Organic Infighting over GE Alfalfa

The USDA announced recently that Roundup Ready® alfalfa is cleared to be planted anywhere in the US without restrictions. In contrast to previous GE crop approvals, this time the USDA listed three potential options, the first being no approval at all, the second, unrestricted approval, and the third, approval with certain geographic restrictions. (For some discussion on this, see Anastasia’s post on alfalfa and mine on our joint comment to the USDA.) So already, the political process with GE crop deregulation is getting more interesting, but one fascinating aspect of all this is the new and surprising level of infighting amongst opponents of genetic engineering, particularly in the Organic agriculture sector. All it took was proposing something between a blanket Yes or No – something that recognizes that all farmers have a reasonable right to grow crops as they see fit – and that the goal should be coexistence amongst all segments of agriculture.

As soon as the topic of coexistence came up. Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association fired off a shot, with USDA Recommends “Coexistence” with Monsanto? We say Hell No!

The Agriculture Department is dutifully drafting a comprehensive “coexistence policy” that supposedly will diffuse tensions between conventional (chemical but non-GMO), biotech, and organic farmers. Earlier this week industry and Administration officials met in Washington, D.C. to talk about coexistence. Even though the Organic Consumers Association tried to get into the meeting, we were told we weren’t welcome. The powers that be claim that the OCA doesn’t meet their criteria of being “stakeholders.” The unifying theme in these closed-door meetings is apparently that Monsanto and the other biotech companies will set aside a “compensation” fund to reimburse organic farmers whose crops or fields get contaminated. That way we’ll all be happy. Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, Dow, and Dupont will continue planting their hazardous crops and force-feeding animals and consumers with GMOs. Organic farmers and companies willing to cooperate will get a little compensation or “hush money.” But of course our response to Monsanto and the USDA’s plan, as you might have guessed, is hell no!

There can be no such thing as “coexistence” with a reckless and monopolistic industry that harms human health, destroys biodiversity, damages the environment, tortures and poisons animals, destabilizes the climate, and economically devastates the world’s 1.5 billion seed-saving small farmers.  Enough talk of coexistence.

It is no small wonder to me why Ronnie was not invited. Even so, he gets the whole thing wrong about “hush money.” The USDA was not proposing a cross-pollination compensation fund, actually, the Organic Seed Alliance was, along with several other organizations.

The minutes of the USDA meeting in question are available online, and there is some good discussion there, worthy of its own post. Matthew Dillon from the OSA was on the phone talking about the hush money compensation fund idea, and Bill Freese was well, not talking about coexistence at all but instead weed resistance to glyphosate. Mark McCaslin from Forage Genetics was talking about what they’ve done to foster coexistence in the 4 years they’ve been waiting for the USDA’s shiny new EIS, and Doug Goehring from the North Dakota Department of Agriculture made the radical suggestion that if the proverbial “bull” gets out of its pen to tear up your neighbor, that “Maybe you’ve got to establish two fences on both sides.” (A much more workable situation with pollen flow, actually – it’s called incompatibility genes.) The USDA also explained the three deregulation options and how it might work to place geographic restrictions on alfalfa fields.

In the short time between this December meeting and the close of the comment period, while you heard some talk about End Times for Organic agriculture if GE alfalfa was approved, Whole Foods surprised me when it announced on its company blog that it supported the 3rd option, in favor of approving GE alfalfa with geographic restrictions. Organic Valley and Stonyfield Farm opined similarly, in what would seem to be a coordinated fashion. When the USDA laid down its decision on the alfalfa in question, all hell broke loose in the organic community. (And I’m not talking about Michael Pollan deciding to reclassify alfalfa as a grass.)

The first to come out swinging was Ronnie Cummins, of course. He accused the “Organic Elite” of surrendering to Monsanto.

In the wake of a 12-year battle to keep Monsanto’s Genetically Engineered (GE) crops from contaminating the nation’s 25,000 organic farms and ranches, America’s organic consumers and producers are facing betrayal. A self-appointed cabal of the Organic Elite, spearheaded by Whole Foods Market, Organic Valley, and Stonyfield Farm, has decided it’s time to surrender to Monsanto.

To support this thesis, Cummins weaves together a surprising web of campaign contributions and tales of greenwashing and “Natural” fraud. Them’s fightin’ words. But the response did not come from those food companies first, instead, it came from the Non-GMO Project, which was also criticized. In Team Organic will Never Surrender to Monsanto, Director Megan Westgate corrected some of Cummins’ false claims, while calling for him to work together with them to fight genetic engineering. In her response, however, I would like to point out two very curious statements.

The first is her opening statement about the rush of radical activism. While trying to appeal to Cummins’ desire for a return to radicalism, this is instead adding to the legitimacy of such actions. While Megan only interrupted a inaugural ceremony, others thinking along the same lines have destroyed field stations and research in UC Davis in 1999 to uprooting GE grapes in France last year. While she is trying to convince Cummins’ that her organization is sincere about being totally-completely-non-negotiably anti-GE, there is a danger in promoting the direct action style of “combat” in what it can lead to. “Combat” was her choice of words, and it does not promote civil political dialog.

The second thing that stuck out was how Megan Westgate described herself “As a founding board member of the Non-GMO Project, and its first (and only) Executive Director”. This implies that she both founded the Non-GMO Project and directed it from the beginning. Neither is true. Nor is her description of its history in the following paragraph, where she says that the organization started in Tuscon, Arizona. It started in Berkeley, California, and it mimicked the approach initially going on in Tuscon (which Megan doubtlessly was involved in by her description) of contacting manufacturers to pressure them to not buy GE crops for use in their food. Later, when the food companies (Whole Foods, Organic Valley, Stonyfield Farm and several others) took over the project, they made her the Executive Director even though there was someone else who ran it before her – they just didn’t have the title of “Executive Director.” How do I know all this? Robin Jane Roff, a geography researcher wrote half of her thesis on it, and what not only a volunteer for the project at one point, but also interviewed the then-organizer. The Non GMO Project’s history is briefly described in No Alternative, a peer-reviewed article. Suffice to say, both Cummins’ and Westgate’s descriptions of the history and purpose of the Non-GMO Project are wrong.

My take on the Non-GMO Project is that it is an organization  intended to create a niche market for non-GE foods. As such, it has even been saying that being certified organic is not enough to avoid genetic engineering – you have to get certified as such. Insofar as it verifies products of being below a certain amount of GE material, it is not a greenwashing effort. However, in the past year they have begun to market themselves by trying to raise doubts about the safety of GE foods, and presenting their verified products as being “safe” from those risks. As they are trying to build a brand name, they need people in their target demographic to want to pay more for the ‘verified’ food products, which is probably why the public response to Cummins and the OCA is not to condemn the accusations of “surrender” but to instead try to make peace. His audience is their niche market.

And I almost forgot one detail that makes the Cummins vs Westgate argument more interesting still – Ronnie Cummins is on the communications committee of the Non-GMO Project. Sounds like harmonious communication. (See note at bottom)

Publicly, the response from these food companies (and other anti-GE organizations) was all along the lines of “fighting the common enemy” – that being Monsanto, of course. Within a day of each other, Whole Foods and Stonyfield Farm said pretty much the same thing. Blogs and twitter accounts lit up with chatter. (In what was a smart move for their group, they are trying to rally around raising money to sue the USDA over the alfalfa decision and more.) In particular, I would like to mention Barth Anderson at Fair Food Fight, who gives an animated summary of other parts of this story that I have left out, and whose opinion I will come back to.

In private, however, Whole Foods circulated an email that went a little further. This was revealed by Cummins in his next tirade against Whole Foods and more, titled Monsanto Nation: Exposing Monsanto’s Minions.He took umbrage at the following passage from their no-longer-internal memo:

Why is the OCA spreading misinformation? That’s a hard question for us to answer. Perhaps because we don’t share their narrow view of what it means to support organics, or perhaps because we do not support them with donations. Either way, it’s a shame that an organization that claims to “campaign for health, justice and sustainability” can’t simply tell the truth. This just confuses consumers. Despite all their noise, no industry leaders listen to the OCA – but uninformed consumers might. Their fear-mongering tactics, combined with the OCA’s lack of transparency about its funding sources, underscore the fact that it is neither credible nor trustworthy. We can only assume their activities are intended for further fund-raising.

Ouch. Cummins’ response was less visceral, but still focused on trying to divert them from their current business practices, and trying to highlight how much this event has pushed these organizations to campaign harder against GE. He also considers campaigning against Whole Foods. (The full Whole Foods email is available here for context, courtesy of the OCA.)

While the chatter about this deregulation event is dying down, it has revealed something very interesting about the landscape of opinion about genetic engineering amongst its opponents in the organic community. Some are willing to pursue options for coexistence of GE and non-GE, while others are unwavering in their position and will accept nothing short of no-GE-whatsoever. In other words, that one farmer’s right not to grow trumps another’s right to grow. In response to Cummins and the Organic Consumers Association, the organizations that advocated for co-existence could have used this opportunity to call out the unilateral stance of the OCA and how it reveals the kind of thinking that leads to polarized debate and likely, a complete loss for their side. Ronnie Cummins is probably not the ally that they seek, and the next time they talk about anything smacking of co-existence this will come up again, and again.

This is one interesting exchange, but it is part of a wider issue that appears to be troubling the non-GE sector of American agriculture: to be non-GE or anti-GE? To coexist or to impose? (To commit absolutely to a philosophy or do what makes money?) The USDA was considering an option that could have changed how GE crops would be regulated, something that would have been better, from their perspective, than the complete deregulation that did occur for alfalfa. If these organizations instead backed the coexistence proposal, would the outcome have been different? Strangely, I have heard many people complain that the USDA didn’t choose the third “coexistence” option, but when asked, none of them supported it when it was proposed. I guess agreeing to co-existence would mean giving up on the pure anti-GE campaign to just be non-GE. There is an identity crisis going on in the organic and non-GE community, and all it took was giving a third option to reveal it. The next step should be to explore the diversity of opinions and see what people actually think, not a handful of opinion-leaders. Those opinion leaders are saying that co-existence is not possible.

How about actual co-existence? Let me return to Barth Anderson:

But let’s face up to the cold, cruel reality on “coexistence,” organic activists and bloggers. Organic ag has been coexisting with Monsanto and GE crops — for years — and to believe otherwise is lunatic, crazypants denial. To claim that organics will never coexist with biotech when GE corn is popping up in Mexico of all places; to show the unmitigated gall of telling organic farmers that they shouldn’t receive compensation for damages or expect organic consumers to endorse such a thing; to believe that fighting for a ban is better than giving farmers the regulations they need to exist in the real world alongside biotech ag — it’s the absolute, astonishing height of absurdity.

Coexistence is not the death of organics, and compensation is not “hush money.”

While everyone seems to be talking about compensation and losing organics and political pressure, etc, there is a glimmer of good news about the prospect of getting disparate segments of agriculture to cooperate. For several years there has been an agreement in place in the Imperial Valley, CA, where most alfalfa seed is grown. The agreement states that none of their GE alfalfa is to be grown there, to protect the markets of the many non-GE alfalfa seed producers. Coexistence, without any lawsuits, grandstanding, or name-calling. You mean farmers talk to each other and figure out solutions between each other and companies like Forage Genetics? Amazing!

While rifts appear to have emerged between those who are happy with compromises and those who are not, for now these anti-GE organizations appear to be trying to get along again. Ronnie Cummins will be talking Thursday evening during a live internet broadcast about the issue of “coexistence” (in scare quotes) with genetic engineering, for those interested. It will likely be an attempt to bring wavering opinions back in line with their uncompromising viewpoint, which will ultimately only make it harder for them all.

Note: As of 10-18-2011 the Communications Committee page on the Non-GMO Project site is gone. The committee still exists, according to this document, however there is no information about who is on this committee on the site anymore. From the Google Cache of 10-08-2011, the committee consisted of these people:

Communications Committee Members:

Bob Gerner, The Natural Grocery Company
Brie Johnson, Straus Family Creamery
Corinne Shindelar, Independent Natural Food Retailers Association
Franklin A. Santana, Down to Earth ALL VEGETARIAN Organic & Natural
Jeffrey Smith, Institute for Responsible Technology
Ken Roseboro, The Organic and NonGMO Report
Maria Emmer-Aanes, Nature’s Path Organic Foods
Mark Squire, Good Earth Natural and Organic Foods
Nona Evans, Whole Foods Market
Patrick Conner, The Big Carrot
Phil Bereano, Activist & Scholar on GMO Issues
Ronnie Cummins, Organic Consumers Association
Todd Kluger, Lundberg Family Farms
Tom Wright, Sustainable Business Practices
Trudy Bialic, PCC Natural Markets

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:
Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.