At the supermarket, most shoppers are oblivious to a battle raging within U.S. agriculture and the Obama administration’s role in it. Two thriving but opposing sectors — organics and genetically engineered crops — have been warring on the farm, in the courts and in Washington.
Organic growers say that, without safeguards, their foods will be contaminated by genetically modified crops growing nearby. The genetic engineering industry argues that its way of farming is safe and should not be restricted in order to protect organic competitors.
Into that conflict comes Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who for two years has been promising something revolutionary: finding a way for organic farms to coexist alongside the modified plants.
But in recent weeks, the administration has announced a trio of decisions that have clouded the future of organics and boosted the position of genetically engineered (GE) crops. Vilsack approved genetically modified alfalfa and a modified corn to be made into ethanol, and he gave limited approval to GE sugar beets.
The announcements were applauded by GE industry executives, who describe their crops as the farming of the future. But organics supporters were furious, saying their hopes that the Obama administration would protect their interests were dashed.
“It was boom, boom boom,” said Walter Robb, co-chief executive officer of Whole Foods Markets, a major player in organics. “These were deeply disappointing. They were such one-sided decisions.”
To a growing cadre of consumers who pay attention to how their food is produced, the agriculture wars are nothing short of operatic, pitting technology against tradition in a struggle underscored by politics and profits.
“Each side is so passionate,” Vilsack said in a recent interview. “And each side is convinced that it’s right.”
The two sides are not clashing over the ethics or safety of genetic engineering, in which plants are modified in the laboratory with genes from another organism to make them more pest-resistant or to produce other traits. Instead, the argument is over the potential for contamination: pollen and seeds from GE crops can drift across fields to nearby organic plants. That has triggered fears that organic crops could be overtaken by modified crops. Contamination can cost organic growers — some overseas markets, for example, have rejected organic products when tests showed they carried even trace amounts of GE material.
Organics supporters also say that, as the number of genetically engineered crops grows, so does the risk. And some conventional farmers who don’t use GE seeds are also concerned about their crops. USDA has approved 81 GE crops — it has never denied a proposal — and 22 applications are pending.
“It’s really about the right to farm and the right to choose,” Robb said. “You shouldn’t farm in a way that affects the way others farm.”
But the GE industry counters that farmers should be free to grow the crops because they do not harm other plants. GE boosters say it is the best way to feed a growing global population because farmers can raise more food and use fewer pesticides and less fertilizer.
“Biotechnology can help crops thrive in drought-prone areas, improve the nutrition content of foods, grow alternative energy sources and improve the lives of farmers and rural communities around the globe,” Jim Greenwood, head of Biotechnology Industry Organization, said this year.
Some recent studies, however, suggest that the proliferation of GE crops and the pesticide used on them has led to the development of “super weeds” resistant to that pesticide.
Since GE crops debuted in 1992, they have been embraced by many U.S. farmers. The vast majority of soy, corn, cotton and canola seed is genetically engineered. Although GE sugar beets were temporarily taken out of production by a court ruling, they had captured 95 percent of the market.
Foods made from GE crops are not labeled, but the typical American consumes them regularly because most processed products contain ingredients made from modified soy, corn, canola and sugar beets.
Organic agriculture, meanwhile, has also been expanding. Although organics represent just 3.7 percent of the food sold in this country, sales of food and personal care products reached $26.6 billion in 2009, according to the Organic Trade Association.
To meet the legal definition of organic, crops must be raised without chemical pesticides and fertilizers, irradiation or genetic modification.
Vilsack has said organics can help struggling small farms stay afloat. But he has also long supported genetic engineering — the industry named him “Governor of the Year” when he was Iowa’s chief executive. “I see both sides,” he said.
Vilsack arrived at the USDA to find the regulations on genetically modified foods outdated and the issue tangled in litigation.
In December, he called an unusual summit between the sides. He said the USDA had finished a court-ordered study of the environmental impact of GE alfalfa and faced a choice: granting unconditional approval to the crop, or approving it with restrictions, such as buffer zones between farms. The GE companies and farming groups argued against limitations, saying that the USDA was overstepping its authority.
Vilsack’s effort was slammed by Republican lawmakers and conservative publications. On Jan. 19, congressional Republicans told Vilsack that the idea of restricting GE alfalfa was “troubling.” And on Jan. 20, Vilsack heard more of the same from the House agriculture committee.
During the three weeks that followed, Vilsack announced approval of GE afalfa, sugar beets and corn.
Organics supporters were shocked. They had fully expected Vilsack to require some limitations on GE alfalfa.
“Vilsack was very serious about the (coexistence) option, and people involved thought it was a done deal,” said Andrew Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety. “Then Vilsack is called to the White House for questioning.”
Vilsack confirmed that he attended White House meetings. But, he said, ultimately regulations prevented him from restricting GE crops. Under the 24-year-old rules, the USDA can set limits only if the GE plant harms other plants. The agency has little authority to consider, for example, whether a GE crop poses economic harm to an organic crop.
If Vilsack had been hoping to restrict GE crops, the timing could not have been worse. Republicans had just won control of the House, and several farm-state members were adamantly opposed to any restrictions on GE crops. Obama was trying to bolster his credentials as being business-friendly and promising to reduce unnecessary regulation. The administration already had been pushing trade partners for greater acceptance of GE seeds.
The GE industry is declaring victory for the time being, but the wars have not dissipated.
Monsanto has sued the government for not fully deregulating GE sugar beets. The Center for Food Safety is again suing the USDA to stop the planting of GE alfalfa and sugar beets.
Critics of genetic engineering refer to an incident in 2000 in which a GE corn meant for animal feed infiltrated tortillas, corn chips and other foods. More than 300 foods were recalled, and farmers were awarded a $110 million settlement for lost income.
Syngenta, maker of the GE corn to be used for ethanol, has said it will reduce risk of contamination by requiring farmers to grow the crop near ethanol plants and sell only to those plants, among other measures.
Sharon Bomer, an executive vice president at Biotechnology Industry Organization, said “there is deep appreciation” in the GE industry for the need to minimize the spread of the crops. She said organic farmers must protect their crops. “The burden is on them,” she said.
But GE critics are not satisfied. “To say ‘just trust me’ is rather absurd when we’re talking about profit-related companies,” said George Siemon, chief executive of Organic Valley, a major organic farmers’ cooperative.
Vilsack said “co-existence” is not dead, and he intends to push on.
“I had no expectation that the dialogue was going to end in some grand understanding or a kumbaya moment,” he said. “This is going to require a lot of work by reasonable, smart people to get this done. It’s in the interest of the country for these folks to stop fighting and get together and figure out how to live in the same neighborhood.”