Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Organic, schmorganic

I feel as though I've been deliberately avoiding a confrontation with the hot topic of GMOs (genetically modified organisms -- for our purposes, GM food crops) for some time now. The truth is that I'm still trying to work out where I stand. There are compelling arguments on both sides, frankly, but I read something earlier today that got me all hot and bothered enough to try and gather my thoughts on the matter.

Some GMO proponents argue for the potential to develop food crops that have a higher nutritional value. This is key in areas where malnutrition can be deadly (the humanitarian argument). There is also the possibility of developing hardier varieties that are resistant to, say, frost or pests or drought; maybe they will require less chemical fertilizers or pesticides (the productivity argument). There are some good points, and thoughtful crop scientists and farmers and researchers working toward these very goals.

On the other hand, anti-GMO folks argue against the use of untested products (the unknown long-term repercussions argument), or harbor an inherent distrust of the big companies running the show (the corporate greed argument), or believe that scientists shouldn't be meddling with nature (the frankenstein argument, or what I heard someone at the Community Food Security Conference I went to back in Des Moines refer to as the "God Move Over" argument -- this last one's a bit too anti-science for my taste).

I'm sure I've inadvertently missed arguments on both sides, and for that I look to you, readers, to help me out here. I'm not anti-GMO, categorically: consider the humanitarian and productivity arguments. There's a lot of possibility for good. But at present, the way things seem to be heading, I can't help but find myself anxious about GM food crops. They've been out on the market for years now, often in the form of the ubiquitous (and popularly maligned yet still consumed in mass quantities) high fructose corn syrup. And yet the long-term effects of GM foods have not been tested nearly as long or thoroughly as, say, vaccines or many prescription drugs before flooding the U.S. market. (Ever wonder why the European Union refuses to produce or purchase GM foods? Are they all just overly paranoid?)

Also, I just don't trust the folks running things: groups like Monsanto, Pioneer, and Syngenta are *profit-driven* above all else. Making money is not inherently a bad thing so long as it does not obliterate any sense of ethics. From what I can discern, Monsanto sells GM seeds at home and abroad that are comparatively inexpensive so as to undersell most other seed producers, their GM seeds are sterile (so farmers can't save seed to plant the following year) and are designed to only to respond to specific pesticides (that, guess what, are only sold by Monsanto), and there are hundreds of cases where the company has tried to strong arm farmers who refuse to buy their seed or who speak out against them. (Shoot, am I on their watch list now? Nah, probably not. My guess is they're not interested in a food-loving cyclist and her raw milk yoghurt recipe.) Don't believe me? Put "The Future of Food" on your Netflix list -- the presentation might be a bit tedious in places, but many of the points raised are good ones.

Regardless of which side of the issue I might some day find myself, one thing is certain: GM crops should not qualify as "organic." And yet, I learned from my friends over at Food Democracy Now, this is exactly what will happen if Monsanto (boo, hiss) pushes a pending piece of legislation through the USDA to certify their genetically modified alfalfa as organic. What's next, organically certified GM tomatoes? It's a slippery slope in a system where the qualifications for "organic" products continue to lose credibility. (Seriously, you should see all of the "natural" ingredients, preservatives, and products are considered "organic" these days. At least the "no lab-manufactured chemical applications" and "no genetic modification" criteria retain some integrity thus far.)

I can hear you asking, "What can I do?" Well, here's a start: add your voice to the group protesting Monsanto's push to certify its GM alfalfa as organic. Here's where to find more info: The deadline for comments is later today: March 3.

Sorry for the late notice on this one. I've been biking all day -- 70 miles! -- and just had a chance to read through the material and become indignant. Now, time for sleep....

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry


  1. Hey ibti, I'm an alfalfa farmer and, in the interest of full disclosure, am all for this new alfalfa product that the USDA is considering, which is how I found your blog (looking for coverage on it.)

    I'm not sure what info Food Democracy Now is putting out, but I am very familiar with the current USDA comment period and they are definitely NOT considering letting this new type of GMO alfalfa be called organic. It's clearly not organic, as you've pointed out. All the USDA is deciding on is whether to lift the injunction and let farmers grow the alfalfa. No one, not even Monsanto, is claiming it's organic.

    Rather, the anti-GMO folks won an injunction against the sale of Roundup Ready Alfalfa in 2006 saying it hadn't been tested enough (one of the anti arguments you laid out.) As a farmer, I want to plant RRA because it allows me to use the Roundup herbicide to kill weeds without kill my alfalfa crop, which means I get more alfalfa from each planting, and that money really adds up for me and my family.

    Anyways, I'm probably talking too much, but I just wanted to let you know that the information from FDN is wrong and that none of us who support allowing the crop think it's organic or are planning to market it as such.

  2. Oh! And the USDA actually has a web site about it, in case you want to get the info straight from an unbiased source:

  3. That was a nice post. Oakland is rainy and cold but our greens are hearty and pure, still happy you stopped by.

  4. Hi Emily. I think there's a good deal of confusion surrounding this and other similar legislation. I'm pretty anti Monsanto, as you can probably tell, and have some serious reservations about RoundupReady plants, but I thank you for engaging in this discussion, for this resource, and your perspective on the legislation. Good luck with the farm!

    Dan, hope your weather clears up soon. Sending you some warm sunshine (and a bit of wind) from New Mexico....


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