Charles Benbrook on battling GMOs and communicating the organic message

By Ken Roseboro
Published: May 1, 2011

Category: GMO Contamination of Organic Foods

Charles Benbrook, nongmos and organics

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Charles Benbrook is the chief scientist at the Organic Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing credible science on the health and environmental benefits of organic food and farming. Benbrook has held high-level positions focusing on agriculture in the US government. He was Executive Director of the Board on Agriculture at the National Research Council and National Academy of Science. He served on the Subcommittee on Department Operations, Research, and Foreign Agriculture, Committee on Agriculture, for US Congress. He was also an Agricultural Policy Analyst for the Council on Environmental Quality, Executive Office of the President.

Were you surprised by USDA’s decision to full deregulate Roundup Ready genetically modified alfalfa?

CB: Yes, most people who participated in the coexistence meetings had the clear impression that USDA would choose the option to partially deregulate GM alfalfa. Secretary Tom Vilsack was remarkably blunt and forthright about the need to create a meaningful coexistence strategy for GM alfalfa, but then he was taken to the woodshed by the White House and decided that partial deregulation was just not in the cards, nor worth resigning over.

Many organic food supporters fear that Roundup Ready alfalfa will contaminate and even destroy organic dairy production. Do you think that will happen?

CB: No, I don’t. As long as the seed industry can produce clean alfalfa seed, I don’t see much potential for the kind of genetic contamination of the alfalfa seed supply that has occurred in corn.

Even if there is low-level gene flow in a few isolated cases, the amount of GM alfalfa forage that will be harvested will be modest and clearly won’t impact organic milk or the health of the cows.

There is no reason why the approval of GM alfalfa should shake consumer confidence in buying organic milk and dairy products.

Was USDA approval of GM alfalfa an important fight?

CB: Yes, the organic industry lost and the biotech industry won. The biotech industry used its political clout and connections to force USDA to make a decision they didn’t think was the best one.

The organic food movement is no match for the deep political connections the biotech industry has fostered over the years, along with its huge donations to politicians.

The organic food community hasn’t found its political voice yet, but important work is underway to hopefully do just that.

What do you mean by its political voice?

CB: The organic community’s greatest strength is diversity but the vast range of opinions on any given subject is also among its weaknesses.

Many groups feel passionately that their goals are the only priorities that should guide the movement. These individuals are too often not willing to compromise or harmonize their views with other people who have different objectives.

The people and companies in the organic community that are trying to change policies and consumer perceptions are no match for the vastly larger and better financed conventional ag groups, which have unified around a well-crafted set of pro-biotech and anti-organic messages.

The “circular firing squad” is one of our endemic problems. An example: an organic activist group wrote a widely circulated blog accusing the CEOs of Whole Foods and Organic Valley of taking hush money from Monsanto in return for support of USDA’s RR alfalfa deregulation decision. Outrageous assertions like this fuel the fire in the blogosphere, and can quickly burn out of control, causing high collateral damage to the organic community. There is a saying that comes to mind, “with friends like this, who needs enemies?”

The organic community is still struggling to get its act together, and it’s unfortunate so little progress has been made because there is compelling science coming out all over the world that reinforces the conclusion that organic farming is better and healthier for soils, animals, and people. Well-respected scientists and journals are echoing these conclusions and international bodies from the World Bank to the United Nations are reaching essentially the same conclusion in the context of efforts to promote global food security and poverty alleviation.

The organic community has to communicate a set of compelling, simple messages grounded in promoting healthy development for our children and graceful aging across the adult population.

There are no technical barriers stopping much more rapid growth in the organic food industry; I think we can get to 30% (of the food industry) within a decade, and as this happens, price premiums will start to fall, fueling even more market penetration. But it’s not going to happen if the message from our community remains as muddled and confusing as it has been in recent years.

What do you think the organic community needs to do to address the GMO challenges moving forward?

CB: We need to demand that USDA put in place a meaningful coexistence plan so that the biotech industry doesn’t have an open invitation to impose costs and burdens on the organic food community.

A deal with the devil was made in the early 1990s when the US government was an active accomplice in paving the way for near-total corporate control over seeds and plant genetic resources. That deal has led to profound injustices embedded in current US federal biotech policy. At some point, the wheels will come off the cart, which is already straining under the load of convincing people that today’s GM crops are safe, and that biotech policy in the US is science driven in all respects.

The Center for Food Safety has used the courts with great success to address these injustices, and the courts will likely remain the primary venue where injustices will be hopefully corrected.

We also need to pay attention to seed purity and contamination. Assuring an ample supply of verified non-GMO seed should be a priority of the National Organic Program and the USDA.

If we lose control over seeds, we lose control over agriculture. Food production starts and ends with seed.

We also need to push USDA to invest more money into organic seed research and development. I see a growing willingness in USDA to increase investments in the non-GM seed supply and related plant breeding technology.

Do you think that the biotech companies will be held responsible for economic losses due to GMO contamination?

CB: Yes, it’s likely to happen. Commonsense dictates that some resolution will eventually be agreed upon by the biotech industry. Biotech companies will come to realize that it won’t cost them nearly as much money to fund a compensation mechanism as it will to fight legal battles with the non-GMO community until hell freezes over.

Cooler heads will hopefully agree to create some form of compensation fund before this struggle spirals out of control, leaving all of agriculture, the USDA, the seed industry, and the country as a whole, weaker as a result.

What about the future of GM crops?

CB: If GM technology is so great, why is it that only a handful of crops and only two major traits have been commercialized? And one of those traits is nearly obsolete in the Southeast due to herbicide-resistant weeds. And please friends in the biotech world, drop the explanation that the problem is overly strict regulation.

Biotech companies had their way with the first round of GM crops up until the early 2000s before many people were aware of the technology. But once a number of independent scientists, farmers, non-profit groups, and food companies started asking questions about genetic engineering, the introduction of other traits was nearly stopped.

With today’s genetic engineering techniques and GM crops, there are real health and environmental concerns, and the biotech industry isn’t going to make those problems go away with PR efforts.

But I do think there is a bright future for advanced plant breeding methods. It’s inevitable that better, safer, and more productive plant breeding methods will be discovered and commercialized to produce crop varieties with beneficial traits. Scientists are working on new ways to accelerate conventional plant breeding, using tools in molecular biology to better understand and utilize genetic diversity within plant genomes.

There is a polarized debate over the future of agriculture with some “experts” promoting GM crops as a solution to feeding the world while others say agroecological methods are the answer. What do you see as the best agricultural methods for the future?

CB: Without a doubt, most of the progress that’s going to be made in promoting food security in many parts of the world will be grounded in agroecological methods.

These methods are best for increasing soil fertility, combating climate change, and assuring that farmers have a variety of crops that survive in drought and wet years.

The majority of progress in areas dealing with recurrent periods of severe food insecurity won’t depend on resources and technologies from outside the region, including GM seeds.

The recent United Nations report (which said that agroecological methods can double food production in critical regions in 10 years) hit the nail on the head.

To the credit of the UN, they’re speaking with a clear and forceful voice. It’s too bad that people in the US are more exposed to the slanted messaging in biotech and pesticide advertisements than the content of thoughtful, balanced UN reports.

© Copyright May 2011, The Organic & Non-GMO Report