The Organic Elite Surrenders To Monsanto: What Now?

Editor’s note: Thanks to Fe, it has come to my attention that this article may swing a bit wide — or downright dishonest — in some of its assertions. I am leaving it up, because I do think the issue is important. But please do read the response by Stonyfield’s CEO and comments. As Eric wrote about late last year, ‘organic’ does not always mean what it used to on labels, but one thing is clear: our food supply is under assault and we’re going to have to work carefully together to protect it from powerfully moneyed corporations. – amanda

by Ronnie Cummins
Director, Organic Consumers Association; from Huffington Post

“The policy set for GE alfalfa will most likely guide policies for other GE crops as well. True coexistence is a must.” — Whole Foods Market, Jan. 21, 2011

In the wake of a 12-year battle to keep Monsanto’s Genetically Engineered (GE) crops from contaminating the nation’s 25,000 organic farms and ranches, America’s organic consumers and producers are facing betrayal. A self-appointed cabal of the Organic Elite, spearheaded by Whole Foods Market, Organic Valley, and Stonyfield Farm, has decided it’s time to surrender to Monsanto. Top executives from these companies have publicly admitted that they no longer oppose the mass commercialization of GE crops, such as Monsanto’s controversial Roundup Ready alfalfa, and are prepared to sit down and cut a deal for “coexistence” with Monsanto and USDA biotech cheerleader Tom Vilsack.

In a cleverly worded, but profoundly misleading email sent to its customers last week, Whole Foods Market, while proclaiming their support for organics and “seed purity,” gave the green light to USDA bureaucrats to approve the “conditional deregulation” of Monsanto’s genetically engineered, herbicide-resistant alfalfa. Beyond the regulatory euphemism of “conditional deregulation,” this means that WFM and their colleagues are willing to go along with the massive planting of a chemical and energy-intensive GE perennial crop, alfalfa; guaranteed to spread its mutant genes and seeds across the nation; guaranteed to contaminate the alfalfa fed to organic animals; guaranteed to lead to massive poisoning of farm workers and destruction of the essential soil food web by the toxic herbicide, Roundup; and guaranteed to produce Roundup-resistant superweeds that will require even more deadly herbicides such as 2,4 D to be sprayed on millions of acres of alfalfa across the U.S.

In exchange for allowing Monsanto’s premeditated pollution of the alfalfa gene pool, WFM wants “compensation.” In exchange for a new assault on farmworkers and rural communities (a recent large-scale Swedish study found that spraying Roundup doubles farm workers’ and rural residents’ risk of getting cancer), WFM expects the pro-biotech USDA to begin to regulate rather than cheerlead for Monsanto. In payment for a new broad spectrum attack on the soil’s crucial ability to provide nutrition for food crops and to sequester dangerous greenhouse gases (recent studies show that Roundup devastates essential soil microorganisms that provide plant nutrition and sequester climate-destabilizing greenhouse gases), 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.”

In its email of Jan. 21, 2011 WFM calls for “public oversight by the USDA rather than reliance on the biotechnology industry,” even though WFM knows full well that federal regulations on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) do not require pre-market safety testing, nor labeling; and that even federal judges have repeatedly ruled that so-called government “oversight” of Frankencrops such as Monsanto’s sugar beets and alfalfa is basically a farce. At the end of its email, WFM admits that its surrender to Monsanto is permanent: “The policy set for GE alfalfa will most likely guide policies for other GE crops as well True coexistence is a must.”

Why Is Organic Inc. Surrendering?

According to informed sources, the CEOs of WFM and Stonyfield are personal friends of former Iowa governor, now USDA Secretary, Tom Vilsack, and in fact made financial contributions to Vilsack’s previous electoral campaigns. Vilsack was hailed as “Governor of the Year” in 2001 by the Biotechnology Industry Organization, and traveled in a Monsanto corporate jet on the campaign trail. Perhaps even more fundamental to Organic Inc.’s abject surrender is the fact that the organic elite has become more and more isolated from the concerns and passions of organic consumers and locavores. The Organic Inc. CEOs are tired of activist pressure, boycotts, and petitions. Several of them have told me this to my face. They apparently believe that the battle against GMOs has been lost, and that it’s time to reach for the consolation prize. The consolation prize they seek is a so-called “coexistence” between the biotech Behemoth and the organic community that will lull the public to sleep and greenwash the unpleasant fact that Monsanto’s unlabeled and unregulated genetically engineered crops are now spreading their toxic genes on 1/3 of U.S. (and 1/10 of global) crop land.

WFM and most of the largest organic companies have deliberately separated themselves from anti-GMO efforts and cut off all funding to campaigns working to label or ban GMOs. The so-called Non-GMO Project, funded by Whole Foods and giant wholesaler United Natural Foods (UNFI) is basically a greenwashing effort (although the 100% organic companies involved in this project seem to be operating in good faith) to show that certified organic foods are basically free from GMOs (we already know this since GMOs are banned in organic production), while failing to focus on so-called “natural” foods, which constitute most of WFM and UNFI’s sales and are routinely contaminated with GMOs.

From their “business as usual” perspective, successful lawsuits against GMOs filed by public interest groups such as the Center for Food Safety; or noisy attacks on Monsanto by groups like the Organic Consumers Association, create bad publicity, rattle their big customers such as Wal-Mart, Target, Kroger, Costco, Supervalu, Publix and Safeway; and remind consumers that organic crops and foods such as corn, soybeans, and canola are slowly but surely becoming contaminated by Monsanto’s GMOs.

Whole Food’s Dirty Little Secret: Most of the So-Called “Natural” Processed Foods and Animal Products They Sell Are Contaminated with GMOs

The main reason, however, why Whole Foods is pleading for coexistence with Monsanto, Dow, Bayer, Syngenta, BASF and the rest of the biotech bullies, is that they desperately want the controversy surrounding genetically engineered foods and crops to go away. Why? Because they know, just as we do, that 2/3 of WFM’s $9 billion annual sales is derived from so-called “natural” processed foods and animal products that are contaminated with GMOs. We and our allies have tested their so-called “natural” products (no doubt WFM’s lab has too) containing non-organic corn and soy, and guess what: they’re all contaminated with GMOs, in contrast to their certified organic products, which are basically free of GMOs, or else contain barely detectable trace amounts.

Approximately 2/3 of the products sold by Whole Foods Market and their main distributor, United Natural Foods (UNFI) are not certified organic, but rather are conventional (chemical-intensive and GMO-tainted) foods and products disguised as “natural.”

Unprecedented wholesale and retail control of the organic marketplace by UNFI and Whole Foods, employing a business model of selling twice as much so-called “natural” food as certified organic food, coupled with the takeover of many organic companies by multinational food corporations such as Dean Foods, threatens the growth of the organic movement.

Covering Up GMO Contamination: Perpetrating “Natural” Fraud

Many well-meaning consumers are confused about the difference between conventional products marketed as “natural,” and those nutritionally/environmentally superior and climate-friendly products that are “certified organic.”

Retail stores like WFM and wholesale distributors like UNFI have failed to educate their customers about the qualitative difference between natural and certified organic, conveniently glossing over the fact that nearly all of the processed “natural” foods and products they sell contain GMOs, or else come from a “natural” supply chain where animals are force-fed GMO grains in factory farms or Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).

A troubling trend in organics today is the calculated shift on the part of certain large formerly organic brands from certified organic ingredients and products to so-called “natural” ingredients. With the exception of the “grass-fed and grass-finished” meat sector, most “natural” meat, dairy, and eggs are coming from animals reared on GMO grains and drugs, and confined, entirely, or for a good portion of their lives, in CAFOs.

Whole Foods and UNFI are maximizing their profits by selling quasi-natural products at premium organic prices. Organic consumers are increasingly left without certified organic choices while genuine organic farmers and ranchers continue to lose market share to “natural” imposters. It’s no wonder that less than 1% of American farmland is certified organic, while well-intentioned but misled consumers have boosted organic and “natural” purchases to $80 billion annually-approximately 12% of all grocery store sales.

The Solution: Truth-in-Labeling Will Enable Consumers to Drive So-Called “Natural” GMO and CAFO-Tainted Foods Off the Market

There can be no such thing as “coexistence” with a reckless industry that undermines public health, destroys biodiversity, damages the environment, tortures and poisons animals, destabilizes the climate, and economically devastates the world’s 1.5 billion seed-saving small farmers. There is no such thing as coexistence between GMOs and organics in the European Union. Why? Because in the EU there are almost no GMO crops under cultivation, nor GM consumer food products on supermarket shelves. And why is this? Because under EU law, all foods containing GMOs or GMO ingredients must be labeled. Consumers have the freedom to choose or not to choose GMOs; while farmers, food processors, and retailers have (at least legally) the right to lace foods with GMOs, as long as they are safety-tested and labeled. Of course the EU food industry understands that consumers, for the most part, do not want to purchase or consume GE foods. European farmers and food companies, even junk food purveyors like McDonald’s and Wal-Mart, understand quite well the concept expressed by a Monsanto executive when GMOs first came on the market: “If you put a label on genetically engineered food you might as well put a skull and crossbones on it.”

The biotech industry and Organic Inc. are supremely conscious of the fact that North American consumers, like their European counterparts, are wary and suspicious of GMO foods. Even without a PhD, consumers understand you don’t want your food safety or environmental sustainability decisions to be made by out-of-control chemical companies like Monsanto, Dow, or Dupont – the same people who brought you toxic pesticides, Agent Orange, PCBs, and now global warming. Industry leaders are acutely aware of the fact that every single industry or government poll over the last 16 years has shown that 85-95% of American consumers want mandatory labels on GMO foods. Why? So that we can avoid buying them. GMO foods have absolutely no benefits for consumers or the environment, only hazards. This is why Monsanto and their friends in the Bush, Clinton, and Obama administrations have prevented consumer GMO truth-in-labeling laws from getting a public discussion in Congress.

Although Congressman Dennis Kucinich (Democrat, Ohio) recently introduced a bill in Congress calling for mandatory labeling and safety testing for GMOs, don’t hold your breath for Congress to take a stand for truth-in-labeling and consumers’ right to know what’s in their food. Especially since the 2010 Supreme Court decision in the so-called “Citizens United” case gave big corporations and billionaires the right to spend unlimited amounts of money (and remain anonymous, as they do so) to buy media coverage and elections, our chances of passing federal GMO labeling laws against the wishes of Monsanto and Food Inc. are all but non-existent. Perfectly dramatizing the “Revolving Door” between Monsanto and the Federal Government, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, formerly chief counsel for Monsanto, delivered one of the decisive votes in the Citizens United case, in effect giving Monsanto and other biotech bullies the right to buy the votes it needs in the U.S. Congress.

With big money controlling Congress and the media, we have little choice but to shift our focus and go local. We’ve got to concentrate our forces where our leverage and power lie, in the marketplace, at the retail level; pressuring retail food stores to voluntarily label their products; while on the legislative front we must organize a broad coalition to pass mandatory GMO (and CAFO) labeling laws, at the city, county, and state levels.

The Organic Consumers Association, joined by our consumer, farmer, environmental, and labor allies, has just launched a nationwide Truth-in-Labeling campaign to stop Monsanto and the Biotech Bullies from force-feeding unlabeled GMOs to animals and humans.

Utilizing scientific data, legal precedent, and consumer power the OCA and our local coalitions will educate and mobilize at the grassroots level to pressure giant supermarket chains (Wal-Mart, Kroger, Costco, Safeway, Supervalu, and Publix) and natural food retailers such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s to voluntarily implement “truth-in-labeling” practices for GMOs and CAFO products; while simultaneously organizing a critical mass to pass mandatory local and state truth-in-labeling ordinances – similar to labeling laws already in effect for country of origin, irradiated food, allergens, and carcinogens. If local and state government bodies refuse to take action, wherever possible we must attempt to gather sufficient petition signatures and place these truth-in-labeling initiatives directly on the ballot in 2011 or 2012. If you’re interesting in helping organize or coordinate a Millions Against Monsanto and Factory Farms Truth-in-Labeling campaign in your local community, sign up here.

To pressure Whole Foods Market and the nation’s largest supermarket chains to voluntarily adopt truth-in-labeling practices sign here, and circulate this petition widely.

11 thoughts on “The Organic Elite Surrenders To Monsanto: What Now?”

  1. I’m glad you looked beyond Ronnie Cummins story to get an accurate picture of wht happened with the USDA. Here’s a couple of different perspectives on the disagreement between the OCA and the Organic ‘cabal’. Essentially discrediting Ronnie Cummins’ version of events.…-milk-may-cost-even-more/2384

  2. Thanks for posting this, Amanda.

    I did go to Stonyfield’s web site and read the comments and Gary Hirschberg’s replies. I’m left with questions, but I’m willing to give Stonyfield the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think the *politics* of the issue are black and white, even if I think GMO crops should be banned altogether.

    I’d like to see some citations and back-up for Ronnie Cummins’ claims. Hirschberg’s replies were detailed enough for me to doubt at least some of what Cummins has written. I have been in the situation where an apparently respectable source bent or outright falsified data/claims to back up an otherwise well intentioned argument. The ends do *not* justify shady means.

    As for Whole Foods, I don’t trust them and avoid shopping there. It seems to me that they’re more likely to “sell out”, but I don’t know that this is what happened.

    I also avoid buying anything “organic” that has only the USDA organic label. That’s not high enough a bar for my $$. I’m lucky that I can buy organic & better (e.g., biodynamic) directly from many farmers. And I have a store that makes thoughtful purchasing decisions that align with my values (so I can support a worker-owned collective and avoid WF). Yes, I realize that people work for WF and I’m withdrawing my support for their choice of a job.

    We can’t keep waiting for government to do right by us on this issue (and many others). We should keep pressure on our representatives, yes, and we should also vote with our wallets as much as we possibly can. Keep explaining to our friends, families and acquaintances why we feel this way so maybe beliefs can evolve. I think that’s really the only way forward.

  3. Amanda:

    It may be a little bit of both. Whole Foods, Stonyfields and OCA are all after the same thing, though I think OCA has to keep moving the Overton Window (the realm of what is conventional wisdom in leftward or rightward political thought) to total ban on GMOs, while the other two try to run their businesses.

    In a way this spat looks alot like all left-leaning political blogs of late. Though I think people want this worked out with a minimum of posturing and maximum of knowing the right time to pitch in and fight. Or in some cases, where and what to buy.

  4. here is one of the comments from the stonyfield blog, regarding the CEO’s campaign contributions, and Cummins’ lack of citations:

    January 29, 2011 at 9:26 pm ·

    Nichole & Heydi: I looked up Gary Hirschberg’s political contributions on the FEC website for 1990-2010: in 2008, he gave $500 each to Tom Udall of NM, Mark Udall of CO, Tom Allen of ME, Jeff Merkley of OR, and $2500 to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of NH. That’s all that I could find (including looking at contributions for the Iowa governor races in 1998 and 2002, and his presidential bid in 2008). So at least that assertion seems false.
    I see lots of hyperbole and accusations (with no citation) in Cummings’ letter, and the ‘quote’ at the top is made up of two sentences from different parts of the Whole Foods post…my internal bullshit meter is sounding lots of alarms on this one. If any of his letter is true, Ronnie Cummins needs to cite studies, and quote real people (accurately!) for me to be able to believe anything he says.”

  5. Fe — thanks for the link. reading the letter by Stonyfield’s CEO as well as some of the comments bring both some clarity and more questions.

    it looks like Cummins is citing Stonyfield, WF and OV as caving because they worked for compromise protections when the USDA took a total ban of GMO alfalfa off the table. I think Cummins brings up a good point: if GMO cross-contamination is irreversible, what good in the long run is ‘compensation’ to organic farmers whose crops get contaminated?

    it seems like a similar divide in philosophy i saw while working at a non-profit for health care reform: the group’s ultimate goal was universal single-payer care, but we fought for many incremental and compromise health care reforms at the state level. many progessives then criticized the group for ‘selling out’ and sucking up to the democratic agenda rather than pushing for true reform.

    1. i’m wondering if there is such a thing as “some deregulation is better than full deregulation” in the case of GMO alfalfa. or is any of it disaster?

    2. i’m wondering the full agenda of Cummins and OCA behind this article. if Stonyfield is on the level, why attack them?

    3. is this just organic-community infighting between the ‘purer-than-thous’? is this somehow instigated by monsanto, et al, to be sure any large companies with money that could make a difference don’t get any traction?

    here’s a relevant section of the CEO’s letter at the Stonyfield link Fe provided:

    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.

  6. Anyone who signs their letters CE-YO is telling the truth. I can’t handle another disillusionment right now.

  7. This really is too much. “Soylent Green” anybody?

    “A tale of Earth in despair in 2022. Natural food like fruits, vegetables, and meat among others are now extinct. Earth is overpopulated and New York City has 40 million starving, poverty stricken people. The only way they survive is with water rations and eating a mysterious food called Soylent. A detective investigates the murder of the president of the Soylent company. The truth he uncovers is more disturbing than the Earth in turmoil when he learns the secret ingredient of Soylent Green.”

  8. Amanda, thanks very much for posting that. Two online gardening communities I belong to have been watching this and it’s hard to separate out the greenwashing from the truth! I had not seen this as I don’t usually go to HuffPo for this type of update….

    I just bought some organic alfalfa seeds for my garden, too. I almost feel like I should apologize to them and put some of them in a vault! Da-yum! 🙂

    The problem of course, aside from the contamination of fields, feed, and meat animals with GM materials, is that once large swaths of this stuff get sown, the cross pollination will mean it becomes impossible to protect organic crops of alfalfa. The seed I bought was grown before the release of this stuff (I dearly hope we have that much truth being told) and so I can trust it, but after this, no.

Leave a Comment