Did the "Organic Elite" Sell Out to Monsanto?

Photo Credit: MikeScottNZ via Flickr Creative Commons.

By now, most of us have read the miscellaneous (numerous) statements from companies like Whole Foods, Organic Valley, Stonyfield, and the Non-GMO Project in defense of their participation in the so-called "coexistence" talks with the USDA and proponents of GE alfalfa.

These companies have claimed that they had no choice but to get in there and fight for safeguards against contamination and restitution for farmers whose fields are contaminated. Neither of which ended up happening.

They've said that they had a choice between staying to fight for protections, and walking away and letting Monsanto have their way. Monsanto, as we've seen time and time again, has had their way anyway.

There are still a few questions about the whole issue that don't sit right with many organic consumers. We've reached out to a few of the companies involved, including the Non-GMO Project and Stonyfield for their side of the story. The Non-GMO Project didn't bother returning our emails, and Stonyfield kept putting off answering our questions, waiting for CEO Gary Hirshberg to pen yet another response to the issue. Without these answers, all we have to go on is what's in the public record. Fortunately, there's quite a lot there.

Fighting for a Ban on GE Alfalfa?

Photo Credit: Gary D. Robson, via Wikimedia Commons.

The companies who have posted defenses of their participation in these talks have said, to a one, that they believed in a ban of GE alfalfa. And that when that was taken off the table (more on this later) they were fighting for protections for farmers and consumers. Below is Walter Robb, co-president of Whole Foods, and Gary Hirshberg, CEO of Stonyfield's early contributions to the discussion (you can read the entire transcript of the meeting online.)

ROBB: We appreciate the chance to be here, along with this group. And I think ours (our concern) just is - we are concerned about the length of time that's been set aside prior to January 24th to complete this process. And we are - as we have been - willing to....we want to participate in a full-throated discussion and dialogue about the potential for meaningful coexistence. And we think that - we have not even had a chance to read the whole thing [Ecological Impact Statement report about GE alfalfa] over the weekend. So I'd like to see there be a meaningful period of time to be able to participate and discuss this, so there can be - coexistence is a big idea that should be followed through.

HIRSHBERG: ...what are our expectations for this process. And I think it's clear from your remarks [Vilsack] that this is a much bigger process than just the resolution of the alfalfa issue, though that is the immediate one upon us. ...what we're seeking here is an alternative to endless litigation. ... I think that most of us would probably agree, this is not the future that we all want, to resolve this in the courts. And that's why I'm here, and that's why I think most of us are here. ....You've invited us, and we are here, and certainly I can speak for the organic sector, we are enthusiastic about constructively, in a data-based, intelligent way going through a very important dialogue that's going to, we think, define the future of agriculture in America. Maybe global agriculture. ...We think it's going to take longer than a month to make real progress. [echoing Robb's concern, above.]

Later on in the discussion, they talk more about how groups of both the biotech and organic sectors should have smaller meetings, while conceding that January is a pretty packed month, schedule-wise, already. If any of those meetings happened, which is unclear, there are no transcripts available.

Their main concern, as of December 20th, at least, was not fighting for a ban on GE alfalfa, or demanding protections for farmers and consumers, but on trying to buy more time for field testing and discussion. And, avoiding litigation, of course.

A Ban of GE Alfalfa Was Off the Table Back in December

"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, which they called 'co-existence.'" - CEO Gary Hirshberg, Stonyfield blog So, obviously, by the time they were sitting in that December 20th meeting, the possibility of a ban had already been taken off the table by the USDA. And here's where we have to wonder what, exactly, they were thinking. They chose, at the time, to be the token organic representatives in a room full of biotech interests, lending credibility to this farce of a "discussion" (because now the USDA and Monsanto can argue, "hey - the organic community had their say!")

Why weren't they mobilizing their huge, passionate consumer base to call, write, and otherwise shout from the rooftops that a ban on GE was the only acceptable outcome? Why were they sitting in meetings, feebly asking "can't we just have more time?" when they could have, and should have, been working with the customers who support their industry to make sure that the USDA and the White House was made aware of the fact that deregulation of GE alfalfa was not acceptable? Why didn't they tell us a ban had already been taken off the table?

Maybe they said something on their blogs or Facebook pages, and we all missed it? Alas, no. going back through the December 2010 and January 2011 archives of Whole Foods, Stonyfield, and Organic Valley's blogs and/or Facebook pages shows nothing. No push to mobilize and inform their customers on the matter. Though Organic Valley was very excited to announce that Secretary Vilsack had brought a 25 pound block of their cheese with him when he was on the Colbert Report.

In fact, there was no word from these organizations until January 20th, when Whole Foods asked their consumers to take action on their blog. Then, Gary Hirshberg posted a letter "in great urgency" on the Stonyfield blog begging people to tell the USDA they were against the deregulation of GE alfalfa - on January 29th, two days after the decision had apparently already been made.

During this process, the organic giants not only failed to get a single thing they asked for in the "coexistence" meetings (there are no regulations, there are no plans to compensate farmers whose crops are contaminated) but they lost, in the eyes of many of their customers, their credibility as well. We would have rather seen them fighting the good fight, loudly and passionately, than sitting in a room with the USDA and Monsanto, droning on about forming sub-committees and asking for a little more time.

Millions Against Monsanto protest photo credit: Tim & Selena Middleton via Flickr Creative Commons.
More About GMOs:
What the Deregulation of Genetically Engineered Alfalfa Means for Organic Consumers
Your GM Entree May Come with a Side Order of Side Effects

Tags: Farming | Genetically Modified Food | Genetic Engineering | GMO | Whole Foods

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