Strike at the Root Culprit of GE Alfalfa

Last week the USDA announced its decision to fully “deregulate” genetically engineered (GE) Round Up ready alfalfa.This lead to a divergence in the organic foods community, where the Organic Consumers Association alleged that Whole Foods Market, Organic Valley, and Stonyfield Farm surrendered to the creator of GE alfalfa, Monsanto.  But rather than continue with the infighting, Stonyfield Farm President and CE-YO Gary Hirsberg suggests that the “the organic community must come out swinging at the right opponents.”

I tend to concur, but who or what exactly are the right opponents?

Whole Foods Market, Organic Valley, and Stonyfield Farm have fought, and continue to fight  against GE crops.  These companies are friends, not foes.  Each of these companies believe that folks have the right to grow and farm crops sans contamination from GE crops.  And each company does its best to provide organic products to its customers.

The Organic Consumers Association is an online and grassroots non-profit, putting up the fight against GE foods since 1998.  The organization has called for a global moratorium on GE foods and crops.  The organization has high standards, but is no opponent in terms of the fight against GE crops.

How about Monsanto?  This may seem like the obvious opponent, as the company is not only purveyor of GE Round Up ready alfalfa, but also the sole creator and manufacturer of the pesticide Round Up.  It has the most to gain from the sale of both the GE alfalfa and the Round Up.  (Likewise by the same logic, Whole Foods Market, Organic Valley, Stonyfield Farm and their ilk have the most to gain by preventing GE alfalfa from coming to market.)  Monsanto is not quite friend, but not quite the foe we need to rally against.

As strange as it may sound, our opponent is the USDA itself.  We look to the USDA to keep us safe from harmful agriculture coming to market.  But does it really have our interests in mind when making its decisions?  The latest round in giving GE foods the stamp of approval into market leaves me little hope.

Sure, the USDA may attempt stakeholder engagement, “USDA brought together a diverse group of stakeholders to discuss feasible strategies for coexistence between genetically engineered (GE), organic, and other non-GE stakeholders.”  But the USDA method of stakeholder engagement leaves out the most important stakeholders: you, me, and the market at large.  It is making decisions for our health (or lack thereof), rather than making us make our own decisions.

The USDA has a virtual mandated monopoly on regulating and/or deregulating the growing and sale of agriculture in the United States.  The USDA has prevented the labelling of GE foods thus there is no way to know if we are buying GE foods, including GE alfalfa. We think monopolies are restricted to corporations, but they also extend to governmental agencies.

Yes, we must come together in our cause against GE alfalfa, or GE foods in general.  But let’s make sure do swing at the right opponent and not each other.

Jonathan Mariano is an MBA candidate with the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, CA. His interests include the convergence between lean & green and pursuing free-market based sustainable solutions.

12 responses

  1. On January 27, the Obama Administration made the damaging decision to approve the unrestricted cultivation of genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa. This means GE alfalfa can be planted without any federal requirements to prevent contamination of organic and non-GE crops. It also means that GE alfalfa does not have to be labeled, making it difficult for consumers to identify and avoid. This decision, to support big business at the expense of individual choice, sets a precedent that could lead to the deregulation of other GE crops, in spite of the fact that genetic engineering has not been conclusively proven safe. Don’t stand by while well-funded and well-connected biotechnology interests are given the power to eliminate marketplace choice. Demand that President Obama protect your right to choose products free of genetic engineering!

  2. Yes, the USDA is culpable, but don’t let Monsanto off the hook. Do your homework and you will learn how Monsanto and Dupont have wormed their way into the USDA and FDA. The USDA also has a huge conflict of interest sharing terminator seed technology with the Monsanto. In regards to Whole Foods, Organic Valley and Stonyfield, they are not “innocents.” They self-appointed themselves to fight the good fight and then threw in the towel. You might want to ask yourself why. It will be interesting to see how quickly they rally the organic troops for a court battle. I’m not holding my breath. The best way to fight this is to educate a very unaware American public and push for GE labeling. Let the market decide–and then maybe Kelloggs will make GE products for us (like they do in the EU).

    1. Wendy,

      We would like to address your claims against Stonyfield as they are reflective of the many rumors that have been circulating the internet and, we feel, causing division among the organic community at a time when we need to come together. Our CEO Gary Hirshberg has addressed these issues here (, and I’ll paraphrase below.

      To be clear, Whole Foods, Organic Valley and Stonyfield did not appoint ourselves to fight this fight, nor did we act alone. Despite the well-funded lobbying efforts of Monsanto and big biotech, organic advocates were able to persuade the USDA that organic interests must also be considered regarding GE alfalfa. 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 NGOs to try to reach a consensus on GE alfalfa. 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.

      Many have asked why we endorsed the coexistence option rather than an outright ban on GE alfalfa. The answer is we didn’t. When it was an option we strongly endorsed an outright ban. However, the option of an outright ban was taken off the table in December. At that point, we then specifically advocated that any regulatory approval must include safeguards for organic farmers. Needless to say, the biotech coalition was firmly opposed to these safeguards, but we remained united and fought hard for them.

      The fact remains that we cannot and will never stop fighting this battle. We, along with the organic community, will continue to fight to protect the organic farmers who grow healthy food and the consumers who have every right to choose organic. The battle will now move from the government agencies back to the courts. The fight to stop or restrict genetically engineered crops is heavily stacked against organic advocates and we now need every ounce of energy, time, muscle and money to be directed to renewing the battle in the courts but also to letting the White House and our congressional representatives know that we do not support this takeover of our agriculture by a handful of chemical companies. The divisive public attacking of allies is pointless and, worse, destructive to our cause.

      To stand with us in opposition of GE alfalfa, here’s how you can help:

      Read this letter from Maria Rodale, Michael Pollan and other organic advocates:

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

      Thank you,
      Carrie Kocik
      Stonyfield Farm

    2. Wendy— I’d like to chime in as well, and reiterate that we most definitely didn’t “throw in the towel” on this. Once the USDA made it clear in December that RR-alfalfa would be released regardless of our efforts, we knew we had to do everything in our power to advocate for the most restrictive set of regulations possible. To walk away from the table in protest would have been a clear abdication of our responsibility to our organic farmers and consumers, and wouldn’t have gotten us anywhere. “Self-appointed” makes it sound like we were trying to edge others out of these talks, which is not at all the case. We remain in constant contact with other organic organizations on this issue, and just co-signed a letter with many of them, uniting in opposition to this decision: We’re supporting the Center for Food Safety in their legal actions against this decision, just as we have in the past, and are calling on consumers to support their battle financially as well. (Info here: -Leslie Kruempel, Organic Valley

  3. President Obama and First Lady Michelle –
    I am a small family farmer who wholeheartedly supported your election as my president.
    I would like to continue my support, but, I cannot do so in light of your capitulation to Monsanto in allowing Genetically Modified Alfalfa to be grown in America.
    First of all this is a totally unnecessary crop, since according to Michael Pollan 93% of all Alfalfa is grown without herbicides anyway, so this only benefits Monsanto while putting at dire risk an entire segment of our national farming and food economy.
    By your caving in to Monsanto’s demands you are putting at great and unneeded risk the organic dairy business, also the total extinction of Alfalfa other than Monsanto’s patented GM-Alfalfa. And who exactly benefits from all of this, sir?
    You have appointed far too many Monsanto executives in your administration and they are making rules that affect millions of us who are feeling increasingly distraught, helpless and angry at being controlled by one huge corporation with enough clout to determine the farm and environmental policy of your administration.
    Mr. Vilsak, a biotech governor and supporter seemingly tried to meet all of us small farmers half way in placing planting restrictions of Monsanto’s GE-Alfalfa, but your administration embarrassed him and make him back down from his earlier decision – that sir, is totally unacceptable to millions of us – not just GMO opponents, but any sensible, freedom loving middle class American who detests being unfairly controlled by those with the levers of power at the federal level.
    I am personally calling on you to show us your mettle and your common sense to help the common men and women who elected you as our president and stop the USDA approval of Monsanto’s Genetically Modified Alfalfa at once!

    By doing this you not only restore the loyalty of millions of us to your ideals, hopes and dreams – you also assure the success of Michelle’s garden in your backyard, and you assure your children’s right to choose the kind of food they choose to eat for generations to come.

    This is an historical decision Mr. President, please do the right thing – Stop Genetically Modified Alfalfa.

    Respectfully submitted,
    Jerry Cunningham
    Elgin, Texas USA

  4. @Wendy: Thanks for the comment. I am curious if you have cites to Kelloggs and GE products in EU. Last I heard, most companies pulled out their GE products from Europe.

    1. Jonathan,
      You state that “if we let the market decide”, you don’t think we will see much GE food in the marketplace. The “market” has been deciding, backed by Monsanto and other agribusinesses who profit from genetic engineering and sales of complementary products. With the inadequate consumer protections and no application of the precautionary principle we have in the US today, consumers do not have access to information about GE products, so the market is completely skewed to the benefit of the agribusiness interests. The USDA ruling on GE alfalfa was wrong, and needs to be overturned, but that does not mean that we need a weaker USDA. Rather, we need the USDA to be better aligned with consumer interests of transparency, safety and choice and opposed to monopolistic behavior and profit-above-precautions.

      1. Hi Elizabeth,

        Thanks for your comment.

        If we think systematically, it is not the “market” deciding, but rather the collusion/collaboration between Monsanto and the USDA.

        The “market” is often misattributed. Monsanto is not the market, it is merely a corporation (an influential one at that.) The USDA is not the market either, but it does play a coercive role in skewing the market process to take effect. The USDA and legislation has effectively censored non-GE foods by not allowing the labeling of GE crops.

        Imagine if we had a stronger USDA but NOT aligned with consumer interests. Just because an entity has the power to make the “right” decisions does not mean that it will. I don’t think the USDA is going anywhere soon, but IMHO, it would be better to do otherwise rather than a monopoly regulatory entity making the ultimate decision.


  5. ahh, the arguments continue. Monsanto loves, and has actually paid PR firms to foment, these false dichotomies.

    What is co-existence except biological nonsense? Not possible. These are living organisms and they will always get around. The danger is that their impact is unknown.

    And they are getting around in EU now too, but at least there, it is nice to see labels. Unlike the U.S. they still have some consumer protection laws. That, by the way is linked to health care. When the government/public pays for health care, you get preventative and precautionary regulatory structures. In the U.S., health is not safeguarded by the government since the costs have all been diverted on to the citizen as a private expense. We citizens also pay billions of dollars a year for grain subsidies which keep GMO crops growing, and we pay for the environmental clean up of the massive use of herbicides they use.

    After covering this topic for over 15 years, and writing an award winning book on GMOs, it still amazes me that so many smart people are still not thinking clearly about the USDA (I am a former USDA attorney) or Monsanto, or GMOs. This is an invention still in search of a necessity – meaning it has no worthy purpose. GMOs were deemed “substantially equivalent” through political slight of hand, not by the USDA, but the FDA – who could require labeling if it did not accept the lie that these organisms are the same. They are not.

    Why does the federal government allow them in our food and crops? Because Monsanto made a deal with the Reagan White House not to regulate this revolutionary life changing rDNA technology long before there were even any products to sell.

    We do not have to choose which supposed “enemies” to oppose, we have to resist all efforts to commodify life, whoever is doing it, and support all efforts to ensure that our food, our seeds, and our farmers have integrity and autonomy.

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