I am no stranger to the rush of radical activism, to the satisfaction of identifying an enemy and throwing heart and soul into righteous indignation. In this complicated world, it’s tempting to reduce shades of gray to simple black and white. Sometimes that’s the only way to achieve a reassuring sense that we know where we stand (and therefore who we are). As a college student a decade ago, I devoted endless hours to organizing protests against the Keck Graduate Institute, the first university in the world dedicated solely to biotechnology. When we successfully shut down their inaugural celebration, I wrote about it in the Earth First! Journal. In 2001 I attended the Ruckus Society’s “Biojustice” Action Camp, where I learned about the threats posed by the new science of genetic engineering, and how to scale a building or lock myself to the axle of a car if an action called for those skills.
It was all incredibly exhilarating, and my friends and I did accomplish some things of lasting value, including the protection of what remains one of the largest plots of endangered Coastal Sage Scrub habitat in Los Angeles County. As time passes, though, what I cherish most from my early activist days is not the rush of combat, but the satisfaction I experienced in collaborating with like-minded allies. The true power behind everything we accomplished came from our ability to work together as a team. In the wake of the USDA’s recent decision to deregulate genetically modified alfalfa, it is that power—the power of unification with like-minded allies—that we must seek. The understandable (and completely justified) feelings of anger, frustration and helplessness that the organic community is experiencing must be directed constructively. We are too small and up against too much for there to be any other way forward.
Leading up to the ruling, a broad coalition of organic organizations and companies were working around the clock in an attempt to influence the USDA’s decision. The USDA had already made it clear that alfalfa would be deregulated, but hope remained that there might be some way to soften the blow. Organic Valley, Whole Foods and Stonyfield Farm, along with many others in the organic community, were doing everything in their power to secure protections for organic farmers so that if their fields were contaminated once the GMO alfalfa was released, biotechnology companies for the first time would be held accountable for their pollution and would be forced to pay for the damages. These groups were also pushing for measures to protect seed purity so that non-GMO alfalfa supplies could be maintained. Unfathomably, these tireless organic organizations are now being criticized for their efforts. In total denial of the incontrovertible fact that the USDA was never even remotely considering a full ban on GMO alfalfa, some are suggesting that these groups’ efforts to make the most of a bad situation *somehow* (though no one is very specific on how, exactly) signals corruption, and are even calling for boycotts. HOW ON EARTH is taking this out on 1200 organic family farmers going to help anything?! This is divisiveness we cannot afford.
Of the whole circular firing squad that’s been exploding in recent days, most shocking to me personally was a statement by Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association that the Non-GMO Project “is basically a greenwashing effort.” Say what?! Cummins goes on to say that the Project is unnecessary for organic products, since they are already “basically free from GMOs,” while “failing to focus on so-called ‘natural’ foods.” Totally wrong on both counts!
First of all, the hard truth is that organic foods are not necessarily “free” of GMOs. While the National Organic Program (NOP) identifies genetic modification as an excluded method, GMOs are not a prohibited substance. This means that although GMO seeds are not supposed to be planted, and GMO ingredients are not supposed to be used, no testing is required under the NOP. With the majority of key crops like soy and corn being planted with GM varieties in North America, contamination of seeds and ingredients is a real risk, even for certified organic products. It is critical to understand that the ONLY way to identify (and control) GMO contamination is through testing, in combination with other best practices. The organic standards do not require testing; the Non-GMO Project Standard does. Over half of the companies participating in the Non-GMO Project produce certified organic products. These companies have chosen Non-GMO Project Verification in addition to their organic certification because they are committed to keeping their products non-GMO, and are concerned that organic certification is not adequate. Many organic companies joined the Project after their internal GMO testing indicated a growing risk of contamination.
With regard to natural products, there are literally thousands of them enrolled in the Non-GMO Project, so I fail to see how we are “failing to focus” on them. As an example, Whole Foods has their entire 365 product line, organic AND natural enrolled in the Non-GMO Project. This commitment means that they are requiring testing of every single GMO risk ingredient used in every single one of their house brand products, both organic and natural. As a founding member of the Non-GMO Project, Whole Foods made a point from the very beginning of ensuring that this program would be available for not only their organic products, but their natural ones, too. Their commitment is exemplary. In fact, it is exactly the sort of positive action step that Cummins called for in his recent article.
Okay, so I’ll admit it—this is where I got really confused. After talking trash about the Non-GMO Project and its founders, Cummins, whose support is important to me, says “We’ve got to concentrate our forces where our leverage and power lie, in the marketplace, at the retail level; pressuring retail food stores to voluntarily label their products.” Oh hey, good idea! Let’s do that! I know: we can create a non-profit to oversee standards, third party verification, and consistent labeling so that consumers can have full transparency about companies’ non-GMO practices. We can call it the Non-GMO Project, and it can be the most effective tool in North America for stopping the unchecked flow of GMOs into natural and organic products. Oh, wait a minute…
Yes, that’s right, how wonderful for everyone—all of that work has already been done. Yay! As a founding board member of the Non-GMO Project, and its first (and only) Executive Director, I have been working on exactly this strategy virtually non-stop for the last four years, along with a huge group of passionate, determined, and highly-principled people and organizations, and I have to admit I feel pretty darn good about what we are accomplishing. I am loath to even dignify the “greenwashing” accusation with a response, but I guess I should.
So please consider this: Since being handed my first article about the deadly impact of GMO corn pollen on monarch larvae in 1999, when I was 19 years old, I have been moved to action on the GMO issue. Following my activism in college, I worked as the Outreach Coordinator at the Food Conspiracy Co-op in Tucson, AZ, where I saw firsthand how much confusion there was in the public about GMOs, and how bad the situation was getting. With the government consistently ignoring consumer calls for labeling, and organic products increasingly at risk, a group of small retailers decided it was time to take matters into our own hands. That was the beginning of the Non-GMO Project, and those of us who started it were motivated by one thing: the desire to make sure that Americans did not lose the right to eat non-GMO food. Our efforts are finally starting to pay off, though the battle is far from over. Because of the Non-GMO Project, hundreds of farmers, processors and manufacturers across North America are learning how to control GMO contamination as much as is possible, and consumers are finally being given an informed choice in the form of the “Non-GMO Project Verified” label. It’s just barely not too late.
I do this work because when I start having children in a few years, I want to make sure that they can eat non-GMO food for their whole lives. I am also doing this because I am a person of exceptional moral integrity who believes it is my duty to do what I can to serve the greater good, and food and health are my passion. This is not an easy undertaking, and it will not succeed without the full support of everyone who cares about stopping GMOs. Since Thursday’s ruling, far too much anger and blame has been directed in entirely the wrong direction. It’s time to take a step back, remember that we are all on the same team, and get smart about our next steps. For my part, I am going to make a donation to the Center for Food Safety, so that they can get the USDA back into court ASAP, and then I’m going to spend the weekend catching up on running the Non-GMO Project. I hope I don’t get waylaid by any more baseless criticism; none of us can afford it. The health of our children, our grandchildren, and our environment is at stake, so let’s take good care of each other and give this our best.