USA: If You Eat Organic Food, Have You Just Been Betrayed?

Organic consumers and producers in the U.S. are facing betrayal. A self-appointed group of “Organic Elites”, including Whole Foods Market, Organic Valley, and Stonyfield Farm, are surrendering to Monsanto.

Top executives from these companies publicly stated several weeks ago that they support the so-called “coexistence” of organics with genetically modified (GM) crops.

The Organic Consumers Association has asserted that Whole Foods sent a misleading e-mail to its customers on Jan. 21in which they gave the green light to USDA bureaucrats to approve the “conditional deregulation” of Monsanto’s genetically engineered, herbicide-resistant alfalfa. However, after sharp criticisms from the OCA and their customers, and in the wake of USDA’s unrestricted approval of GE alfalfa and sugar beets, the leaders of the organic industry seem to have changed their tune, issuing strong statements against the USDA approval last week.

According to the Organic Consumers Association:

“The main reason … why Whole Foods is pleading for coexistence with Monsanto, Dow, Bayer, Syngenta, BASF and the rest of the biotech bullies, is that they desperately want the controversy surrounding genetically engineered foods and crops to go away. Why? Because they know, just as we do, that two-thirds of [Whole Food’s] $9 billion annual sales is derived from so-called ‘natural’ processed foods and animal products that are contaminated with GMOs.”

The Organic Consumers Association is also helping people who want to organize or coordinate Millions Against Monsanto and Factory Farms Truth-in-Labeling campaigns in their local community, through this web site:

Update: Whole Foods Market has offered this response to the Organic Consumers Association:

“We have seen a few comments about the OCA’s misleading letter about our company. Once again, the OCA has it all wrong. We have done more than any other retailer to educate and advocate on genetically engineered food, and we are deeply committed to preserving our ability to sell non-GE food. Perhaps OCA did not understand our position. We do not have anything to do with big biotech companies’ agenda!

“As tried and true pioneers of organic, we at Whole Foods Market support the preservation of seed purity, organic integrity and we are advocates of clearly labeling GMOs so that our shoppers can make informed decisions.

There are still many unanswered questions about genetic engineering and there is no mandatory labeling and little government oversight of GMOs. That’s why we have spent the last couple of decades working to find a solution to offer non-GMO foods to our shoppers.

We do NOT advocate for the USDA to allow the well-funded biotech industry to monitor itself carte blanche without ongoing government oversight. Unfortunately, the USDA presented our industry with two options: total deregulation of GE alfalfa, or deregulation with some conditions to facilitate coexistence and protection of non-GE farmers.

We supported a path of coexistence, not because it’s a perfect path, but because it’s the only viable path that would ensure our ongoing ability to provide non-GMO foods.

Given the prevalence of GMO crops in the U.S. — 93 percent of soy, 86 percent of corn, 93 percent of cotton and 93 percent of canola seed planted were genetically engineered in the US in 2010 — we did not believe that a complete ban of GE alfalfa or any crop is an option that the USDA would even consider supporting, nor was it even an option.

We favor protecting organic and non-GE agriculture’s property rights, and the USDA’s regulatory authority is the best way to meet this goal. Our options were to have a seat at the table (and support coexistence) or to not be represented at all. We chose deregulation with restrictions so that we could represent our company, the organic food community and our shoppers.

This does not mean that we have anything to do with big biotech or that we support their agenda.”

Further Updates: The news keeps pouring in on this controversial issue.  Phil Bereano, a co-founder of AGRA watch, argues that by deregulating the planting of GM alfalfa, the USDA appears to be in direct contravention to its obligations under law and court decisions.  A 2007 trial judge found that alfalfa farmers had established a reasonable probability that their conventional alfalfa crops would be contaminated with the engineered Roundup Ready gene if deregulation occurred.

Writing on the Community Alliance for Global Justice Website, he notes:

“There have been about 200 incidents of GE crops contaminating non-GE produce, resulting in hundreds of millions (if not billions) of dollars in damages; contamination is a real risk and one of very significant magnitude … Thus, the Department cannot dismiss it as insignificant or rest on Monsanto’s assurances that its practices render contamination unlikely … The Department suggests that consumers will forgive unintentional contamination, but intention is irrelevant to the National Organic Standards and to the protection of human health.”

Meanwhile, Tom Philpott, writing in Grist Magazine, suggests that the White House may have pressured the USDA to deregulate.  In the past, USDA chief Tom Vilsack has acknowledged the dangers of cross-contamination, calling it “a significant concern for farmers who produce for non-GE markets at home and abroad.”

According to Grist:

“A USDA chief had publicly declared his willingness to defy the industry, and then was seemingly forced by political pressure from above to cravenly abandon that defiance …Unhappily, the decision falls into line with other Obama administration gestures of fealty to the agrichemical lobby.”