Stonyfield Farm Takes a Swing at Monsanto (and the OCA)

  • Published on January 30th, 2011

Stonyfield farm ceo Gary Hirshberg

Yesterday, we reported how the Organic Consumers Association was accusing what they called “the organic elite” of caving to Monsanto and facilitating the USDA’s unrestricted approval of GMO alfalfa – a move that could seriously undermine the integrity of organic foods.

Update: Organic Valley has also weighed in. See: Organic Valley says ‘No compromise, no deal’

Today, Stonybrood Farm responds – and they say that on the contrary, they want everyone to stand firm – together – against Monsanto.

Let me first state the obvious – leaving aside the fact that USDA’s own organic standards do not allow the use of genetically engineered crops, Stonyfield is absolutely and utterly opposed to the deregulation of GE crops.

  • We believe that these crops are resulting in significantly higher uses of toxic herbicides and water, creating a new generation of costly “super” weeds.
  • Pose severe and irreversible threats to biodiversity and seed stocks.
  • Do not live up to the superior yield claims of their patent holders.
  • Are unaffordable for small family farmers in the US and around the world.
  • We believe that organic farming methods are proving through objective, scientific validation to offer far better solutions.
  • We also believe that unrestricted deregulation of GE crops unfairly limits farmer and consumer choice.

And they take strong exception to the OFA’s characterization of them as an “Organic Elite” that is betraying the needs of consumers.

Making matters worse, on the day of the decision, the Organic Consumers Association distributed an inaccurate, irresponsible and frankly appalling letter that attempted to pin the blame for the USDA’s decision squarely on Stonyfield, Organic Valley and Whole Foods. OCA’s letter is blatantly untrue and dangerously misleading, but also deeply divisive at a time when we all need to be focused on immediate actions necessary to stop this new policy from going into effect.

Stacked against us

Stonyfield’s Gary Hirshberg sums up the past 6 years of this fight, and says that while it’s hugely disappointing, considering how much firepower Big Ag threw at congress and the regulatory system, it’s not surprising that it turned out this way.

Thursday’s decision and the long and hard fought battle leading up to it began in 2005 when the USDA deregulated GE alfalfa for the first time. Stonyfield actively supported the organic community’s challenge to the deregulation and eventually the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. In 2007, the Court ruled there could be no deregulation without the USDA making a full assessment of GE alfalfa’s environmental impact and the court placed an injunction on planting of GE alfalfa.

Since then, Monsanto and big biotech have spent tens of millions lobbying in Washington and funding studies that support the use of GE alfalfa. These biotech giants have terrifyingly deep pockets. But despite their efforts, organic advocates were able to persuade the USDA that organic interests must also be considered. And so, for the first time, the USDA in recent months convened stakeholder groups of pro- and anti-biotech organizations including farm groups, manufacturers, industry associations and non-profits to try to reach a consensus on GE alfalfa. This was essentially an attempt to convene meetings between the Davids and Goliaths. Given the overwhelming firepower on the other side, and a decade’s worth of biotech-funded “science”, it was a bold and worthy attempt. Stonyfield, Whole Foods, Organic Valley, and the Organic Trade Association along with many other organic advocates including the Non-GMO Project, Organic Farming Research Foundation, National Cooperative Grocers Association, National Organic Coalition, Beyond Pesticides, and the Center for Food Safety brought forward our arguments for a complete ban on GE alfalfa.

From the outset of these stakeholder discussions, it was clear that GE alfalfa had overwhelming political, legal, financial and regulatory support and thus the odds were severely stacked against any possibility of preventing some level of approval, just as has been the case with GE cotton, soy and corn. Keep in mind that, according to Food and Water Watch, biotech has spent more than half a billion dollars ($547 million) lobbying Congress since 1999. Their lobby expenditures more than doubled during that time. In 2009 alone they spent $71 million. Last year they had more than 100 lobbying firms working for them, as well as their own in-house lobbyists.

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. A smaller coalition of organic interests participated in the meetings with the clear caveat that any decision to deregulate GE alfalfa must include restrictions that protect organic farmers and consumers’ choice. 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.

We specifically advocated that any regulatory approval must ensure: (a) protection of seed purity – for organic farmers’ use, and as insurance in case something “crops” up that causes a later reconsideration of the use of biotechnology; (b) organic farmers whose crops become contaminated by GE alfalfa must be compensated by the patent holders for their losses due to losing their organic certification; and (c) the USDA must oversee all testing and monitoring of GE crops to ensure compliance as part of its role in protecting all US agriculture. Needless to say, the biotech coalition was firmly opposed to all three caveats, but we remained united and fought hard for them.

Not once did Stonyfield consider buying what Monsanto was selling – nor will we ever. We have never wavered from our position in defending organic and opposing GE crops. Back in the 1990’s we went head to head with Monsanto over synthetic growth hormones and we were the first US dairy to pay farmers not to use rBGH. We have been fighting them ever since, and will continue to do so. In the days since this very sad decision, we have convened multiple times with our fellow organic advocates and have already begun to plan and invest in our next wave of legal, lobbying and educational efforts.

Read Hirshberg’s whole letter here.

Did they almost accept it?

While Hirshberg’s letter says we can’t accept Monsanto’s GMO alfalfa, blogger Carrot Creek Farm joins the OCA’s Cummings in saying that Stonybrook, Whole Foods, et al almost did.

The lesser of the two evil choices was deregulation with “buffer zones” – a thick group of trees that are meant to stop cross-contamination. But they don’t because bees don’t use passports. They fly within a 3-4 km (2 mile) range. The other problem with the USDA is that they “dumped” their responsibilities on the shoulders of these grocers and organizations. Where is that right? That just smacks of a government body not taking responsibility and growing a spine against the GE monoliths. It also smacks of a pretty good law suit against the FDA and USDA. These government agencies are the problem, more so than Monsanto.

No, I was not there. But I can tell you, for sure, that I would never compromise my principles and values. Ever. That is why we are in this pickle in the first place. We kept putting our wishbone where our backbone ought to be.

On the front lines

At the Non-GMO project, Megan Westgate says that “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… HOW ON EARTH is taking this out on 1200 organic family farmers going to help anything?!  This is divisiveness we cannot afford… It’s time to take a step back, remember that we are all on the same team, and get smart about our next steps.”

She says that the alliance of organic groups and the companies the OCA is calling “Big Organic” were working together to try to salvage something from the disaster:

  • 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
  • Protect seed purity so that non-GMO alfalfa supplies could be maintained

So what’s next?

Hirshberg says we need to stop the fingerpointing and get back down to business.

…Instead of fighting with each other, we need to fight Monsanto and the forces that are causing the voices of hundreds of thousands of Americans who support organic to be silenced. All of us who are opposed to the USDA decision to deregulate GE alfalfa must speak with one voice. Anything less keeps us divided and distracted.

And Westgate reminds us that the Non-GMO project is doing this work, right now:

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…

So she recommends:

What else can you do?


  • Tom Vilsack – USDA Alfalfa Comments Line:  301-851-2300
  • President Obama  202-456-1111 (or send a written message online)
  • Monstanto               314-694-1000

More on this:

About the Author

Jeremy Bloom is the Editor of RedGreenAndBlue. He lives in New York, where he combines his passion for the environment with his passion for film, and is working on making the world a better place.


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