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GT1509 CoverwebHow the confusion over GMOs is undermining the organic movement

The push to eliminate genetically modified organisms from our food has finally broken the surface of mass consumer complacency. Occupying a slot of infamy once reserved for trans fats and nitrates, GMOs are today’s reigning symbol of the Evil Empire of Big Ag, and the latest target for the health-conscious public.  

Genetically modified organisms are those whose genetic materials have been altered by laboratory technology. Such biotech alteration is experimental, and an overarching fear among GMO opponents is that changes of this sort on a genetic level produce substances that the human body is not designed to process, and hence which can lead to cancers, allergies, and other substantial health problems.

But one unexpected byproduct of the fight over GMOs is its impact on organic farming, and the confusion that is arising over GMO and organic labeling. Now that even General Mills Inc. has succumbed to social media pressure and gone “GMO-free” on Cheerios—the still-popular cereal which enjoyed sales of more than $365 million in fiscal year 2013—organic growers fear consumers will be tempted to leap-frog right over the “organic” label and purchase the often cheaper products touting non-GMO status. Such confusion could be devastating for farmers who have earned the USDA “certified organic” label by forgoing toxic fumigants such as methyl bromide, which would produce a cheaper crop.

At the same time, the “organic” label certifies only the method of farming; i.e., how a fruit or vegetable was grown. It is not a verification of the final product. Even if you start with non-GMO seed and farm organically, it’s still possible for compromise to occur if your farm is located near acreage farmed in the “conventional” chemically enhanced method, or for GMOs to sneak into a crop due to cross-pollination. Today, more than 80 percent of U.S. corn, soybean and cotton crops are genetically modified, and at least 90 percent of the sugar beets grown in the U.S. are genetically modified.

Label Making

So, how to avoid GMOs? A big question, it turns out, as I discovered attending a GMO panel at last month’s EcoFarm 2015 conference at Asilomar in Pacific Grove. The USDA organic certification—which is different and has a higher standard than the “Made With Organic Ingredients” label—and the Non-GMO Verification Project seal are brands to look for when seeking to avoid genetically modified organisms in foods. The Non-GMO Verification Project’s standards ensure that GMOs are avoided in all aspects of production.

Due to the risk of contamination in processing, however, no product can claim to be 100 percent “GMO free.” As the Non-GMO Verification Project’s website reminds consumers, “the non-GMO Project only verifies meat and processed foods. Due to the lack of verification for fresh produce, buying certified organic produce is the only way to avoid GMOs in your fresh foods.”

The issue of GMO labeling remains hugely controversial. Santa Cruz has a strong pro-labeling movement, which supported Proposition 37, the 2012 California ballot initiative which would have required GMO products to be labeled as such, and prohibited such products from using the label “natural.” Ultimately, however, the measure was defeated by a slim margin (51.41 percent to 48.59 percent), after Monsanto Co, Pepsi Co., Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, Dow AgroSciences and other corporations spent a combined $47 million opposing it (in comparison to the $9.2 million spent by supporters).

Monsanto, the giant corporation behind much of the world’s current agricultural and bio-tech production, holds important and controversial patents, such as those on RoundUp Ready corn (RR corn) and soybean seeds, genetically altered seeds designed to work in conjunction with Monsanto’s ubiquitous herbicide RoundUp, which has been implicated in soil, air, and human tissue pollution.

Consumers, however, continue to push for GMO labeling. Whole Foods Market, according to senior media relations specialist Liz Burkhart, believes that “people have a right to know what’s in their food. That’s why we have set a deadline to provide full GMO transparency on all of our food products by 2018.” That means products based on or containing GMO-risk ingredients will be identified accordingly.

New Leaf Community Markets founder Scott Roseman agrees that his consumers “are extremely concerned about GMOs. They tell us so. Most want to know if the food they are buying contains ingredients that were grown with GMO seed, so that they have the choice to bypass those products.”

Roseman says that the entire GMO issue is a “hotly contested topic. Outside of this country, where Monsanto and their buddies spend millions of dollars to convince people that GMO food is safe, most of the world, including most of Europe, Russia and China, require either that GMO food is labeled, or it is banned entirely.”

Organic vs. Non-GMO

Recently, this comment showed up on Facebook: “A lot of companies are putting “Organic” on their seed paks [sic], making people feel they are buying something special and good. Organic is not the same as non-GMO. GMOs can be grown organically. Seeds can be harvested from organic plants but it doesn’t make the seed really any better. You are just paying more for the word organic on the pak.”

There’s some truth in this comment in that genetically modified canola can indeed be grown organically. Sourcing non-GMO seed, such as that produced by High Mowing in Wolcott, Vermont ( could remedy that. But the contention that organic seeds aren’t “really any better” avoids facing the environmental as well as ethical consequences of buying biotech seed from ag giants like Monsanto and its various subsidiaries.

The only guarantee of organic status is USDA Organic certification, which is granted according to standards set in this state by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). If a seed, vegetable, or product such as granola has gone through the years of planting, development and testing to earn “organic” status, it can also be considered as GMO-free as is possible (at least during its production).

But there’s no denying that genetic engineering of many things, including seed for large-scale corn and soy crops (keyed to work with toxic herbicides such as glyphosate), has become both more sophisticated, more prevalent and hence more liable to co-opt the food chain. The integrity of “organic” as a non-GMO food source requires that watchdogs such as the Center for Food Safety never sleep.

“Our main concern is making sure that GMO foods are regulated and that health risks are assessed,” says the Center’s Rebecca Spector.

The problem is that mandatory GMO labeling has run afoul of powerful agriculture and manufacturing lobbyists, who have spearheaded disinformation campaigns such as the one that helped to defeat Proposition 37.

“The FDA made a political decision in 1992 that GMO foods were not materially different than any others,” Spector told EcoFarm panel attendees. “So we work for voluntary labeling such as the non-GMO Verification Project, and lobby at the state level for mandatory labeling laws.”

In October, Consumer Reports described the “fierce opposition to GMO labeling from many seed manufacturers and big food companies, which have spent nearly $70 million in California and Washington state alone to defeat GMO-labeling ballot initiatives.” Vermont is the only state so far scheduled to require such labeling, as of January 2015—and already there have been legal challenges.

But Spector compares the GMO labeling battle to controversial issues like same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization that faced huge opposition before gaining acceptance.

“It can take many years,” she says.

Organic Challenges

After 10 months at the helm of the Santa Cruz-based national Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF), Brise Tencer sees momentum both in the larger market share that certified organic products gain each year, and the fact that “price difference between organic and conventional produce is also getting smaller.”

However, Tencer says the three-year transition required to go from conventional to organic is “a challenge for farmers. They have to grow organically for three years, during which time they can’t label their harvests as organic.” Those who know how organic crops are produced, she contends, know that there’s much more diversity in the organic label than the non-GMO label.

Tencer says organic farmers are tackling the problem of accidental GMO pollination head-on. “We are working with varieties that won’t cross-pollinate with GMO varieties. One such project—organic-ready maize—is going really well,” she says. “Non-GMO integrity is still a work in progress, but the results are really exciting.”

A wide variety of herbicides are “absolutely” used in Central Coast farming, Tencer says. “The value of the land here is so high that growers look for high-value crops, like strawberries.” The OFRF director applauds the nonprofit lobbyists who fight for mandatory GMO labeling. “But they just don’t have the deep pockets of Monsanto,” says Tencer.

A Molino Creek Farm partner and former policy program director at OFRF, Mark Lipson spent the past four years in Washington as the Organic and Sustainable Agriculture Policy Advisor at USDA. He says the non-GMO brand has gained a lot of momentum in the last decade.

“The consumer-safety aura of the non-GMO claim, abetted by social-media chatter, has led many organic producers and processors to include a non-GMO statement on their labels,” he says.

But, at the same time, “consumer ignorance has been exacerbated by misleading marketing,” he says, giving a pass to conventional farming “dependent on herbicides, neonicotinoid insecticides and synthetic fertilizers, but not using GMO seeds—at the expense of organic farmers.”

Milton’s Craft Bakers is one of the companies able to use both “organic” and “non-GMO” labels on their line of popular multi-grain items. “We have noticed that consumers are increasingly aware of GMOs,” says Milton’s president and CEO John Reaves. “For some, that may mean looking at the Non-GMO Project Verified seal, while for others it may mean USDA organic. In fact, a recent report from The Hartman Group found that four out of 10 consumers are currently avoiding GMOs in their diet—up by 23 percent compared to 2013.”

Zea Sonnabend, a Watsonville farmer and policy specialist for organic standards, notes in a recent article in the Winter 2015 CCOF Organic News, that “seed purity is a complicated issue because seed contamination can also happen in the field. And while organics are not GMO, they aren’t tested for that. Not every phase of production is tested. The organic label means that it was grown without pesticides.”  

So why not simply test the seeds for GMO contamination? “Well, because it’s costly,” Sonnabend explained at EcoFarm, “and that cost would have to be borne by the organic producers. The National Organic Standards Board is working through the slow-moving bureaucratic standards (letters to the USDA Secretary of Agriculture, etc.) to require cost-sharing of the burden of GMO testing and prevention. Meanwhile, there is reason for some cautious optimism. A recent survey of more than 80 products containing corn and soy were tested.

“None of the certified organic products tested contained GMOs,” says Sonnabend.

Feeding the Future

In the end, the choices we confront today—“organic” and “non-GMO”—may turn out to be luxuries we can no longer afford. Almost half the land area of planet Earth is already used for farmlands and pastures, and fully 70 percent of the earth’s available fresh water goes to provide the food that more than 7 billion humans need to survive.

In his Emeritus Research Lecture at UCSC last November, biology professor Lincoln Taiz reminded the audience of the long lineage of agriculture that has led to today’s depletion of space and resources. We need a second Green Revolution, said Taiz, after reviewing the grim facts of population pressures, climate change, drought, and starvation. Obesity in the first world is ironically overbalanced by accelerating malnutrition in Asia and Africa. While it’s easy to bask in denial in cloistered Santa Cruz—ringed by open wilderness space, organic fields and incomparable climate—the truth is harsh.

“Crop yields must double to meet the predicted population increases by 2050,” Taiz warns. “Agriculture is a Faustian bargain. Every expansion involves great ecological costs and loss of biodiversity.” Yet Taiz remains optimistic that “molecular tools” can increase plant productivity.  

Yes, GMOs. Genetic engineering, some scientists believe, is the only means of future survival in a world of disappearing natural solutions.

“Gene transfer for crop improvement,” says Taiz, “can engineer new traits that will enable plants to survive climate change, drought, and floods.”

But many farmers believe that this vision of the future can be fought. Local organic pioneer Jeff Larkey of Route 1 Farms reports that organic growing has expanded in the U.S. “to about a $35 billion slice of the agricultural pie”—still only 5 percent of the total, but growing.

“Along the Central Coast, which some consider ground zero for the movement, it’s grown from a handful of farmers to now include some of the largest organic vegetable growers in the country,” says Larkey.

But he’s concerned about GMO seed supply contamination. “Once these things get out there, there’s no way to remove them. Even pesticides will eventually degrade, but this has the potential to be with us forever,” says Larkey. Unlike Taiz, he sees organic farming and resistance to GMOs as the key to ecological sustainability, and he doesn’t plan on giving up that fight.

“The vast majority of the GMO crops have been created to be resistant to herbicides so that they can be used with impunity,” Larkey explains. “We are looking at water aquifers and soil biology in a huge part of our country becoming negatively impacted from long-term use of the herbicide glyphosate, and that should be of concern to everyone.”

Christina Waters was born in Santa Cruz and raised all over the world (thanks to an Air Force dad), with real-world training in painting, music, winetasting, trail running, organic gardening, and teaching. She has a PhD in Philosophy, teaches in the Arts at UCSC and sings with the UCSC Concert Choir. Look for her recent memoir “Inside the Flame” at bookstores everywhere.

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