What’s the No. 1 threat facing the organic industry in 2011?
According to a fired-up panel of industry pioneers who met last week at Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, California, the answer is unequivocal: Genetically modified (GM) seeds.
“After 30-some-years, we have found ourselves at a crossroads,” said Stonyfield Farm President Gary Hirshberg. “If we miss this opportunity, our children will never forgive us.”
In arguably the most passion-fueled panel at this year’s Expo West, Hirshberg joined UNFI’s Michael Funk, Organic Valley’s George Siemon and a host of others for what amounted to a call to arms before a packed auditorium.
Their argument: GM seeds are steamrolling over the landscape, threatening organic farmers who want to keep their seed clean and consumers who want to preserve their right to buy non-GMO products.
Already, more than 93 percent of soy and 86 percent of corn in the United States is genetically modified; GM beets are proliferating and GM alfalfa crops—deregulated in January—are sure to be next. Even products labeled “organic” (which are expected to be GMO-free) can’t make that claim for sure due to increasing seed contamination. One organic dairy farmer in the audience said he’d seen as much as 6 percent of his seed tainted.
With biotech companies shoveling millions in donations at lawmakers, the comparatively quiet and frugal GMO opposition appears to be losing ground in Washington, DC. By the next presidential election, when many predict a tidal shift in the administration (toward one less-friendly toward environmental concerns), the genie—already out of the bottle—could be gone for good, panelists warned.
But as anti-GMO advocates try to rally the support of consumers (many of whom don’t even know what those letters mean), the million-dollar questions is this: Why should consumers care?
The reasons are actually very compelling:
First and foremost, says Hirshberg: Conventional farmers using pesticide and herbicide resistant GM seeds tend to use as much as three times more of the toxic chemicals as they did before.
Second, GM seeds cost farmers more, prompting them to raise prices or go further in debt.
Third, the number of “superweeds” resistant to herbicides and pesticides has soared from zero in 1995 to 19 today, thanks in part to GM seeds.
Fourth, organic farmers, threatened by contamination of seeds, could ultimately lose their ability to provide consumers with THE CHOICE to buy GM-free if they want to.
What to do? The panel urged manufacturers to join the GMO-Project (www.nongmoproject.org), which certifies and labels GMO-free products; retailers to support companies with a non-GMO label; and consumers to write their congressional leaders and demand labeling of foods containing GMOs. There is also the power of the checkbook: Soap-maker David Bronner called for a march on Capital Hill and vowed $25,000 to support the cause. Hirshberg, later that evening, offered a $100,000 donation of his own funds to the research organization the Organic Center.
And a slew of visibly outraged audience members vowed simply to start talking about an issue that has remained under the radar far too long.
“This is not David Vs Goliath. This is Godzilla vs. a couple of ants and we are the ants,” said Funk. “But if you have ever looked closely at ants in the forest, you know that when they come together, they can accomplish a lot.”