, which is the fourth biggest crop in the nation after corn, soybeans, and wheat. As the story in the Atlantic points out, this is a plant that likes to travel: Its pollen can spread up to five miles, making it certain to contaminate conventional alfalfa crops. Since GMO products are not allowed in USDA-certified foods, it may soon be impossible for farmers to produce organic dairy and meat.

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To add profound disappointment to alarm, “Big Organic” company execs from Whole Foods Market (WFM), Organic Valley, and Stonyfield Farm struck a deal with the USDA. They agreed to support “conditional deregulation”of Monsanto’s genetically engineered, herbicide-resistant alfalfa in exchange for compensation to small farmers and rural communities, and for more USDA oversight of Monsanto instead of the usual hand-holding. (Cough.)

Ronnie Cummins, Director of the Organics Consumer Organization, has a piece in the Huffington Post about WFM’s sell-out — and he’s clearly disgusted. He blames it partially on the friendship the Big Organic CEOs have with USDA Secretary Vilsack, a long-time bio-tech cheerleader.  

Cummins believes the real reason the organic elite are fine with GMO products is because most of their sales don’t come from certified organic food, but from foods labeled as “natural” — and those foods do contain GMO products. The entire organic movement is threatened by multinational companies like Monsanto, and the big organic guys know it. They’re looking out for their bottom lines because they don’t see a way to win the GMO fight.

I don’t know about you, but I prefer to keep my GM food consumption to a minimum. I don’t think it’s asking too much to want to keep powerful chemical companies — those responsible or Agent Orange, PCBs, and toxic pesticides — out of my personal food decisions.

At the very least, every consumer should be allowed to know what’s in the food she buys. That means labeling is key. As Cummins points out, every industry poll done on the topic shows that 85-95 percent of consumers want mandatory labels on GMO foods. Why? So we don’t have to buy them. Monsanto and its friends in the government know this and “have prevented GMO truth-in-labeling laws from getting heard in Congress.”

I’m with Cummins on the solution. With big money controlling government, we have to concentrate on the local sphere — pressuring our retail stores to voluntarily label their products and to carry what we want to buy and eat. We also need to focus on legislation — for mandatory labeling laws at city, county, and state levels.

(H/t: RMW)

UPDATE: If I had waited 24 hours, I would have seen this response by Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm to Cummins’ article. Hirshberg says Cummins has it all wrong. The big organic companies like WFM, Stonyfield, and Organic Valley are unequivocally against GM alfalfa, but they weren’t presented with that choice:

In December, to no one’s surprise, the USDA took a complete ban of GE alfalfa off the table as an option, leaving only two choices: complete deregulation, or deregulation with some safeguards to protect organic farmers under a principle which they called “co-existence.” The choice we were faced with was to walk away and wait for the legal battle in the courts or stay at the table and fight for safeguards and restrictions that would attempt to protect organic farmers and consumer choice, still maintaining the option for legal battle later. A group of us participated in the meetings with the clear caveat that any decision to deregulate GE alfalfa must include restrictions that protect organic farmers and consumers’ choice. When faced with the overwhelming reality that GE alfalfa would be released despite our best efforts, we believed fighting for some safeguards to protect organic and organic farmers was essential.

Many have asked why we endorsed the coexistence option rather than an outright ban on GE alfalfa. The answer is we didn’t. When it was an option we strongly endorsed an outright ban. However, the option of an outright ban was taken off the table. At that point, we then specifically advocated that any regulatory approval must ensure (a) protection of seed purity — for organic farmers’ use, and as insurance in case something “crops up” that causes a later reconsideration of the use of biotechnology; (b) organic farmers whose crops become contaminated by GE alfalfa must be compensated by the patent holders for their losses due to losing their organic certification and (c) the USDA must oversee all testing and monitoring of GE crops to ensure compliance as part of its role in protecting all US agriculture. Needless to say, the biotech coalition was firmly opposed to all three caveats, but we remained united and fought hard for them. 

  • Zoe Romanowsky

    Zoe Romanowsky is writer, consultant, and coach. Her articles have appeared in “Catholic Digest,” “Faith & Family,” “National Catholic Register,” “Our Sunday Visitor,” “Urbanite,” “Baltimore Eats,” and Zo

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