Recent decisions by federal authorities to allow the unregulated planting of genetically modified alfalfa and sugar beets have some fearing that the approvals may take root in Boulder County’s own approach to the genetically engineered crops.
On Jan. 27, the U.S. Department of Agriculture raised environmental activists’ hackles by announcing that it will not regulate alfalfa that has been genetically modified to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup. Both the alfalfa and the pesticide are made by biotech giant Monsanto.
Then, the following week, the USDA announced that it is partially deregulating genetically modified (GM) sugar beets due to a predicted sugar shortage, a decision that seems to fly in the face of an August decision by a federal district court judge in San Francisco to revoke approval of the beets until an environmental impact study could be completed.
Meanwhile, closer to home, last week the group charged with developing a set of recommendations for Boulder County’s own regulations on planting genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on county-owned open space held its first meeting.
Some say the feds’ recent rash of approving GM crops could sway that committee — and ultimately, the Boulder County commissioners — when it comes time to vote on those regulations late this year.
The issue of planting GM crops on county open space reared up during the summer of 2009, as the commissioners weighed requests from local farmers who wanted to plant genetically engineered sugar beets. After holding hearings, the commissioners delayed a decision on the matter, instead rolling it into the development of the countywide cropland policy being drafted this year.
Some farmers have adopted the use of GM crops because they can be sprayed with Roundup, which kills weeds, but not the mutant plants. Proponents argue that GM crops are more sustainable because they require fewer pesticides. However, weeds have become more resistant to herbicides, and studies show that their use has actually increased. Critics say there have not been enough studies — or time — to properly assess the toxins or allergens that GM crops might propagate. And they point to the aggressive — some say sinister — tactics that Monsanto has been accused of in films like Food Inc., as it simultaneously spreads and protects its special seeds and the herbicide they withstand.
Since Boulder County is home to a host of organic food companies, it could prove to be one of the main fronts in the battle over keeping organic food sources separate from the spreading tentacles of Monsanto.
And that battle may boil down to something as simple as labeling.
The USDA’s Jan. 27 decision to grant “non-regulated status” to GM alfalfa was accompanied by assurances from federal officials that the genetically engineered crop poses no risks.
“After conducting a thorough and transparent examination of alfalfa through a multi-alternative environmental impact statement (EIS) and several public comment opportunities, [the USDA] has determined that Roundup Ready alfalfa is as safe as traditionally bred alfalfa,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a press release.
But the announcement triggered a fiery response from Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association, who said “a self-appointed cabal of the Organic Elite” — Whole Foods Market, Organic Valley and Stonyfield Farm — had betrayed the entire organic industry by capitulating to Monsanto.
Cummins wrote in a blog post that the three organic food companies had surrendered to Monsanto by endorsing a plan for the “co-existence” of GM crops and organic plants.
“Beyond the regulatory euphemism of ‘conditional deregulation,’ this means that [Whole Foods] and their colleagues are willing to go along with the massive planting of a chemical and energy-intensive [genetically engineered] perennial crop, alfalfa,” Cummins wrote, adding that the Frankenfalfa is “guaranteed to spread its mutant genes and seeds across the nation; guaranteed to contaminate the alfalfa fed to organic animals; guaranteed to lead to massive poisoning of farm workers and destruction of the essential soil food web by the toxic herbicide, Roundup; and guaranteed to produce Roundup-resistant superweeds that will require even more deadly herbicides such as 2,4-D to be sprayed on millions of acres of alfalfa across the U.S.”
Executives at Whole Foods and the other two companies shot back with blog posts of their own. Stonyfield President Gary Hirshberg called Cummins’ piece “a thoroughly inaccurate, irresponsible and deeply misguided attack.”
“Leaving aside the baseless interpretations and accusations by a person who was not present for any of the deliberations he critiqued, the real question is why someone who supposedly wants to stop the Monsanto steamroller from its pernicious campaigns to deregulate genetically engineered crops would turn his venom on allies as opposed to this very obvious and powerful adversary?” Hirshberg wrote. “The divisiveness and distractions sown by Cummins’ factfree rant come at the exact time when all who oppose last week’s demoralizing USDA decision to completely deregulate genetically engineered alfalfa must unite and focus on the immediate actions necessary to stop this new policy from going into effect.”
Hirshberg and representatives of the other organic companies defended their endorsement of what they say was the lesser of the only two available evils. The deregulation of GM alfalfa was a foregone conclusion, they argued, and the only palatable option being considered by the USDA was to endorse a form of deregulation that would have been accompanied by restrictions and conditions, including compensation for organic farmers whose livelihood was damaged by Monsanto.
But in the end, the USDA didn’t take even that route, instead opting for complete deregulation based on the determination that GM alfalfa poses no “plant pest risk.”
“It is difficult to express how disappointed we are by the USDA’s decision to completely deregulate genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa without restrictions,” Whole Foods execs said on their website. “While Whole Foods Market and other advocates for non-GE and organic foods feel the USDA’s deregulation decision is a setback, we will continue the fight for the protection of non-GE food, as we have ever since genetically engineered crops first appeared in the marketplace.”
In his biting critique of Whole Foods, Stonyfield Farm and Organic Valley, Cummins urged supporters to shift their efforts to securing a requirement that GMO foods be labeled as such. He quotes a Monsanto executive who, when GMOs first came on the market, said, “If you put a label on genetically engineered food you might as well put a skull and crossbones on it.”
He encouraged people to visit the website for his group’s truth-in-labeling campaign, titled “Millions Against Monsanto”: www.organicconsumers.org/monsanto.
Industry observer Steven Hoffman, who spent nine years as editorial director at the Boulder-based magazine Natural Foods Merchandiser, now runs his own communications firm, Compass Natural, and co-owns Boulder’s Best Organics. He told Boulder Weekly that Cummins’ attack may have been premature.
“I think he jumped too soon on the very leaders who are trying to find a solution,” Hoffman says, adding, however, that he agrees with Cummins’ assertion that there can be no compromise when dealing with Monsanto and the spreading scourge of GM crops.
He, like Cummins, tells people to tell their congressional representatives and the White House that they want GM crops labeled as such, because GM foods have quietly infiltrated the majority of foods in conventional supermarkets, but there is no way to tell them apart from other products. Even products labeled with the widely abused misnomer “natural” can contain GMOs, experts say.
“Labeling will solve everything, because that will give consumers the choice,” Hoffman says. “Right now they have no choice. They don’t know it’s in 80 percent of their grocery-store food.”
As for the USDA’s recent decisions on alfalfa and sugar beets, Hoffman says the companies that Cummins refers to as a cabal were stabbed in the back after the feds invited them to the table for negotiations.
“I think they were betrayed by the USDA,” he says. “I think they were surprised at the sudden turnaround.”
And the driver of that betrayal, as with so many others, is probably money.
“I think there is tremendous pressure from large agribusiness special interests,” Hoffman says. “They have very well-financed special interests.”
If the infiltration of GM products continues, he explains, the next logical step is the contamination of the animals we eat, like cows that consume the Frankenfalfa and then pass along its effects through its milk or meat. There is already a push to gain federal approval for GM salmon that grows twice as fast as normal salmon.
Hoffman says the recent USDA decisions could be used by Boulder County officials as justification for approving GM crops on taxpayer-funded open space.
“I think the organic consumer community is very vibrant and must be extremely vigilant, because I think the county commissioners are going to try to approve this thing, and we cannot let them,” he says. “Not on our open space land.”
Cropland committee convenes
But it will be many months before the commissioners are faced with that decision.
The committee charged with making those and other recommendations to the board is the Cropland Policy Advisory Group (CPAG). That committee, which held its first meeting on Feb. 2, includes three local conventional farmers, two organic farmers, an organic dairy farmer, and three at-large representatives.
Tina Nielsen, special projects manager for Boulder County Parks and Open Space, says the group will meet from 5:30 to 7 p.m. the first and third Wednesdays of the month at the county parks and open space offices at 5201 St. Vrain Rd. in Longmont, and the public is welcome to attend. She says CPAG is expected to issue its recommendations by October.
According to Nielsen, after the sugar beet hearings held in 2009, county officials hosted additional opportunities for public comment last year, including an open house in May, four “bus tours” from June through September and a forum on sustainable agriculture in November. She expects to have a similar format for public feedback this year, plus additional opportunities after the recommendations are issued. The cropland policy will be considered by the county’s Food and Agricultural Policy Council as well as the Parks and Open Space Advisory Committee before it goes to the county commissioners for a vote.
Nielsen says alfalfa is one of the crops that local farmers commonly rotate on their fields, because it can act as a fertilizer, restoring nitrogen in the soil. The county has received at least one request from a farmer to use GM alfalfa on county open space, she says, but current county policy only allows genetically engineered corn. The commissioners decided to allow the use of GM corn on county open space in 2003, following the recommendation of a GMO technical advisory committee.
One member of that committee who was in the minority in voting against allowing GM corn on county land was Mark Retzloff, chairman and co-founder of Alfalfa’s, which is poised to re-open at its original Boulder location at Arapahoe and Broadway.
Retzloff agreed that Cummins is off base in his criticism of the “Organic Elite” caving in to the USDA.
“The organic industry is standing together on this,” he says. “He wasn’t even at the discussions. I know these companies, and they have consistently supported the regulation of GM crops. We haven’t given up at all. But we are facing a formidable foe in Monsanto and the biotech industry. … Biotech has spent half a billion lobbying Congress over the past 10 years, and $71 million last year alone.”
Retzloff says the organic community needs to fight each GM commodity as it comes before the USDA, because “if we can be victorious with one of them, that can set a precedent.”
The fact that the USDA approved the limited use of GM sugar beets despite a federal judge’s order to the contrary “speaks to the strength that the biotech industry has in Washington these days,” he says.
“The problem is, the genie is out of the bottle,” Retzloff continues, explaining that more than 80 percent of today’s corn and soybeans are genetically modified.
If nothing else, Retzloff says, the USDA decisions and recent uproar about GM crops will cause the county commissioners to consider the new cropland policy carefully. And while he says local farmers have used the USDA’s stance on GM crops as ammunition in the past, he’s not placing any bets on whether the commissioners vote down GM sugar beets or revoke their approval of GM corn.
“They’re listening, more than ever,” he says. “But do I think they’re going to change their policy? I’m not sure.”
“I think our hope is to come up with a broad policy approach, as opposed to duking out every individual seed species,” County Commissioner Will Toor told Boulder Weekly. “I don’t know that the latest decisions from the USDA really impact that broader policy discussion, although they certainly may [affect] how whatever we decide might impact the planting of individual species.”
Up the chain
Retzloff, who is also in the organic dairy business, says he can’t feed his dairy cows GM alfalfa and still call it organic milk, but the spread of the genetically engineered alfalfa is hard to stop, even in cases where a four-mile buffer between the natural and altered crops is enforced.
“Alfalfa is pollinated not by the wind, but by bees,” he says. “Four miles is not very far for a bee to go.”
Retzloff adds that he hopes his natural grocery store can avoid GMOs for the most part.
“There may be some we will not be able to get away from, but we’ll let you know on our labels that we can’t validate that, so people can make a choice,” he says. “The bottom line is people have to be able to make a choice.”
Asked whether we will ever see a day when the feds require foods with GMOs to be labeled as such, Retzloff replies, “I think the food industry will fight that as long as they possibly can. It will be a battle they will never stop fighting.”
Another member of the committee that recommended approval of GM corn on county land in the early 2000s says the anti-GMO crowd is being alarmist. Andrew Staehelin, a retired University of Colorado biology professor, argues in favor of using GM crops.
“We have 23 years of experience with these plants, and the world is still standing,” he says.
Staehelin says only a handful of studies, most of them poorly done, have raised health concerns about GM crops, and yet they get a bunch of publicity despite being based on “bad science.”
He claims that in some cases, organic foods are less healthy than GM foods.
As an example, Staehelin points to the holes created in corn by bugs known as corn borers. Those holes are then susceptible to fungus, including a toxin called fumonisin that has been linked to cancer as well as spina bifida. He says studies in European countries show that levels of fumonisin in GM corn are 10 times lower than in traditionally grown, pesticide-treated corn, and hundreds of times lower than in organic corn.
“Natural foods can kill you, too,” Staehelin says, calling organic farming “19th century agriculture” that doesn’t address the need to feed a growing population.
He also points to the development of a Hawaiian papaya that was resistant to naturally occurring viruses. People have been cross-breeding plants and animals for decades in an effort to develop strains with desired genetic traits, he says, so why not do it faster, through genetic engineering?
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Meanwhile, Cummins is sticking to his guns and his original criticism of the Organic Elite. He told Boulder Weekly that Whole Foods isn’t fighting GMOs as hard as it could because a percentage of the food it buys and sells contains GMOs, so it relies on genetically engineered crops for a portion of its profits.
“It’s an inconvenient truth that the industry has to face,” Cummins says. “If you take a stand, there will be consequences in the marketplace. … We’re all Monsanto’s minions right now because we’re inadvertently buying their food. Someone’s got to lead the way and take a risk. For those putting the bottom line ahead of ethics, it’s not going to pay off in the long run.”
He adds that labeling GMO foods may be the last line of defense.
“We all know darn well that Congress and the White House are not going to pass mandated labeling,” Cummins says. “Let’s get beyond organic infighting. Let’s get down to a strategy to defeat Monsanto and the biotech industry, and we think that’s truth in labeling.
“It’s time to draw a line in the sand.”