OrganicGate: Are Whole Foods, Stonyfield Farm, and Organic Valley Cozying Up to Monsanto?

alfalfa bales

In a move that threatens the organic meat and milk industries, the USDA last week approved the planting of Monsanto's genetically modified alfalfa, a crop used mainly as hay for cattle. Most organic farmers oppose the decision, but Forbes and the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) have brought our attention to an unsettling bit of information: Whole Food Markets, Stonyfield Farm, and Organic Valley—three of the biggest natural food brands—split with the rest of the organic community and opted to support "co-existence" with Monsanto's alfalfa. What does this mean?

In an email sent last week to customers, Whole Foods explains its stance:

So, faced with the choice between full deregulation of GE alfalfa or conditional deregulation of it, our best chance at preserving seed purity, and the future of organic and non-GE agriculture now is to fight for every protection available under the USDA’s conditional deregulation coexistence option.

That means Whole Foods expects the USDA to regulate GMO alfalfa and make sure that non-GMO varieties are preserved. Whole Foods also expects Monsanto to pay "the farmer for any losses related to the contamination of his crop"—a tactic that the OCA is referring to as paying hush money to farmers.

According to the OCA, Whole Foods and Stonyfield have stopped fighting against GMO alfalfa because of personal connections—the CEOs of Whole Foods and Stonyfield are personal friends of former Iowa governor and current USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, who has in the past gone so far as to travel in a Monsanto corporate jet on the campaign trail.

Stonyfield Farm, for its part, denies any wrongdoing. In an open letter on its website, CEO Gary Hirshbirg explains:

In December, to no one’s surprise, the USDA took a complete ban of GE alfalfa off the table as an option, leaving only two choices: complete deregulation or deregulation with some safeguards to protect organic farmers, which they called "co-existence." The choice we were faced with was to walk away and wait for the legal battle in the courts or stay at the table and fight for safeguards that would attempt to protect organic farmers and consumer choice, still maintaining the option for legal battle later...When faced with the overwhelming reality that GE alfalfa would be released despite our best efforts, we believed fighting for some safeguards to protect organic consumers and organic farmers was the best option.

So it probably doesn't make sense, then, to vilify Whole Foods, Stonyfield, and Organic Valley. Indeed, boycotting these companies would only hurt the organic family farmers who supply them. "OrganicGate" isn't a major scandal—it's just disappointing.

Update: Stonyfield Farm contacted us to say that they do not consider a dispute with the OCA to be a dispute with the organic community. Check out our latest post on the issue here.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.

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  • Caselilaw

    Totally unbelievable! I ran across this in an attempt to complain about Stonyfield adding pectin to their yogurt ! Now I am aware of something with far greater consequences for all of us and for Whole Foods to have jumped ship is utterly appalling!

  • Laura Patten

    With the power of Monsanto, ir is terribly scary to give them even one step of "approval" or acceptance.

    While their power has given them the ability to fight for this, the problem with the exposure of Round-up to the food crops.far more critical.both to organic farmers and to organic consumers.

    I do not want to eat or drink Round-Up.

    I do not want to have Round-Up hidden in my food and/or water supply.

    Monsanto and it's PACs are possibly the most scary corporation and organizations that can be exposed.

    Hearing of the political linkages is not surprising and I hope that this article will bring to public knowledge the amount of dollars being spent to create the environment where Monsanto would be accepted and I do not think that they have earned that public trust. They are trying to control all growers to require them to use RoundUp ready seeds. This pressure and leverage is NOT in the public's best interest nor in the health of the population and especially children.

    GMO seeds that permit the application of RoundUp on the crop, create polluted crops and water tables... When you look at pictures of crops where the RoundUp ready seeds are used and they are adjoining crops that are NOT RoundUp ready.

    I am very concerned that our wildlife and plantings are affected/effected by these poisons being applied to the crops, water supplies, and wild lands where the runoff of the poison and is contaminating our crops, food stuffs, and water safety as well as the long run safety of our crops and farm lands.

    Please stand up, and speak up for our long run safety.


  • bob

    We are relying on the organic industry to keep us clean. Fight the chemical companies until we've stopped this contamination of our food supply. Next is vitamins. Don't think that Monsanto won't be behing regulating our vitamins under Codex. We are on our our and the chemical and pharma companies are on their way in because our politicians are not healthy, do not eat healthy, do not look healthy, and do not understand those of us that are. We are smarter than they think, but are overwhelmed with the chemical company money.

  • Lucifer

    I think we need to remove all jews from our government. Starting with the kabbalist talmudic witch at the FDA. Get rid of the talmudic pig at the FCC so they cant control every aspect of communication, along with all their marxist lackies who promote and go along with this new gangsterism in America. You guys are tip toeing around the obvious because nobody has the testicles to speak the truth.


  • Hair3gawd

    It is truly amazing that a people who supposedly only make up less than 5% of the US population are involved with so many aspects of politics, finance, and all forms of communication. We are being endlessly bombarded by Jewish propaganda. It's like what we hear, what we read,  what we see. They're everywhere; Wall street, Washington, Hollyweird and every place in-between and if you ask any questions they quickly pull out their Jewish race card and your either an anti-Semite or a Nazi.

  • Mica Veihman

    OCA and Ronnie Cummins making, in Organic Valley's words, "false and unsubstantiated allegations".....SHOCKING!

  • Scott Lyon

    Interesting... And a sticky situation to be in. I'll be interested in getting Hirshberg to comment on these challenges at TEDxPresidio. It seems like they moved to the next best place he could based on politics.


  • Jennifer Rose

    On January 27, the Obama Administration made the damaging decision to approve the unrestricted cultivation of genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa. This means GE alfalfa can be planted without any federal requirements to prevent contamination of organic and non-GE crops. It also means that GE alfalfa does not have to be labeled, making it difficult for consumers to identify and avoid. This decision, to support big business at the expense of individual choice, sets a precedent that could lead to the deregulation of other GE crops, in spite of the fact that genetic engineering has not been conclusively proven safe. Don't stand by while well-funded and well-connected biotechnology interests are given the power to eliminate marketplace choice. Demand that President Obama protect your right to choose products free of genetic engineering!

  • Jane Cutter

    Whole Foods has received certifications for LEED and Green Globes in the construction of some of their newer stores. You don't just get those titles-you need to earn them and it's not easy. They have lowered their prices because of the economy but it costs more to grow organic so they have to sell it for more!! Not all of their stores are in affluent neighborhoods.
    Now you're going to insist that they sold out because of this??? They lost their soul and vision because of an agricultural issue with alfalfa sprouts that sounds like a no win situation? What's your suggestion? How would you try to keep your integrity while still supplying quality products to your consumers AND maintaining a company that pays their bills, employs tens of thousands of people that depend on the company for a paycheck and benefits, supports local farmers even if it may be a little more expensive...You want it cheap AND you want to support local farmers but it doesn't always happen that way. Boycott the store if you want, but do your research first because you are totally wrong.

  • Scott Campbell

    I've already started boycotting Whole Foods anyway. They have lost their vision and their soul. They are no longer friendly to the humble people that helped them get started. They have sold out to the cult of profit and are now simply America's most expensive grocery store and nothing else. They only build now in high tone areas surrounded by million dollar homes. They are only doing what makes them money and right now they are supported organic farmers because it sells and they charge out the you-know-what for it. How can a company that builds multimillion dollar stores claim that they are green?

  • Leslie Kruempel

    As one of the brands mentioned in this article, we want to address the untrue claims made by the OCA that have unfortunately ended up in pieces like this one.

    Organic Valley does not have a relationship with Monsanto, nor did we come up with any sort of compromise or "deal" with them or the USDA. We've always advocated for the strongest restrictions against GMO alfalfa available, and have no interest in compromising with biotech.

    Here's what really happened: over the past several months Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack had asked for stakeholders to weigh-in on the USDA's impending decision regarding GMO alfalfa, and we were a part of these talks. Organic Valley has advocated to keep GMO alfalfa off the market from the start, and this was originally an option according to the USDA. However, as of December, they had left only two options on the table: allowing unrestricted commercial growing, or partly restricted growing. When we understood the only options the USDA were open to considering involved the legal planting of GMO alfalfa, we knew we had a responsibility to advocate for the most restrictive set of regulations possible, so that farmers would have legal recourse in the face of contamination, and contamination could be avoided by mandating sizable buffer zones and geographical planting restrictions. To have taken any other route at that juncture would have been a clear abdication of our responsibility to our organic farmers and consumers. Walking away from the table was not an option, and would only have furthered Monsanto's interests.

    We've not split with the rest of the organic community. On the contrary, we are uniting with several other organizations and companies against this GE alfalfa decision, and have co-signed a letter explaining our position and calling on consumers to join us:

    It was irresponsible of Ronnie Cummins and the OCA to make these false and unsubstantiated allegations during a time when organic farmers need our support, and unity is more important than ever. We expect an apology from him, and hope others investigate the facts before perpetuating this misinformation.

    Leslie Kruempel
    Organic Valley