Organic Trade Association Responds to Critics About GMO Stance


Image: USDAgov via Flickr CC

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) has responded to levelled against it in a recently released short documentary. I wrote about this film earlier this week along with additional commentary by organic food pioneer and former OTA board member, Arran Stephens.

OTA representatives have responded to the charges and Stephens has clarified his position. In a letter sent to OTA members obtained by TreeHugger, Executive Director and CEO, Christine Bushway, responds to the claim that the OTA doesn't support labelling of GMO foods.

As the GMO issue has gained steam, I am often asked by members whether OTA will get involved. My response: How can we not be involved--we are the Organic Trade Association! In fact, OTA scored a permanent and decisive win by successfully suing the state of Ohio to stop efforts by Monsanto to silence truthful claims about the absence of GMOs in organic dairy. Let's be clear--the decision to file this lawsuit was unanimously approved by OTA's Board. In spite of the obvious David and Goliath situation, the board that has been attacked went way out on a limb and litigated to protect the industry.

OTA has actually  had an official position calling for mandatory labeling of GMO foods since 2000, and both OTA's Board and staff continue to be actively engaged in fighting the proliferation of GMOS to protect organic agriculture and trade and preserve farmer and consumer choice.

I have unfortunately grown accustomed to the circular firing squad, but the Organic Spies video took it to a new amazingly low level. It is destructive and cowardly to make conspiratorial accusations without full disclosure of who's behind these allegations. These tactics will not get us closer to mandatory GE labeling. The irony is that in my almost three years with OTA and dozen full board meetings, never once has any Board member expressed hesitance to do what is right for organic. Regardless of their business size, type or structure, our Board members make decisions to benefit the trade as a whole, with the integrity and respect you'd hope for from elected representatives.

Stephens from Nature's Path has cooled in his criticism of the OTA and issued a follow up statement expressing his support for the organization.

I left the OTA board over 10 years ago due to what I perceived was a lack of commitment to fighting the GMO threat to organic agriculture. My comments which I shared yesterday, did not acknowledge the OTA board's recent non-GMO efforts or the decades of OTA accomplishments in formulating and establishing the organic rules and standards which, by law, we all enjoy and must abide by. Before this time, there were no enforceable rules governing organic food production, processing and retailing, when there was widespread abuse of the term, "organic".

I am incredibly proud to be part of an industry that is dedicated to better for you food and products. There is a clear reason why the organic sector continues to grow and outpace many conventional industries: consumers are willing to pay a premium for products that are better for them and the Earth. I would like to encourage everyone who has an interest and commitment to the organic movement to support the OTA, and, if you are not satisfied with the composition of the Board, then vote for someone whom you feel will best represent this fabulous movement. I urge our industry to continue to work together and someday include on the OTA board not only the next generation of organic manufacturers, but also the farmers who grow our food supply.

A further perspective is offered by OTA board member Gunta Vitins, a former colleague of mine whose integrity for the organic ethic remains unquestioned.

In my experience, all of the board directors operate with the utmost integrity and are committed to promoting the growth of the organic sector. If there are any potential conflicts of interest regarding a position or decision being made by the board, the particular director(s) remove themselves from the process. I would like to point out that OTA board directors are democratically elected by the OTA membership in Canada and the US, and over the past 6 years at least 25% of the board members have been either farmers or work for organizations that own farms.

OTA is committed to fighting the GE battle for the organic community, a tough fight considering the billions of dollars invested by Monsanto and other biotechs to hold GE-free and organic at bay. OTA strengthened its efforts in 2010 by forming a GE task force comprised of representatives from member companies. I am pleased to say that Nature's Path is very active on the task force. In addition to the guidance that the task force has provided to the OTA staff and board in OTA's recent efforts against the GE alfalfa issue in the US, the task force is developing a White Paper to strengthen OTA's policy on GE which will be circulated to OTA membership for feedback later this month.

Vitins points to the Protecting Organic From GE Contamination page on the OTA wesbite and goes on to outline a number of anti-gmo initiatives by OTA, beyond the legal action in Ohio cited by Bushway.

In the U.S.

  • OTA has been active in mounting opposition to USDA actions to allow commercial planting of GE crops, generating over 25,000 letters to the White House and proactively engaging with the Administration to represent the organic sector.

  • OTA has consistently signed on as amici curiae to Center for Food Safety lawsuits regarding the unrestricted approval of GE crops.

  • OTA has joined Organic Voices a public policy and public relations campaign calling for the mandatory labeling of GE foods. The campaign will be launched this summer.

In Canada:

  • COTA's Executive Director, Matt Holmes, chairs the regulatory working group of the official industry advisory to the Government of Canada, as well as a task force on the issue of GE issues. He has held a number of meetings with government officials and the Minister of Agriculture where these concerns were highlighted.
  • COTA coordinated and encouraged the public and industry to write their Government re: Bill C-474.
  • COTA coordinated an Organic Parliament Day in Ottawa as part of National Organic Week. The event was used to highlight sector concerns on the GE issue, and the importance of Canada's organic sector.
  • COTA's Executive Director was a witness before the House Standing Committee on Agriculture in October. The committee was hearing industry testimony on private member Bill C-474. Holmes spoke in support of the Bill and the need for safeguards against market loss from GE contamination.

The Organic Spies video brought up a number of areas of concern about the structure and mandate of the OTA. Some of those concerns, especially their organizational opposition to GMOs, have been answered, but a few questions remain. Even if all of the board members have a personal dedication to organics it's tough to accept that the multi-national corporations behind some of them don't have conflicting interests.

At this point it's up to the 6500 members of the OTA to decide if the current board represents their interest and vote in some new blood if they aren't satisfied. There's an election coming up, if you're an OTA member board nominations can be submitted until June 23.

For now I'll give the last word to Stephens, "United, we will accomplish more. As it is said, you catch more bees with honey than you do with vinegar."

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