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The Organic Community Must Come Out Swinging at the Right Opponents

January 29, 2011 | Gary

Cows grazing

Dear Stonyfield friends,

On Thursday, January 27, 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. In the months leading up to this decision, a coalition of us has been working ceaselessly to fight for any and all alternatives. 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 steamrolling over farmers, consumers and organic foods supporters. So, it is particularly sad for me to report to you that in this latest round, which is surely just one chapter, they won and we lost.

Making matters worse, on the day of the decision, the Organic Consumers Association distributed an inaccurate, irresponsible and frankly appalling letter that attempted to pin the blame for the USDA’s decision squarely on Stonyfield, Organic Valley and Whole Foods. OCA’s letter is blatantly untrue and dangerously misleading, but also deeply divisive at a time when we all need to be focused on immediate actions necessary to stop this new policy from going into effect.

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 the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. In 2007, the Court 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.

Since then, Monsanto and big biotech have spent tens of millions lobbying in Washington and funding studies that support the use of GE alfalfa. These biotech giants have terrifyingly 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 non-profits to try to reach a consensus on GE alfalfa. This was essentially an attempt to convene meetings between the Davids and Goliaths. Given the overwhelming firepower on the other side, and a decade’s worth of biotech-funded “science”, it was a bold and worthy attempt. 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 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, 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 that would attempt to protect organic farmers and consumer choice, still maintaining the option for legal battle later. A smaller coalition of organic interests 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 consumers and organic farmers was the best option.

We 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.

Not once did Stonyfield consider buying what Monsanto was selling - nor will we ever. We have never wavered from our position in defending organic and opposing GE crops. Back in the 1990’s 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 the unrestricted deregulating of GE crops 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 “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.

We 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.

But I need to take a moment to address the misguided and fallacious OCA attack on Stonyfield, Whole Foods and Organic Valley. Their missive has generated many questions in the last couple of days. I have read them with a heavy heart. I have no idea about their motivations. I have never met Ronnie Cummins and he certainly has never asked me for my views on these issues. But simply put, instead of fighting with each other, we need to fight Monsanto and the forces that are causing the voices of hundreds of thousands of Americans who support organic to be silenced. All of us who are opposed to the USDA decision to deregulate GE alfalfa must speak with one voice. Anything less keeps us divided and distracted. I hope that readers of the OCA communications will convey your disappointment with their tactics. These misleading actions do nothing to advance our cause.

I hope that you will continue to be passionate about this incredibly important issue facing the organic industry and that you will join us in the fight in any way you can. Stay tuned as we prepare the next assault.


Gary Signature

Gary Hirshberg
Stonyfield Farm President and CE-YO

Hi all - many of you have asked what you can do to take action. As we move forward in fighting the next battle, we urge you to join us. Here's how:

Let the White House know that you do not support the deregulation of GE alfalfa:

Consider making a donation to the legal effort ahead:

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