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Is it noisy enough at the Organic Trade Association?

By Robert Schubert
CropChoice editor

(May 6, 2002 – CropChoice commentary) – The Organic Trade Association (http://www.ota.com) deserves big time kudos for its press release (see "Organic agriculture yields are high, sustainable, says trade association;" http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?RecID=696) last week in which Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the organization, highlighted research that effectively rebuts the frequent slam from the big agribusiness crowd that yields from organic growing methods are low.

However, the Association should be more proactive in stressing the case for a moratorium on genetically modified foods, crops and seeds because their spread threatens organic production, a method that disallows the use of genetically engineered organisms, as well as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

It’s true that policy statements and comments to the Environmental Protection Agency and other government entities demonstrate, in DiMatteo’s words, that the "OTA does protest to government officials every chance we get regarding GMOs [genetically modified organisms] and the fact that they should be prohibited." That is good and noteworthy.

But it’s simply not public enough and not consistent enough. The last press release from the organization about the issue came on October 12, 2001.

"There’s not much noise there," says David Vetter, a Nebraska organic farmer’s who has dealt with genetic contamination of his corn. "I don’t see [the OTA] being out front enough on the issue. The contamination concerns me when I look at it here on the farm. There’s not much you can do to defend yourself. Although some recent research indicates that organic farms are doing a good job of containment, if we continue with the planting of GM crops, then I think it will decrease our ability to keep contamination levels low or minimal."

As he did in the 2000 crop year ( http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=289), Vetter detected trace amounts of foreign genes in his corn last year, a fact to which he alerted his customers. Vetter suspects that contaminated seed, more than cross-pollination, is the genesis of the problem.

He maintains a 60-foot buffer, with trees in the middle of it, between his corn and the fence that marks the edge of his land. His neighbor grows corn – NOT genetically modified – 12 feet from the other side of the fence. Although agricultural extension agents tested Vetter’s seed (at his considerable expense, not at the expense of the biotech companies responsible for the stuff) and it came up "clean," meaning no DETECTABLE presence of transgenes, he emphasizes that those were samples of the seed that he planted. Vetter’s neighbor did not test his conventional seed.

"If you have increased acreage of this stuff, we’ll see more cross-pollination," he says. "But the bigger issue is the seed industry, which has trouble segregating. I see more cross-contamination in seed than in production."

Even more important, he says, is farmers’ losing control of their seed sources. As biotechnology expands, it will accelerate the concentration of germplasm and the ownership of seeds (organic, conventional and genetically modified) in fewer and fewer hands.

So, instead of hosting a panel discussion on Friday (part of its annual convention in Austin, Texas) about whether organic and biotech agriculture can co-exist – they can’t – the Organic Trade Association should get busy and start educating consumers and policy makers about the need for a ban on genetically modified organisms. Its members, including giants like Whole Foods Market, Horizon Organic Dairy, and Small Planet Foods (which, along with its Cascadian Farm and Fantastic Foods subsidiaries, is part of the General Mills corporate food behemoth) should jump in with their potent monetary and human resources.

The Organic Trade Association and certifying agencies stress that organic standards are based on production, not purity. Just as farmers can’t control insecticides and fungicides from drifting onto their fields, their certification shouldn’t be at risk when wayward corporate transgenes land in their fields or in their seed. True, the organic farmers shouldn’t be held responsible. Instead, the Organic Trade Association and its members should be working to eliminate genetic drift by pushing government at the state, national and international level to ban genetically modified organisms. Otherwise, more and more of them will show up in organic foods.

"If the OTA does not get it together, it’s effectively consigning consumers to a no-man’s land in which they have to choose between completely genetically modified products and partially genetically modified products," says an activist involved in the issue. "Even though OTA is a trade association, ultimately its responsibility is to the consumers who buy the products. They need to provide products that are GMO-free."