Speaking With One Voice to Stop Monsanto and Biotech

Baseless attacks within the organic community do not serve the organic cause. Instead of fighting with each other, we need to fight Monsanto and the forces that are ignoring Americans who support organic and want the right to choose.
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Now more than ever we all need to stand together in opposition to GE alfalfa. We need to unite in action to restore sanity to our food system, protect farmers, and preserve consumer choice. A thoroughly inaccurate, irresponsible and deeply misguided attack on Stonyfield, Whole Foods and Organic Valley by Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association represented a truly painful example of why progressives are being outflanked by far more disciplined conservatives in this country. Leaving aside the baseless interpretations and accusations by a person who was not present for any of the deliberations he critiqued, the real question is why someone who supposedly wants to stop the Monsanto steamroller from its pernicious campaigns to deregulate genetically engineered crops would turn his venom on allies as opposed to this very obvious and powerful adversary? The divisiveness and distractions sown by Cummins' fact-free rant come at the exact time when all who oppose last week's demoralizing USDA decision to completely deregulate genetically engineered alfalfa must unite and focus on the immediate actions necessary to stop this new policy from going into effect.

In case you haven't been following this story, last Thursday the USDA announced a policy that supports the interests of Monsanto and big biotech and deals a major blow to organic farming. They decided to "deregulate" Genetically Engineered ("GE") alfalfa, meaning to allow its unrestricted use with no controls. The USDA had been considering two potential decisions on this issue -- either full deregulation or deregulation with restrictions. The latter would have set rules to protect non-GE crops from contamination. In the months leading up to this decision, a coalition including leaders of Whole Foods, Organic Valley, myself and others had been working ceaselessly to fight for any and all alternatives to deregulation. I've personally spent days, nights, weekends and vacations as we worked right though the holidays along with our colleagues to try to prevent this chemical giant from denying the rights of farmers, consumers and organic foods supporters.

Let me first state the obvious -- leaving aside the fact that USDA's own organic standards do not allow the use of genetically engineered crops, Stonyfield is absolutely and utterly opposed to the deregulation of GE crops. We believe that these crops are resulting in significantly higher uses of toxic herbicides and water, creating a new generation of costly "super" weeds, pose severe and irreversible threats to biodiversity and seed stocks, do not live up to the superior yield claims of their patent holders and are unaffordable for small family farmers in the US and around the world. We believe that organic farming methods are proving through objective, scientific validation to offer far better solutions. We also believe that unrestricted deregulation of GE crops unfairly limits farmer and consumer choice.

Thursday's decision and the long and hard-fought battle leading up to it began in 2005 when the USDA deregulated GE alfalfa for the first time. Stonyfield actively supported the organic community's challenge to the deregulation and eventually, led by the Center for Food Safety, the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. In 2010, the Court, upholding rulings by lower courts, ruled there could be no deregulation without the USDA making a full assessment of GE alfalfa's environmental impact, and the court placed an injunction on planting of GE alfalfa.

Monsanto and big biotech have spent millions lobbying in Washington and funding studies that support the use of GE alfalfa. These biotech giants, of course, have extremely deep pockets. But despite their efforts, organic advocates were able to persuade the USDA that organic interests must also be considered. And so, for the first time, the USDA in recent months convened stakeholder groups of pro- and anti-biotech organizations including farm groups, manufacturers, industry associations and NGOs to try to reach a consensus on GE alfalfa. This was essentially an attempt to convene meetings between the Davids and Goliaths, and given the overwhelming firepower on the other side, and a decade's worth of biotech-funded "science," it was a bold and worthy attempt. It appeared that the USDA was finally recognizing that cross-contamination of GE alfalfa could potentially impact organic and non-GE farmers and consumers, both domestically and for our export markets. Stonyfield, Whole Foods, Organic Valley and the Organic Trade Association along with many other organic advocates including the Non-GMO Project, Organic Farming Research Foundation, National Cooperative Grocers Association, National Organic Coalition, Beyond Pesticides, and the Center for Food Safety brought forward our arguments for a complete ban on GE alfalfa.

From the outset of these stakeholder discussions, it was clear that GE alfalfa had overwhelming political, legal, financial and regulatory support, and thus the odds were severely stacked against any possibility of preventing some level of approval, just as has been the case with GE cotton, soy, canola and corn. Keep in mind that, according to Food and Water Watch, biotech has spent more than half a billion dollars ($547 million) lobbying Congress since 1999. Their lobby expenditures more than doubled during that time. In 2009 alone they spent $71 million. Last year they had more than 100 lobbying firms working for them, as well as their own in-house lobbyists.

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 under a principle which they called "co-existence." The choice we were faced with was to walk away and wait for the legal battle in the courts or stay at the table and fight for safeguards and restrictions that would attempt to protect organic farmers and consumer choice, still maintaining the option for legal battle later. A group of us participated in the meetings with the clear caveat that any decision to deregulate GE alfalfa must include restrictions that protect organic farmers and consumers' choice. When faced with the overwhelming reality that GE alfalfa would be released despite our best efforts, we believed fighting for some safeguards to protect organic and organic farmers was essential.

Many have asked why we endorsed the coexistence option rather than an outright ban on GE alfalfa. The answer is we didn't. When it was an option we strongly endorsed an outright ban. However, the option of an outright ban was taken off the table. At that point, we then specifically advocated that any regulatory approval must ensure (a) protection of seed purity -- for organic farmers' use, and as insurance in case something "crops up" that causes a later reconsideration of the use of biotechnology; (b) organic farmers whose crops become contaminated by GE alfalfa must be compensated by the patent holders for their losses due to losing their organic certification and (c) the USDA must oversee all testing and monitoring of GE crops to ensure compliance as part of its role in protecting all US agriculture. Needless to say, the biotech coalition was firmly opposed to all three caveats, but we remained united and fought hard for them.

Contrary to Cummins' unsubstantiated claims, not once did Stonyfield or our colleagues consider buying what Monsanto was selling -- nor will we ever. The founding missions of our companies and their ongoing prosperity depend on the continued integrity of the organic standards. We have never wavered from our position in defending organic and opposing GE crops. Back in the 1990s we went head to head with Monsanto over synthetic growth hormones, and we were the first US dairy to pay farmers not to use rBGH. We have been fighting them ever since, and will continue to do so. In the days since this very sad decision, we have convened multiple times with our fellow organic advocates and have already begun to plan and invest in our next wave of legal, lobbying and educational efforts.

The fact remains that we cannot and will never stop fighting this battle. The problem with deregulating GE crops without restrictions is that the dangers of contamination are permanent and irreversible. Whereas Congress has enacted other legislation to correct and reverse past transgressions, for instance the Clean Air Act and clean water legislation, a hypothetical "clean crop act" would never be able to undo the damage and losses caused by GE crops. Therefore the time to fight for these restrictions is now.

My colleagues and I will continue to fight to protect the organic farmers who grow healthy food and the consumers who have every right to choose organic. We will continue to push for unbiased scientific findings about the harmful effects of GE crops. And we will work hard to give our consumers the assurances they need that organic remains free of anything genetically engineered. The battle will now move from the government agencies back to the courts, but we also need new and stronger legislation that addresses toxic herbicides, and threats to biodiversity, seed protection and other ecological costs.

As with all David and Goliath battles, the fight to stop or restrict genetically engineered crops is heavily stacked against organic advocates. Again, we all need to stand united. We now need every ounce of energy, time, muscle and money to be directed to renewing the battle in the courts but also to letting the White House and indeed all of our congressional representatives know that we do not support this takeover of our agriculture by a handful of chemical companies. The divisive public attacking of allies is pointless and, worse, destructive to our cause. Simply put, instead of fighting with each other, we need to fight Monsanto and the forces that are ignoring the hundreds of thousands of Americans who support organic and want the right to choose. All of us who are opposed to the USDA decision to deregulate GE alfalfa must speak with one voice. Innuendo and baseless attacks within the organic community do not serve the organic cause. They serve Monsanto.

To stand with us in opposition of GE alfalfa, here's how you can help: Read this letter from Maria Rodale, Michael Pollan and other organic advocates, and let the White House know that you do not support the deregulation of GE alfalfa.

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