Organic Trade Association versus Organic Spies

Organic Trade Association versus Organic Spies

Last week, a group called the Organic Spies released a video on treehugger criticizing the Organic Trade Association and drawing into question the members of its 15-person Board, who will soon be up for re-election. By questioning board members, the video ultimately questioned the OTA's dedication to organic and to fighting against genetically modified foods.

The video, which shows footage from this year's OTA lobby days, suggests that there are at least four current board members who have a conflict of interest in the OTA's fight against GMOs because of the companies they represent. The film primarily goes after Julia Sabin, current board president and vice president and general manager at J.M. Smucker Co., by outlining how she may personally profit, due to her compensation plan, from Smucker's selling GE foods. Only a small portion of Smucker's products are organic products, so the argument lies that by working for Smucker's, she is not strictly dedicated to the sales of organic foods.  

The same argument was attributed to Kelly Shea of Whitewave foods because it is owned by Dean Foods; Chuck Marcy who is a former president at Bryer's, Quaker and Kraft; and Craig Weakley from Small Planet Foods, which is owned by General Mills. The Spies also asked why there wasn't an organic farmer on the board.

Not surprisingly, Christine Bushway, executive director and CEO of OTA was quick to respond, citing that the OTA has held an official position "calling for mandatory labeling of GMO foods since 2000, and both OTA's Board and staff continue to be actively engaged in fighting the proliferation of GMOs to protect organic agriculture and trade and preserve farmer and consumer choice."

I attended the OTA lobby days this spring and there was much conversation about GMOs. Secretary Vilsack spoke, and while it is not his top priority, he did speak very intentionally on this topic with state representatives and it was a subject on the minds of all attending. GMOs are a very intense subject with a lot of nuances, especially for large companies. Many do feel that this issue is bigger than having it fall under the umbrella of organic, which is in part why the Non-GMO Project was started. I have yet to sit in a room, whether at OTA lobby days, Natural Products Expo West or The Organic Summit and hear a concrete definition of how to label non-GMO foods (which I support), and how to manage and certify against the issues of GMO crop drift, etc.

The OTA is a trade organization created to support organic trade. There are many good people on its board, including farmers (but the OFRF also covers the farming arena). But the fact remains that the organic industry is still a slow growth industry representing just over 4 percent in the food and beverage market. If we want to grow the industry, yes, the industry absolutely needs to maintain its integrity, but it also has to engage what may seem like the enemy—larger companies.

Activism is an important element that helped get the organic industry where it is today. But in my mind, one of the reasons organic has a hard time gaining traction is that it keeps pointing the gun at itself instead of outside the industry at the most egregious offenders. The industry needs to work better together. Communicate outward to consumers better and fight fights like GMO better. But if it continues to fight inward, it's very easy for the Monsantos of the world to keep doing their thing and simply ignore organic like a pesky fly on the wall. 

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