Monday, January 31, 2011

A spat among friends over GMO alfalfa

Last week, Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack announced rules that would de-regulate a genetically modified (GMO) variety of alfalfa.  This decision disappointed advocates for organic agriculture, because there are legitimate concerns that the new variety will sometimes spread to the fields of organic alfalfa farmers, who are not supposed to use GMO varieties.

Earlier, Vilsack had made some effort to explore a co-existence policy, which would permit GMO alfalfa, but with restrictions to ensure that it does not contaminate the fields of other farmers.  In the end, bowing to intense pressure from agricultural technology companies and major farm interests, USDA mostly skipped the co-existence idea and opted instead for what amounts to outright de-regulation.

Different regulatory agencies in different countries may react differently to the possibility of an occasional GMO plant in organic fields.  In the United States, although this possibility may not put organic farmers in much jeopardy of losing their certification, most organic farmers and organic-friendly food companies are upset by the USDA decision.

In this circumstance, it was surprising to read the ferocious attacks on big-business organic companies -- such as Whole Foods and Stonyfield Yogurt -- in a recent column by Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association.  Cummins was angry that these big-business organic companies had written favorably about "co-existence" while lobbying Vilsack and USDA.  Cummins felt these companies should have advocated more whole-heartedly for even stricter regulations against GMOs, not co-existence.

Cummins' column is strangely defeatist.  When USDA is deliberating between two policies -- outright de-regulation or "co-existence" (the first two policies on the left in the figure below) -- it seems more sound for organic consumers to think of "co-existence" advocates as relatively favorable to organic agriculture.  Later, if a policy argument arises between co-existence and stricter rules against GMOs (further to the right in the illustration), that would be the right time for Cummins to argue with Whole Foods and Stonyfield.

My interest in this debate goes beyond organic alfalfa.  The general principle, in any argument over incremental policy change, is that one should generally be thankful for any support that helps in putting together a winning coalition.

Update (March 4, 2011): First, after a friendly grilling from wise people, let me retreat a little from the broad tone of the post's final paragraph. I do still suspect that strong GMO critics picked the wrong moment to seek an intramural fight with business-friendly GMO critics in this case, but it is not more generally always true that strong advocates on any moral or social issue are obliged to be thankful for support from moderates. There are very good occasions to be impatient with moderates (see King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail).  I shouldn't have drawn such a broad conclusion. Second, on a more upbeat note, further fascinating discussion of this debate has continued at NPR, Huffington Post, and the Friedman School's student-run online periodical Sprout.


Charlotte said...

But we can't have a winning coalition if a small group of organic leaders breaks from the rest of the organic community to try to broker a deal with Vilsack, on a position (co-existence) that is supported by none of the non-profit groups leading this fight against Monsanto (including the Center for Food Safety and the other plaintiffs in the court case). Shouldn't we stand united in this fight against Monsanto? And shouldn't that include the CEO's of these organic companies? In the end, Vilsack gave them nothing and gave us nothing. Might the outcome have been different if the CEO's had stood united with the rest of us? I'm interested to hear your take on this.

Parke Wilde said...

Did Whole Foods and Stonyfield "break with the organic community"? To say so, I think somebody would have to quote them favoring co-existence over restricting GMO alfalfa.

Favoring co-existence over outright deregulation is an entirely reasonable position for a large company that promotes organic food. Isn't Cummins mistaken to equate uttering the word "co-existence" with favoring deregulation of GMO alfalfa?

In his rebuttal, Gary Hirschberg of Stonyfield claims, "In the months leading up to this decision, a coalition including leaders of Whole Foods, Organic Valley, myself and others had been working ceaselessly to fight for any and all alternatives to deregulation."

Is that claim in dispute? Did Hirschberg and these other companies ever speak badly of any alternatives to deregulation? If so, let's see the quotes.

The clever thing about advocating co-existence over deregulation is that it positions farmers as the victims of deregulation. Anybody who follows this argument can sympathize with an organic farmer whose fields risk being contaminated by GMOs.

Tina said...

I remember one of grandmother's herbal food supplements is made from Alfafa. Now I knew how unsafe is to take such medicine. No to GMO.

Mark said...

So are you saying that GMO alfalfa cannot be organic under the regulations? Why is that? As long as they don't use pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizer, doesn't it qualify?

(I fail to see the big deal with GMO anyway ...)