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  • 02.02.11

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

The big three organic outfits find themselves at the center of a stormy debate over the USDA’s approval of genetically modified alfalfa. Is this the beginning of a major scandal or just a case of growing pains for the industry?

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?

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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.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.

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