Boy, nothing lights up the internet like a good organic food fight, huh? You could power every home in the Western Hemisphere from the energy organic partisans expend bickering, tweeting, blogging, and flaming each another.
But the latest skirmish isn’t merely a skirmish — it’s a civil war, and for a number of reasons, it probably marks a historic turning point for organics.
This battle began in the wake of last week’s USDA decision to fully deregulate Monsanto’s Roundup Ready alfalfa. In a full-throated battle cry, Ronnie Cummins, Executive Director of the Organic Consumers Association, blasted what he dubs “a self-appointed cabal” of three “elite” organic companies — Organic Valley Co-op, Stonyfield Farms, and Whole Foods Market — for “surrendering to Monsanto” and its pro-biotech agenda.
According to Cummins, these companies abandoned the strategy of seeking a total federal ban on Roundup Ready alfalfa and “are prepared to sit down and cut a deal for ‘coexistence’ with Monsanto and USDA biotech cheerleader Tom Vilsack.”
But just last week, all three of these three companies were pushing the USDA to regulate Monsanto’s alfalfa in their respective social media machines. What would Whole Foods or Stonyfield gain by cutting a secret deal with Monsanto now? Why would Organic Valley pull a 180-degree turn after six years of fighting GE alfalfa?
And if these companies didn’t cut a secret deal, why would the director the Organic Consumers Association stridently attack the organic industry like this?
To understand this “firing on Fort Sumter” moment, if you will, let’s hit rewind and go back to the beginning of last year.
The History of a Civil War
Last year, the organic and anti-GMO movements were handed a big set-back by the Supreme Court.
In that June decision, the Court blanked out an existing ban on GE alfalfa, which had been issued back in 2007, and ordered the USDA to conduct a study determining what Roundup Ready alfalfa’s impact on the environment would be. Furthermore, once the study was complete, the Court decreed that action was needed from the USDA to uphold or overturn the 2007 ban. Everyone in the organic world knew this study had to be conducted and has been waiting for the final decision for the last seven months.
That court-ordered study finally came out last month (December 2010), but it didn’t exactly support upholding the ban on GE alfalfa, at least, not from the USDA’s point of view. Bowing to massive pressure from ag lawmakers, the American Farm Bureau Federation (pdf), and Big Gene’s super-power as campaign funder, USDA Sec. Tom Vilsack told the organic world that the USDA would entertain only two options regarding GE alfalfa: (A) Coexistence between organic and biotech, or (B) full deregulation of GE alfalfa. Banning GE alfalfa was not option.
So, this wasn’t a sekret deal cut in the dead of night in order to surrender to Monsanto – “co-existence” was a gun put to the organic industry’s head. Obviously no one wanted either A or B. Whole Foods et al had no choice but to consider “coexistence” because the USDA already decided that GE alfalfa would be approved for sale. Indeed, Helen Bottemiller of Food Safety News cites anonymous sources who say it was the White House that pressured the USDA to fully deregulate GE alfalfa.
Again, banning alfalfa was not an option and may never have been an option.
Now if you were the CEO of a company that bought exclusively from certified organic farmers, what would you do, knowing that the deck was stacked against you like this? Would you ignore choices A and B and still go off the board for C (a total ban) even though the USDA just told you that choice wasn’t on the table? Plug your ears and sing “La La La this isn’t happening Tom Vilsack La La La?” Maybe if you were a non-profit, seeking to keep a campaign alive, option C would be the obvious choice. But it does nothing for organic farmers who want some regulation on GE alfalfa now.
As a result, it was a fork in the road for opponents of GE alfalfa and one-time allies.
Down one road: Organic Valley, Organic Trade Association, National Co-op Grocers Association, and many, many other companies and non-profits mounted a last ditch effort to sway the USDA toward choice A, that is, some manner of regulation for the mutant crop.
Down the other: Cummins chose (C) and continued the call for a total ban on biotech agriculture.
Vilsack, as we know, went another way (and perhaps had no choice in the matter, either). He went for (B) Total deregulation.
That’s when things got bloody.
The Social Media Ride of Paul Revere
Now, just as Cummins hoped, the reaction to his bombshell of an article (published far and wide, from Huffington Post to Common Dreams) was nothing short of incendiary, flashing across the web like a gas fire. It was a tall tale told to frighten the organic kids huddled around his campfire, who are primed to expect nefarious behavior from Big Organics (I know I am). As these things happen, bloggers and activists scooped up Cummins’ story without fact-checking so that in each re-telling, the tall tale got a little taller.
From Care2: 3 Major Organic Brands Surrender To Monsanto’s GE Alfalfa. (Check it out: On Care2 this week, they’re preaching “no coexistence!” between organic and biotech. But last week, they were pushing petitions written with the very language that Cummins now calls coexistence. Oops.)
But this one’s simply got to be read to be believed, from Forbes Corporate Responsibility blog: The OrganicGate Scandal, by blogger Scott James. From the post:
OCA is leading a public cry of outrage, suggesting collusion at the CEO level among Stonyfield, WFM [Whole Foods Market], and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, and the acceptance of “hush money.”
Oh boy! Were officials being bribed to keep quiet by Stonyfield and Whole Foods hush money? This Ronnie Cummins story just gets better and better the more it gets repeated!
When I confronted Forbes ‘ blogger about the “hush money” sentence, Scott James said he was referring to Ronnie Cummins’ accusation that Whole Foods wanted organic farmers to receive hush money from Monsanto.
Now. Hold up. Is that what Whole Foods was saying? Did Whole Foods want farmers to receive bribes? Let’s go back to what Cummins’ originally wrote in his “hush money paragraph.” First of all, there’s this:
In exchange for allowing Monsanto’s premeditated pollution of the alfalfa gene pool, WFM [Whole Foods Market] wants “compensation.”
OK, stop right there. That reads as though Whole Foods Market wants compensation for itself, right? WFM wants compensation. Sadly, it’s not just sloppy diction, here. Cummins can’t afford to say what Whole Foods was really arguing for.
Why? Because what Whole Foods wanted actually makes sense. Whole Foods was advocating for organic farmers to receive compensation if their crops are polluted by GE alfalfa.
Think I’m being too kind to WFM? From Whole Foods’ blog:
“We were trying to secure protections for organic farmers so biotechnology companies for the first time would be held accountable if GE crops polluted non-GE crops and would be forced to pay for the damages.”
Oh, how horrible.
Not only does Cummins shamelessly twist words to the point of liable, he repeats this attack at the end of the same paragraph, and broadens it:
…WFM wants the Biotech Bully of St. Louis to agree to pay “compensation” (i.e. hush money) to farmers “for any losses related to the contamination of his crop.”
Why is compensation paid to organic farmers for GE pollution seen as “hush money” to Cummins? Probably because compensating farmers means admitting that coexistence between organic and biotech might be possible — or even necessary.
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.” Someone ask Percy Schmeiser what he thinks about the idea of organic farmers receiving compensation from Monsanto.
The Death of Organics
A sparring partner of mine on Twitter, Anastasia Bodnar (who wrote an excellent piece at Biofortified on the unlikelihood of GE alfalfa pollen contaminating certified organic alfalfa), asked me if I really thought that deregulating RR alfalfa spelled the end of organic farming.
We got into a good discussion, but what I couldn’t say in the span of such short tweets is that I don’t think organics can suffer too many more body blows to its credibility before it goes down. And I felt that if the USDA deregulated alfalfa, it was going to seriously damage the organic industry on some level.
It remains to be seen if this fray is permanently damaging. But watching this bloody family feud over the weekend between OCA and the most respected companies in the organic industry, I don’t think we’re seeing the end of organics so much as the massive, inherent rift between non-profits who’ve long championed the “organic movement” and the for-profit organic business world. And I don’t think it’s a rift we’ll recover from.
Well-organized non-profits like the Organic Consumers Association needs to keep massive write-in campaigns and widespread internet volunteerism alive if they’re going to keep their organization growing and driving forward. Indeed, the never-ending campaign is the product they sell, and they sell it well. I’m honestly not being cynical here. If it weren’t for Ronnie Cummins and the OCA’s mountain-moving organization, the USDA Organic Rule would have started off allowing GMOs in organic farming back in 1998. Back then, the activists saved the fledgling industry’s credibility, which is why I think Cummins was willing to fight this hard and this dirty to save it now (as he perceives it).
On the other, you’ve got the captains of industry who can only ever see the reality of the situation in front of them. Granted, organics has more idealism sewn into it than most industries, but when the USDA said a ban was off the table, well, most business leaders of any stripe won’t lead their companies into the breach of an unwinnable war.
Cummins would probably say that banning GE alfalfa is the best and only way to protect organic farmers from biotech pollution. I actually think that a total ban on GE alfalfa would have been a smaller win compared to garnering compensation for organic farmers. If Whole Foods et al had wooed out of Vilsack the “coexistence” protections they sought, perhaps organic corn farmers could then seek compensation for GE corn pollution. Ditto organic soybean farmers.
Sometimes the hard line is not the best line.