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 of a health-conscious public.
Genetically modified organisms are those whose genetic materials have been altered by laboratory technology. Such biotech alteration is experimental, and the 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. Those can lead to cancer, allergies or other health problems.
One unexpected byproduct of the fight over GMOs is the confusion arising over GMOs and organic labeling.
The confusion is in part courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose standards for what constitutes “organic” are far below, for example, the Marin County standard under that county’s Marin Organic Certified Agriculture (MOCA) program.
The USDA bar is set so low for the “organic” label that even China can clear it—”Which is just crazy,” says Jeffrey Westman, executive director of Marin Organic, a Point Reyes Station–based nonprofit that promotes organic agriculture and food access in Marin County.
Organic angst is nothing new, says Westman; it’s what prompted the nonprofit he runs into existence, about 15 years ago. “A group of farmers said what the USDA said was organic wasn’t good enough,” he recalls.
Now, 15 years later, everybody’s jumping on the organic and GMO-free wagon. Even General Mills Inc. has gone “GMO-free” on Cheerios, the popular cereal which enjoyed sales of more than $365 million in fiscal year 2013.
The corporate push over organic-friendly labeling has left organic growers with the fear that consumers will leap-frog over the “organic” label and purchase the often cheaper products that tout 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—or for those who have earned local organic certifications that are beyond the USDA standard.
The organic label certifies the method of farming; it is not a verification of the final product. “Our farmers are probably a lot less freaked out than others, because they are certified by MOCA,” says Westman.
But Westman sees an unfolding irony as “organic” moves into its second decade as a corporate-embraced buzzword, and loses its power and meaning in the process.
He fears younger farmers might forgo the certification process entirely, since the locals who are buying their crops already know where it’s coming from, and how it was farmed.
“There’s a whole bunch of cool, young growers out there who are really walking the walk” when it comes to true-blue organic farming, says Westman. But they’re working with tough margins already, and not necessarily putting a priority on being certified organic or interested in going through the process, on the logic that, as Westman describes it, “I’m selling locally to people who know my product, so there’s no reason to get certified.”
“The problem there is that there’s no accountability,” Westman says. In other words, if the really hard-core “organic” farmers forsake the labeling protocols, then Big Ag retains its dominance at the labeling table. Westman says he was at a recent conference attended by a staffer from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s office. He was asked why it was so hard to create organic standards that have teeth. “The answer is, show up. They’re listening, but we’re not telling them very loudly.”
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.
The issue is even more complicated than that. The Petaluma Seed Bank doesn’t sell certified organic seeds because it works with small growers and producers from all over the world, says store manager Paul Wallace. The operation is just not big enough to ensure that, say, seeds coming from Africa are certified organic, so their seeds are not certified.
What the seed bank can guarantee, he says, “with our hands on our hearts,” is that all the seeds available are non-GMO, not treated with chemicals and non-patented.
So, how to avoid GMOs—besides by buying non-GMO seeds?
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 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 North Bay puts an emphasis on GMO labeling and 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.”
The measure was defeated
(51 to 49 percent), after Monsanto Co, Pepsi Co., Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, Dow AgroSciences and other corporations spent a combined $47 million opposing it (compared to the $9.2 million spent by supporters).
Consumers continue the push for GMO labeling. Whole Foods Market, according to senior media relations specialist Liz Burkhart, says “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.”
ORGANIC VS. NON-GMO
For the Seed Bank’s Wallace, emphasizing what is “organic” and what isn’t moves the issue beyond where it should be—which is with local farmers and local consumers who trust their produce. If you’re standing in Walmart perusing the produce and angling for the “organic,” you’re selling yourself short as a consumer.
“It’s important to eat locally and seasonally,” Wallace says. But if you’re going to shop at the big box, he says the emphasis should be on the nutritional value of the food. “The organic red pepper at Walmart is probably better than the non-organic red pepper at Walmart, but those shouldn’t be the only two choices. There are so many opportunities to vote with your fork these days. You want a red pepper? Go to a ‘mindful’ operation, go to a farmers market, grow it yourself on your roof or join a community garden.”
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. 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. 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 West Coast director 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 to require such labeling 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.
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.”
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.”
Mark Lipson, a Santa Cruz County farmer and former policy program director at OFRF, spent the past four years in Washington as the organic and sustainable agriculture policy advisor at the 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.”
FEEDING THE FUTURE
The choices we confront—”organic” and “non-GMO”—may turn out to be luxuries we can no longer afford. Almost half the land area on earth is 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 a lecture in November, UC Santa Cruz 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.
“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 resist this vision of the future. Organic pioneer Jeff Larkey of Santa Cruz County’s Route 1 Farms reports that organic growing has expanded in the United States “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.”
Tom Gogola contributed to this story.