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: http://organicconsumers.org/oca-volunteer/
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."
As you've probably heard by now, the USDA recently approved planting of genetically modified (GM) alfalfa, the fourth-largest crop in the USA, without restriction.
As you can see, this has created quite the controversy, so rather than go with the original story posted by the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), I decided to weigh in with all the participants and delay the story until I had a chance to interview all of them. Here, I will present several sides, including that of:
- Jeffrey Smith -- the Institute for Responsible Technology
- Michael Besancon -- Whole Foods
- George Siemon -- Organic Valley
- Ronnie Cummins -- The Organic Consumers Association
How Did GM Alfalfa Get Approved Despite Such Strong Opposition?
Scathing articles by major media have questioned how this approval got squeezed through, despite the evidence showing that GM alfalfa could be a disaster. Articles in The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have suggested the decision was the result of political wrangling, as opposed to evaluation of the evidence.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Bill Tomson and Scott Kilman, both of whom are veteran agricultural policy reporters, tie the troublesome decision to the White House:
"The Obama administration Thursday abandoned a proposal to restrict planting of genetically engineered alfalfa, the latest rule-making proposal shelved as part of the administration's review of "burdensome" regulation."
However, this issue is far more important than trying to rid the system of regulation that is "burdensome" to business, which makes it all the more disturbing.
You probably don't realize it but alfalfa is the fourth most grown crop in the US. Farmers plant millions of acres of alfalfa to produce forage seed and hay to feed cows and other livestock. It really is shocking that Monsanto pushed so hard for GMO alfalfa approval and received it, because over 93 percent of the current alfalfa crop is NOT being treated with herbicides, so there's really no need to make it Round Up resistant.
Alfalfa is also a major pollinator, which means that the likelihood of it cross-pollinating and transferring genetic material is very high, if not guaranteed. It's also a natural forage for pastured (organically-raised grass-fed) animals. Contamination would be disastrous for organic dairy- and cattle farmers as federal organic standards forbid them from using GM crops, and organic food manufacturers will reject a food ingredient if found to be contaminated with GM material -- not to mention Monsanto's history of suing both conventional and organic farmers for patent infringement should their crops be cross-contaminated.
USDA chief Tom Vilsack acknowledged these concerns in an "Open Letter to Stakeholders" on December 30, 2010, stating that the USDA's environmental impact statement "acknowledges the potential of cross-fertilization to non-GE alfalfa from GE alfalfa," adding that cross-fertilization is "a significant concern for farmers who produce for non-GE markets at home and abroad."
Organic Consumers Associations: "We've Been Betrayed"
Adding heat to the controversy is the appearance of betrayal from some of our most trusted organic businesses, such as Whole Foods and Organic Valley.
The third interview in the video above is with Ronnie Cummins, one of the founders and the Executive Director of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) -- an organization that has been instrumental in promoting organics around the world -- about why he feels the organic industry leaders have betrayed us all.
Prior to Cummins' interview are the perspectives from both Whole Foods and Organic Valley, as the situation is not necessarily as cut and dry as it may seem on the surface.
Organic Consumers Association on the De-Regulation of GM Alfalfa
In December of last year, the Organic Consumers Association revealed that "the USDA had approached members of the organic community and wanted them to stop filing lawsuits against genetically engineered crops and see if they could reach some kind of position on co-existence," Cummins says.
"Then, on January 21, Whole Foods sent out an email to all of its customers and friends on Facebook describing this compromise they had reached with the USDA in positive terms as being "the best we can get from the USDA," Cummins explains.
"The best we can get, according to this compromise, was allowing Monsanto to go forward and plant genetically engineered alfalfa plants across the country.
The USDA Secretary Vilsack promised the organic industry representatives that if they would agree to stop opposing the approval of Monsanto's genetically engineered alfalfa, the USDA was willing to set up a system where non-GMO crop growers could get some financial compensation when there is contamination, and that there would be some geographical restrictions on where these genetically engineered alfalfa plants could be cultivated."
But members of the Organic Consumer Association started raising a number of concerns.That's what prompted Cummins to write The Organic Elite Surrenders to Monsanto, What Next?, which ignited the current debate.
"Unfortunately, right after my essay was published, in fact within an hour, the word came that the USDA was approving Monsanto's genetically engineered alfalfa with absolutely no restrictions whatsoever," Cummins says.
White House Influenced USDA Decision to Give Monsanto Carte Blanche
In other words, the USDA reneged on all their promises to the organic industry leaders, AND they ignored the public comments from some 250,000 concerned citizens!
"Subsequently, it has come out that the White House directly intervened with the USDA and told them in no uncertain terms that "we don't want any restrictions on Monsanto's alfalfa. We want them to build a plant anywhere they want with no consideration as to contamination of adjoining crops," Cummins says.
"I guess this whole notion of coexistence is a moot point now. The U.S. has gone ahead despite rulings by federal courts, and despite warnings by scientists over the last four years that these genetically engineered alfalfa plants should not be planted ."
You might be wondering how this is possible. Well it's because Monsanto has infiltrated the US Federal Regulatory agencies like the FDA and US Department of Agriculture (USDA) with their previous employees who are still very loyal to Monsanto. You can review the names of these individuals further down in this article.
Another interesting article on Uruknet by Mike Ludwig, titled "Why Monsanto Always Wins," sheds even more light on the shady approval process of GM crops. According to Ludwig, there's evidence of "cooperation" between federal regulators and the biotech industry that crosses the line of acceptable involvement during the regulatory review.
He also cites Bill Freese, a policy analyst with CFS, who told Truthout that "the approval process for controversial GE (genetically engineered) crops like Roundup Ready alfalfa is basically a "sham" designed to increase consumer confidence in the controversial GE crops," and that in his years of battling against biotech, "he can't remember a single case when regulators failed to eventually grant approval of a GE crop."
For more of the inside scoop, please read Ludwig's article.
Jeffrey Smith Weighs In
It is interesting to note that Jeffrey Smith, founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology and one of the world's leading experts on genetically modified foods does not agree with Cummins' accusations against Whole Foods and Organic Valley, both of which are members of the Non-GMO project.
"There's been some high voltage opinions darting about the blogosphere about the Non-GMO Project, which is the new third-party verifying organization for companies making Non-GMO claims. I have been watching and working with this organization for many years and I want to weigh in," Smith writes in a recent article.
"I have unqualified support of the mission, tactics, and integrity of the organization. In fact, last year we made the requirement that for any product to be listed as non-GMO in our Non-GMO Shopping Guide or iPhone app ShopNoGMO, it had to be enrolled in the Non-GMO Project."
According to Smith, Whole Foods has "definitely been a leader in converting their store brands to non-GMO. In fact, it is their enrollment of all their store brand products into the Project, at a cost of millions, which has opened the way for the rest of the industry.
I think it's time for all of us to become united on this issue and use our collective power, to mobilize millions of consumers and the entire natural foods industry, to achieve the tipping point of consumer rejection of GMOs and force them out of the market."
Whole Foods Responds
The first interview above is with Michael Besancon, a senior representative from Whole Foods, in which he discusses their involvement in the process, and their position on the recent approval of the GM alfalfa.
"[W]e worked with a number of other companies in the industry, as well as other retailers, to do what we could to influence the Department of Agriculture to not approve the unlimited use of the GMO-modified alfalfa," Besancon says.
"As we got down to the very end, we discovered that there were going to be only two options. One was 100 percent deregulation, or what I think was probably erroneously referred to as a 'coexistence policy' where GMO alfalfa would be grown as well as conventional or organic alfalfa.
… We did our best to get the lesser of the two evils, which was some protection for seed; some protection for conventional and organic farmers. In the end, that was fruitless. We were unable to move the machinery to get what we thought was a last ditch effort and the best case that we could with what was presented to us."
Unfortunately, even the Non-GMO project admits that it's almost impossible to completely exclude genetically modified ingredients from all products, simply because the GM crops already out there. This is an industry fact that holds true for all organic retailers. GM corn, canola and soy are ubiquitous. They're in nearly everything. GM alfalfa will make matters even worse.
"We were founding members of the Non-GMO Project with the intent of labeling products as containing no more than 0.9 percent GMO, because there is the pollen drift that is contaminating everything," Besancon says.
However, it's become abundantly clear that we can't win this war by focusing on the regulation, because of Monsanto's infiltration into the very agencies making the regulatory decisions.
The organic industry leaders have strong motivation and drive to protect organic foods, but even with their combined clout they were no match for the biotech giant Monsanto. When you take the far-reaching power of Monsanto into account, then the failure of the organic industry leaders to keep GM alfalfa off the market becomes quite understandable.
Personally, I think both parties -- Whole Foods and the Organic Consumers Association -- are well-intentioned, and when seen from an overview, both sides appear to have the same end goal. Therefore, I would urge everyone to focus on working together to achieve that goal. Remember, we're up against a formidable enemy: the biotech industry, led by Monsanto. And the organic industry leaders, while "giant" compared to small, privately owned organic farms, are still David's in this fight against Goliath.
So what's the answer?
How do we stop GM crops from overtaking and contaminating the world's food supply? How do we protect ourselves from GM contaminated foods?
We do it by joining forces. In the end, it's a numbers game. As consumers get wise to this issue and begin to vote with their pocketbooks, we still have a chance to turn it all around.
Besancon explains that Whole Foods is still hoping for the same chain of events to occur with non-GMO labeling as happened with non-rBST labeling.
"[W]hen the consumers didn't want the product and didn't buy it, in California for instance, the predominant milk is now without rBST," he says. "That's because the consumers voted and the market controlled that ingredient, controlled that process.
What we're hoping is that with the Non-GMO Project, with the certification of ingredients in a product being non-GMO, that the consumers will vote. That the consumers will make their voices known both with their pocketbooks and their purchase, and also by speaking to their representatives, wherever they may be…
[W]e have committed to the Non-GMO project with our private label product. And we are committed to encouraging everyone in the industry that sells natural or organic products to label their products through the Non-GMO Project as certified non-GMO."
For more information about Whole Foods' policies on GM ingredients and what they're doing to promote non-GMO, please listen to the interview or read through the transcript.
Organic Valley Speaks Out
Second in the interview lineup you will hear from George Siemon, one of the founding farmers and current CEO of Organic Valley, which is an organic farmer cooperative. Founded in 1988, the co-op now consists of close to 1,700 independently owned farms in about 30 US states. They specialize in organic dairy products, but also produce organic soy, meat, eggs, juice, and fresh produce.
"[W]e've been a major participant in all the lawsuits trying to stop GE products," Siemon says. "Alfalfa was the first time with The Center for Food Safety in the lead. We provided a lot of funding as well as legal support and farmer support to actually stop this onslaught of GM products. As you know, we actually had to bring it all the way up to the Supreme Court.
Out of that, the Department of Agriculture, for the first time, said they're going to introduce something more than deregulation. They put forward a proposal to deregulate with conditions, which was still deregulating, and still not a happy result.
But because they were willing to consider, finally, some limitations, they invited a group of people that were involved in lawsuits in all sides of the fence to get together, and proposed that, maybe, there was some need for limitations on a deregulation. I was invited to that.
I was part a working group that tried to see what limitations could be put on if alfalfa was to be deregulated; what limitations could be put on to protect the seeds, and to reimburse farmers for damage.
So from the beginning it was a compromise decision where they were making it clear that it was going to be deregulated…"
In hindsight, it seems like it was merely a token gesture, because in the end the Department of Agriculture ignored the discussions with the organic industry leaders and capitulated to Monsanto's wishes.
"You got to understand how influential Monsanto and the biotechnology community is in DC," Siemon says. "They basically own the city. Secretary Vilsack was sincere in his efforts. But the powers that be were never going to allow him to enact that, so yes, in the long run it was meaningful in that we tried to widen the crack… but in the long run the political power of the biotechnology community is definitely very powerful."
Why GM Alfalfa in Particular Threatens Organics
"The interesting thing about the way alfalfa has been grown up until now is that, according to Michael Pollan and other experts, 93 percent of the alfalfa grown in the United States right now is not sprayed with herbicides... alfalfa is pretty much an herbicide free crop!" Cummins says.
"Now, what's going to happen is that Monsanto is going to sell their alfalfa seeds all over the country which make this alfalfa roundup resistant. This means they're going to spray the heck out of these 23 million acres of alfalfa fields."
How can anyone justify the planting of Roundup-resistant alfalfa when there's apparently no need for it, and when emerging evidence shows that weeds are rapidly becoming increasingly resistant to Roundup as well, creating superweeds that are near impossible to get rid of?
That seemingly nonsensical decision becomes clearer if you look at alfalfa's role on a much grander scale, and helps explain why Monsanto appears to have pulled out all the stops to get it approved, despite the fervent opposition of the organic industry and hundreds of thousands of vocal consumers.
Alfalfa is the Perfect Choice if You Want to Contaminate a Wide Variety of Organic Foods!
Alfalfa is a perennial crop, meaning it comes back year after year. In the case of alfalfa, farmers only need to re-seed about every seventh year. And as stated earlier, it's a powerful pollinator.
"Basically, any organic alfalfa or non-genetically engineered alfalfa within a five mile radius will immediately get contaminated," Cummins says.
"Given the fact that alfalfa is a major food source for dairy cows across the United States, and organic alfalfa is a major food source for organic dairy cows, we're going to see widespread contamination getting worse every year… by this GM alfalfa.
So this is outrageous. It totally flies in the face of campaign promises that Obama made in 2008 when he was running for president. It totally flies in the face of what Hillary Clinton, who was also running for president at the time, made, which was that they would support mandatory labeling and safety testing of GMOs. They have gone back on their word… [and] they are allowing Monsanto to proceed with absolutely no restrictions on this, what we call "Earth raping and climate destabilizing" crop."
I think Cummins has his hand on the pulse of Monsanto when he says:
"I believe that this is an act of premeditated genetic pollution of the gene pool of alfalfa and related plants by Monsanto. They know exactly what they're doing.
They understand is that if you pollute enough alfalfa across the country to where it becomes impossible to grow organic alfalfa that isn't contaminated, perhaps then the organic community will weaken and allow genetically engineered animal feed under the rules of organic production.
This is what Monsanto tried to do back in 1998 when they pushed hard with the Farm Bureau and corporate agribusiness to say that GMOs should be allowed in organic. It was only because of a campaign that Organic Consumer Association and others lead that we were able to keep GMOs out of organic standards, and we've been able to keep them out now for 12 years.
I think Monsanto wants to go in the backdoor now. They want these companies to accept the sort of "peaceful coexistence" with GMOs to soften us up. But then they want to create such a contamination level across the country in organic dairy feed that they believe the organic industry will have to capitulate."
The Revolving Door between Monsanto and High-Level Government is Destroying the Future of Organic Food
I've often stated that Monsanto is the most evil corporation on the planet. They're also very clever and sophisticated. They have been able to infiltrate the government to the point where the US is fast becoming a fascist state where corporations and government have merged. It is this type of infiltration that has allowed GM alfalfa to be allowed without any restrictions at all.
But just how did they do it?
"To start with, one of the members of the Supreme Court -- the infamous Clarence Thomas who did not withdraw himself from a Supreme Court decision on genetically engineered alfalfa last year -- used to be the general counsel for Monsanto.
Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa who is currently the U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary, was a long time supporter and confidante of Monsanto. He rode around on Monsanto's corporate jet during some of his electoral campaigns in Iowa. Tom Vilsack was named "The Biotech Governor of the Year" in 2001 by the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
Others in the Obama administration include Michael Taylor, who was formerly the vice president of Monsanto. He is now the Food and Drug Administration Deputy Commissioner for Foods. Michael Taylor was in charge of FDA labeling practices in 1993 when the FDA first approved, against overwhelming opposition from the public.
Michael Taylor was instrumental in preventing bovine growth hormone and other genetically engineered foods from having to be labeled. He has gone in and out working for Monsanto and the FDA ever since.
Another member of the Obama Administration is Roger Beachy, the former director of the Monsanto funded Danforth Plant Science Center in Saint Louis. He is now the director of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
Other appointees: Islam Siddiqui was vice president of Monsanto and Dupont's funded pesticide-promotion group CropLife. He is now the agricultural negotiator for the U.S. Trade Representative. In other words, he is the enforcer for U.S. foreign policy that countries have to accept our genetically engineered exports.
Another appointee, Rajiv Shah, is the former Agricultural Development Director for the pro-biotech Gates Foundation, who are frequently partnering with Monsanto. He served as Obama's USDA undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics.
Elena Kagan has served as President Obama's Solicitor General. She took Monsanto's side against organic farmers on the roundup ready alfalfa case.
Ramona Ramiro, corporate counsel to Dupont, another biotech bully, has been nominated by President Obama to serve as general counsel for the USDA.
We must point that it's not just the Obama Administration that has served as a revolving door for Monsanto. We saw the same situation under Bush Jr., Clinton and Bush Sr. We have a corporation Monsanto that is not only out of control, but that places its people in high positions; that donates large sums of money to members of congress; and that basically gets its way every time there is a policy decision made in Washington."
Is it any wonder then that we get these kinds of decisions, despite public outcry and opposition?
The Importance of the Non-GMO Project
Clearly, "co-existence" with a biotech bully like Monsanto is impossible. Instead, we need to increase our efforts to educate the public about the dangers of GM foods, oppose genetically modified crops completely, push for reform, insist on labeling, and, even more importantly, take full advantage of the resources the organic industry has already begun putting into place -- such as the Non-GMO Projects "Non-GMO Certified" labels.
"As we ramp up, and the Non-GMO Project is supported by other packaged food producers, then there will be more auditors. And that process can be expedited. We're in the beginning stages of this. We're looking for support from the manufacturers. Honestly, we're looking for support from your readers to buy those products that have been certified."
I agree. The subscribers of Mercola.com are probably one of the largest groups in the United States with respect to being informed consumers. I urge all of you to make this group even larger by sharing this information with as many people as you can, in order to help us reach the needed tipping point.
Given Monsanto's overwhelming power over our regulatory agencies and processes, the approach presented by the organic industry certainly sounds reasonable. Of course, getting everyone onboard with the Non-GMO Project doesn't happen overnight. It's going to take some time, but we're moving in the right direction, which is to give consumers the power they need to make an educated choice. In this way, we can shift the situation around and duplicate the success we've seen in Europe, where consumers basically voted GM foods off the market, simply by refusing to spend their money on it.On this point, all parties interviewed here seem to agree. You can help further this end goal by actively looking for, asking for, and purchasing Non-GMO Certified foods.
GMO Labeling is Becoming a Must. Here's How You Can Help Bring it About
"I think the bottom line is that natural food stores need to look at the percentage of the their sales that are certified organic that truly are GMO-free, and make a pledge to double that percentage," Cummins says.
Keep in mind, of course that the foods that are candidates for labeling are those that actually contain GM ingredients, i.e. anything with corn, soy, canola, and now sugar beet sweeteners. Foods that do NOT contain any of these ingredients will obviously not need to be labeled as Non-GMO.
… We have a good chance. I believe that people will stand up for their rights," Cummins says. If we could get the retailers… to make a pledge to get the GMOs out, and in the meantime to truthfully label that they are there, consumers will do the same thing they have done in Europe, which is vote with their pocketbook."
It seems quite clear that the Federal government has been overtaken by corporate America and will not do anything without approval from the biotech industry. But I have to keep stressing that this does not mean we have completely lost. Our leverage and power lies on the local retail level, at first. This is where we all must apply pressure -- NOW!