Today in AgBioView - July 31, 2002
* Biotech scare stories engineer the truth
* Starved for Food, Zimbabwe Rejects U.S. Biotech Corn
* GM CROPS 'COULD HELP SAVE ENVIRONMENT'
* Genetically modified plants stirring debate on benefits, dangers
* French approval for field trials on GM crops.
* The not-so-sweet success of organic farming
* 21st Century PR: The war for ideas and ideals
Biotech scare stories engineer the truth
The Seattle Times
By Martina McGloughlin
July 30, 2002
A morning TV news anchor was interviewing a famous crime novelist. Did the
writer think the Robert Blake story, in which the actor is accused of
killing his wife, would have the emotional appeal of the O.J. Simpson
trial? No, he didn't think Blake had enough star power.
The interview gave a little insight into the thought process of the media:
Is this another story like the one we exploited so well before? Can we do
Such thinking is not confined to Hollywood crime suspects. Cookie-cutter
coverage has been applied to science reporting as well. Consider what has
happened with plant biotechnology in the past few years.
Professional activists and the media were handed an emotional story about
biotech corn being a threat to monarch butterflies. A poorly designed
laboratory study demonstrated that monarch larvae could be harmed if they
ate enough pollen from corn developed to control harmful insects.
Activists had a field day, predicting the demise of everyone's favorite
insect. Hundreds of media stories resulted. This was easy copy with high
Then the facts came in. Several universities conducted two summers' worth
of field research and discovered that monarchs in the field were highly
unlikely to come in contact with enough pollen to do them any harm. The
risk was termed "negligible," and the Environmental Protection Agency
extended the use of the biotech corn for seven more years. You may have
missed that part of the story.
Next came the tainted taco story. A small amount of biotech corn, which
had been approved only for animal feed, made its way into the food supply.
Allergy experts said there was little risk, given the very low level in
the grain supply, but they were largely ignored. Activists warned of
widespread allergic reactions. In fact, they produced people who claimed
they had become ill. The taco tale was in the media for several weeks.
Then the facts came in. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control conducted
studies with the blood serum of the people who thought tainted tacos had
made them sick. Not a single sample showed the presence of specific
antibodies that would demonstrate an allergic reaction had occurred,
leading CDC to say it could find no evidence that the corn had made anyone
Last fall, two scientists released a paper claiming that biotech corn had
spread to native maize in Mexico. The unsubstantiated notion that ancient
land races were at risk had enough emotional appeal for the media. In
March, a wire-service reporter stated that modified corn had "wiped out"
native varieties. Another reporter claimed that "the corn was popping up
along roadsides, out of cracks in the sidewalks and seemingly anywhere
else it could find soil, in scores of mountain settlements."
That's curious, because a couple of weeks later the journal Nature, which
published the original study, ran what amounted to a retraction. "The
evidence available is not sufficient to justify publication of the
original paper," the editors stated. In other words, there was no evidence
that pollen had been transferred to native races, but reporters and
activists were already talking about varieties being "wiped out."
All of these stories have something else in common besides emotional
appeal and the fact that they fizzled out on their own. All were spawned
by the mere detection of a biotech trait (or the assumed detection in the
case of Mexican corn). Detection does not equal risk. In all these cases,
the risks were theoretical but not found in reality. The benefits,
however, are real, which is why about 5 million farmers around the world
plant more acres every year to increase yields, reduce insecticide use and
farm more efficiently and sustainably.
None of the biotech scare stories proved to be true, but that doesn't mean
there won't be others cut from the same cloth. They are easy to do and
have potential to stir reader emotion.
That's why the crime novelist was probably wrong about media interest in
Robert Blake. Blake may not be O.J., but even a slow horse is better than
no horse once you've learned how to ride.
Martina McGloughlin is the director of the University of California
Systemwide Biotechnology Research and Education Program, based at the
University of California, Davis.
Starved for Food, Zimbabwe Rejects U.S. Biotech Corn
By Rick Weiss
July 31, 2002
Thousands of tons of U.S. emergency food aid destined for crisis-stricken
Zimbabwe has been diverted to other countries, and a new shipload may be
diverted within days, because the donations include genetically modified
corn that the Zimbabwean government does not want to accept.
The image of a nation on the brink of starvation turning down food because
it has been genetically engineered has reignited a long-smoldering
scientific and political controversy over the risks and benefits of
Some biotech advocates are criticizing the Zimbabwean government for
balking at the humanitarian assistance, saying President Robert Mugabe
seems to care more about his political independence than his citizens'
lives. About half of Zimbabwe's 12 million residents are on the verge of
famine because of drought and political mismanagement, according to the
But other scientists and economists say the troubled African nation has
good reason to reject the engineered kernels. If some of the corn seeds
are sown instead of eaten, the resulting plants will produce gene-altered
pollen that will blow about and contaminate surrounding fields.
That could render much of the corn grown in Zimbabwe -- a nation that in
most years is a major exporter -- unshippable to nations in Europe and
elsewhere that restrict imports of bioengineered food, because of
environmental and health concerns.
The United States could save lives and avert a potential ecological crisis
by paying to have the corn kernels milled before they enter Zimbabwe,
several experts said this week. But relief officials said U.S. food
agencies typically don't cover milling expenses, which are estimated at
$25 per metric ton -- a significant expense for a nation so poor.
That response has fueled suspicion among some observers in the United
States and Africa that Washington is using the food crisis to get U.S.
gene-altered products established in a corner of the world that has
largely resisted them.
"The U.S. is using its power to impose its view that modified maize is not
a danger," said Carol Thompson, a political economist at Northern Arizona
University in Flagstaff, who has spent much of the past 10 years in
Zimbabwe and five other southern African nations -- Lesotho, Malawi,
Mozambique, Swaziland and Zambia -- face widespread food shortages after
two years of drought and floods. The U.N. World Food Program has said the
region will need 1 million metric tons of food aid in the next few months,
Only a fraction of that amount has been promised by donors so far.
The first shipload of U.S. food aid for Zimbabwe -- a landlocked nation
that is the hardest hit of the affected countries -- arrived at a
Tanzanian port in June. It was carrying about 10,000 metric tons of corn
from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
But the corn, which in Africa is known as maize and is valued by agencies
at about $95 a metric ton, was not welcome. Like most corn stores in the
United States, the shipment was a mix of conventional varieties and
high-tech kernels bearing bacterial genes to protect against insect pests.
The Zimbabwean government, which for decades has supported the development
of corn varieties suited to local ecosystems, is concerned not only about
genetic contamination, but also about intellectual property issues.
Pending changes in international trade rules, backed by the United States,
could preclude farmers from saving the patented seeds from biotech
harvests for replanting in following years, a practice vital to many
subsistence farmers who cannot afford to buy new seed every year.
"If these crops get in, then farmers basically lose their rights to their
own agricultural resources," said Carole Collins, senior policy analyst
for the Washington-based Africa Faith and Justice Network.
Moreover, some European countries want to ban imports of cattle that have
been fed engineered corn, posing another potential trade problem for
Zimbabwe if engineered kernels were to swamp the country.
When notified of the June shipment, officials told the United Nations
that, although the country was not absolutely rejecting the aid, it
preferred that the corn be milled first so no seeds could be planted.
That response got to the U.N. two days after World Food Program officials
decided to unload the kernels and ship them to Malawi, said Judith Lewis,
the program's regional director for southern and eastern Africa. Malawi is
among the poorest of southern African nations and does not have a firm
policy on gene-altered food.
Now a second ship of Zimbabwe-bound U.S. corn has arrived, this time in
the South African port of Durban. It includes 17,500 metric tons of corn
kernels, and USAID wants a decision from Zimbabwe by tomorrow, Lewis said.
Zimbabwean officials discussed their options yesterday without reaching a
decision, and were scheduled to have further meetings today.
USAID representatives have expressed frustration with this and previous
situations like it. When India balked over a humanitarian shipment of
gene-altered food, one U.S. official was quoted as saying, "Beggars can't
At a news conference in Johannesburg on Friday, Roger Winter, USAID's
assistant administrator for humanitarian assistance, suggested that
Zimbabwe had little choice if it wanted to feed its people. "We have no
substitute for that maize. That maize is what's available," he said.
Indeed, very little nonengineered corn is segregated from high-tech
varieties during the U.S. harvest, and that portion sells at a premium to
organic food processors and others.
Per Pinstrup-Andersen, director general of the International Food Policy
Research Institute, a Washington-based nongovernmental organization, said
Zimbabwe was using the food to play politics.
"I think the Zimbabwe government is using this to show its muscle against
the United States and other Western countries because of the criticism the
president has been receiving from outside," Pinstrup-Andersen said,
referring to widespread criticism of Mugabe's recent land-reform policies
and accusations of government cronyism. "I think it is irresponsible . . .
unless they know they can get enough food from elsewhere that is not
Mugabe has said he is being prudent. "We fight the present drought with
our eyes clearly set on the future of the agricultural sector, which is
the mainstay of our economy," he told Zimbabwe's parliament on July 23.
"We dare not endanger its future through misplaced decisions based on acts
of either desperation or expediency."
Neil E. Harl, a professor of economics at Iowa State University, agreed
that much was at stake. "Pollen drift is a real problem, especially with
maize," Harl said. "It places these countries in an extremely difficult
He and several other experts recommended that the United States pay for
milling costs. "It is highly unethical not to just cover the costs for
milling," said Thompson, the Arizona professor. "Tell me how much it costs
to drop one bomb on Afghanistan. Who is starving whom here?"
Asked if people were going "too far" by saying that gene-altered
humanitarian exports were part of a strategy to spread the crops around
the world, Harl said: "I'm not sure that is going too far."
U.S. government and biotech representatives vehemently denied any such
"I don't think there is any justification to make claims like that," said
Rob Horsch, director of global technology transfer for Monsanto, the St.
Louis biotech giant that owns the rights to many biotech crop varieties.
Although the company has used private detectives to identify and prosecute
U.S. and Canadian farmers it suspects of saving patented seeds, that
policy would be adapted to accommodate local traditions in other
countries, Horsch said.
USAID officials also rejected the notion that they were strong-arming
Zimbabwe or had any agenda other than feeding the needy.
With food shortages increasing every day, some U.S. officials said late
yesterday that they believed Zimbabwe was on the verge of accepting the
Date: Tue, 30 Jul 2002 17:29:41 +0200
From: "Klaus Ammann"
Subject: Re: Lepkowski, Organic cotton, Greens out of step, Thin Skin,
Japan, Zimbabwe, NZ
Thanks Chuck for this balanced statement.
Anyway, there are elements in organic and high tech farming which could go
together - blasphemic for some on both sides - I know
GM CROPS 'COULD HELP SAVE ENVIRONMENT'
Times of London
July 28, 2002
Genetically modified crops could help to preserve biodiversity and
wildlife, according to a report this week from Klaus Toepfer, director of
the UN Environment Programme (Unep). He says such crops could allow more
food to be grown on less land.
"There may be environmental problems with some GM crops but this
technology cannot now be stopped. Indeed it may bring many benefits, such
as increasing crop yields on cultivated land. That will reduce pressure to
clear wild areas," he says.
Unep will this week publish an atlas showing that half the Amazon
rainforest and 48% of the Congo basin will be gone by 2032 if present
economic growth continues.
Genetically modified plants stirring debate on benefits, dangers
San Antonio Express-News
By Elizabeth Allen
The term "genetically modified crops" conjures up different images to
different people. Critics call the crops "Frankenfood" and decry their
origins in laboratory test tubes.
But to Atascosa County farmer Herman Hartl, genetically modified crops
mean money saved and water kept clean.
Hartl no longer has to use herbicides like atrazine and Banvil in his
fields of genetically modified corn, called Roundup Ready for its ability
to tolerate a kinder, gentler herbicide named Roundup.
"This here," Hartl said, pointing at the weed-free earth that produced his
crop, "no atrazine."
Then, making his way through dense fields where the only things visible
were stalks and sky, he arrived at a series of small test plots deep in
"Here's the Bt," he said, pulling open an ear of corn with a pesticide
protein inserted into its genes.
Insects had eaten into a small portion of the top.
"It'll have some earworm damage," he said. "Anyway, it won't have as
Hartl's main crop of corn for the past two years has been Roundup Ready.
He doesn't have to till the soil and spray it with weed killer before
planting. He can just wait until weeds start crowding his crop and spray
the whole field once with a glufosinate herbicide ó and the corn won't
This year he lost his crop to the July flooding, but normally, Hartl's
genetically modified, or GM, corn has been producing good yields. And he's
not fazed by the controversy surrounding GM crops.
"Win, lose or draw, I stay in business with what the scale says," Hartl
said, "not what the local talk at the beer joint is."
Hartl is like many farmers and a lot of consumers. Almost 80 percent of
respondents to a Texas A&M survey supported crops with a Bt protein
inserted into its genes and approved of biotechnology in general.
But GM plants still raise questions and hackles on a global scale.
The European Union has proposed labeling GM foods for consumers ó angering
U.S. proponents who liken it to stamping a skull and crossbones on their
The U.S. Department of Agriculture two years ago had to chase down 80
million bushels of Starlink, a GM corn approved only for animal feed,
after traces of it showed up in grocery-store taco shells.
And even though it is banned in Mexico ó home to many native maize strains
ó GM corn turned up at 95 percent of sites tested by the Mexican
government earlier this year.
Now companies are seeking approval for drug-producing plants and even new
kinds of animals. As the spigot of genetic engineering opens wide,
questions about what's out there and what it might do are intensifying.
The National Academy of Sciences, a nonprofit group, called for more
information and oversight in a report released earlier this year.
Environmental Effects of Transgenic Plants, in what one watchdog called a
surprisingly frank assessment, said the Agriculture Department's Animal
Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) needs to sharpen its watch on GM
And there are a lot out there. About three-quarters of the U.S. soybean
and cotton crops are genetically modified, along with a third of U.S.
Three federal agencies share responsibility for GM safety. APHIS looks at
whether GM plants endanger other plants, the Food and Drug Administration
examines the potential effects of GM products in food, and the
Environmental Protection Agency looks at plants with pesticidal
Once the agencies determine that an organism is safe, using reports
submitted by the companies like Monsanto and Syngenta that developed it,
they let it go to market.
The EPA continues to gather reports from companies on pesticide plants
after they are commercialized. But APHIS is where the oversight should
continue, the National Academy report suggested.
Changes in agriculture have had major unforeseen consequences, the
scientists said. Even the Green Revolution of the 1960s ó when scientists
developed several high-yielding strains of grain and significantly boosted
the world's food supply ó brought its share of unhappy results, like
damaged soil quality, lowered water tables and altered wetlands.
Those kinds of indirect effects are harder to judge and take a lot more
data, the report said, but they are no less important. The studies being
done now are too limited to catch anything but the most obvious
APHIS should look at potential effects of GM plants besides the direct
ones tested for by the companies that develop them, the council said. One
way to do that is to track them closely once they've been publicly
released. None of the agencies does that now.
Another hole in the data is the specific genetic blueprint of the plant in
question, the report said. Companies don't have to submit DNA sequences of
the organisms they have altered. That's because the government doesn't see
GM organisms as different.
"The philosophy has been that none of these really are novel organisms,"
said Craig Roseland, a biotechnologist on the Agriculture Department's
policy staff. He said testing hadn't shown the need for follow-up on what
he called "a familiar crop."
But out in the cotton fields of the Rio Grande Valley, farmer Joe
Pennington sees less familiar crops. Pennington has noticed that changing
one aspect of a plant's DNA can change the whole plant, altering his
"In cotton the fiber qualities might be a little different, (or) the yield
potential changes," he said. "We have seen a marked difference in
varieties that we thought were our favorite varieties."
Michael Hansen, a research associate with the Consumer Policy Institute,
agreed with the report that said there's not enough evidence to call GM
plants the same as any other.
The Consumer Policy Institute, which is part of Consumer Reports publisher
Consumers Union, does not oppose genetic engineering. But it does call for
mandatory safety testing and labeling for all GM products.
A lot of consumers agree. The 2000 Texas A&M survey found that more than
90 percent of 2,200 Texans said they approved of clearly labeling GM
foods. More than 60 percent of those strongly supported such measures.
They face a battle from seed companies, chemical companies and the Bush
Gary Barton, spokesman for Monsanto, the creator of Bt and Roundup Ready
seed technology, said labeling would be pointless, as "the products of
biotechnology are the same."
Barton and seed industry representatives also argue that GM is too mixed
up in the nation's massive food transportation system ó and potentially
already in about 70 percent of processed foods ó to go through the expense
of separating it.
The administration is on their side.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said the Bush
administration opposes the labeling of genetically engineered food because
it "will only frighten consumers." And Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman
said that more effort needs to be put into marketing the safety of
APHIS doesn't have the authority or the money from Congress that it would
need to do the report's suggested monitoring anyway, Roseland said.
However, the agency is looking at the recommendations and will give
Congress a report next year.
Even though the government is moving at its typical bureaucratic pace, the
thought of more oversight makes farmers like Pennington uneasy.
"I'm not a big fan of regulatory agencies," he said. "The government's got
its finger in too much of our business today."
Besides, Monsanto and other GM developers have an interest in making sure
their products are safe, he said, and the promise of biotechnology holds
"If they can grow a corn product that can make people immune to some
deadly disease," Pennington said, "wouldn't that be the thing to do?
That doesn't mean he's up to his ears in GM crops. The return on the
higher-priced seed, which can cost up to twice as much as regular seed,
depends on a lot of variables.
Although Pennington has grown Bt corn and liked it, the drought in the Rio
Grande Valley forced him to give up corn this year. And he hasn't found a
Bt cotton that satisfies him.
"The big sell on all these modified crops is that it's cheaper. It's not
necessarily cheaper ó it's just that you're shifting your dollar from John
Deere and Exxon to chemical companies," Pennington said. "I guess it
depends on your situation."
Another kind of farmer has a completely different set of issues with GM:
genetic pollution through pollen drift and the seed supply.
Jimmy Wedel grows organic cotton, corn and soybeans outside the Panhandle
town of Muleshoe.
Wedel's not too worried about GM crops as a consumer. As a farmer, he's
far enough at this point from GM corn growers that cross-pollination on
the wind doesn't scare him, although it's a real problem for many organic
and non-GM growers.
What scares Wedel is the very source of his crop.
He believes the seed supply, as in Mexico, is already tainted with GM
content and worries that it will ruin his crop's organic standing.
"When my corn crosses the scales and it has 4 percent GM, and it was
beyond my control and I have to go sell it on the conventional market, I
have a problem with that," he said.
That hasn't happened to him yet, but last year a colleague's load was
rejected because of too much GM content, he said. The seed was all they
could figure as the source of the problem.
New national organic standards that will take effect this fall permit a
certain amount of GM content, provided the farmer has followed organic
Wedel gets paid 25 percent to 30 percent more for his organic corn, and
his yields run from equal to 20 percent less than conventional corn.
He counts on Bt, or Bacillus thuringiensis, as one of the few organic
pesticides in his toolbox, and expects the spread of Bt crops to speed its
Insects develop resistance to pesticides over time, and if the pesticide
is a constant part of the plant instead of an occasional dose, it hurries
their evolution toward immunity.
To slow that progression, the EPA requires companies to make GM farmers
plant "refuges" of non-GM crops to nourish nonresistant insects.
"Basically, the companies are required to have external independent
auditing (and) compliance reports," EPA spokesman David Deegan said.
Pennington said he plants his Bt crops with refuges, according to
"The guys we bought the seed from, we'd show it to them," he said. "I'd
tell them 'Look, this is not Bt right here.'"
French approval for field trials on GM crops.
Asia Intelligence Wire
July 30, 2002
The French government has approved 8 new field trials on genetically
modified crops by Biogemma, Bayer CropSciences, Pioneer Genetique and AGPM
Technique. The Confederation paysanne immediately reacted by again calling
for a complete ban on all GM field trials. Ovale (the ecology pressure
group) said the Agriculture and Environment ministries should revoke the
approval. Biogemma is due to start trials on maize in Blagnac and Artonne
this year. Other trials will start in Spring 2003. Tighter restrictions
have been imposed on these trials. The sites must be inspected by the
regional plant protection authorities and they must be at least 400 m
(instead of 200 m) away from traditional crops. In May 2002 crops of
genetically engineering maize were planted in order to study the
traceability of such crops in controlled natural conditions.
The not-so-sweet success of organic farming
Pesticide-free, non-genetically modified food is a big, global business
now. But, ironically, small farmers are getting the shaft.
By Linda Baker
July 29, 2002
Over the past two months, David Gould has inspected pumpkin farms and
fertilizer companies in China, consulted for the world's only organic
producer of Noni juice in Tahiti, and followed the trail of
non-genetically modified livestock feed -- from farmers' auctions to port
machinery -- in India.
Gould is a Portland, Ore.-based inspector and certifier of organic foods.
For an eco-minded scientist-activist, Gould appears to have an ideal job:
he gets to travel to far-flung places, work outside and help Third World
countries implement environmentally friendly development strategies.
Theoretically, he's a standard bearer for a new, more sustainable form of
global food production, in which local communities produce food that is
consumed locally, without the input of expensive and possibly unhealthy
pesticides or genetically modified organisms.
But organic farming in the 21st century is turning out to be a little more
complicated than its advocates originally expected. For example, there was
the time a few years ago that Gould was sent by Eco-Cert, a German
certification agency, to oversee the company's first certification project
"I was inspecting a Japanese food processor who was importing soybeans
from China to process into goods for export to Europe," said Gould. "I
said to Eco-Cert: 'We're circling the globe with organic. Isn't this a
little bizarre, a little ... unsustainable?'"
If anyone's living out the ironies of the post-utopian world of organic
agriculture, it's Gould. An independent contractor and consultant who
works for public and private certifying agencies, Gould buys many of his
own groceries from local non-certified family farms. He refers to himself
as simultaneously living both on the "ideal extreme" of the organic
spectrum and as an "agent of the USDA." As such, Gould embodies the
conflicted attitude many greener growers, processors and certifiers are
taking toward the increasingly industrialized field of organic farming.
Once the lowly stepchild of conventional farming, organic is poised for a
family takeover. In 2001, global sales of organic foods reached $26
billion; by 2008, that figure is expected to reach $80 billion. Leading
the push toward organic is the European Union, where Belgium, the
Netherlands and Wales have set government goals to make 10 percent of all
arable land organic by the year 2010. (In Germany, that figure is 20
The U.S., which has set no such goals, has almost doubled its acres of
organic farmland since 1997. And on Oct. 21, 2002, the United States
Department of Agriculture (USDA) will implement the nation's first federal
labeling standards for organically grown and processed foods. The new USDA
seal will apply to U.S. growers who, for the most part, produce food
without the use of genetic engineering, growth hormones or pesticides.
But dig a little deeper into this world where more crops are being rotated
and fewer poisons are being used, and the contradictions begin to sprout.
As Gould points out, there's something, well, ironic about using massive
amounts of non-renewable energy to ship organically grown food -- not to
mention the inspectors themselves -- halfway around the planet. That most
organically grown food is packaged and processed -- "until it's a stretch
to call it food, much less organic," he says -- further undercuts much
vaunted organic claims to benefit human health and the environment. And
then there's the nasty little problem that the very act of certification
itself puts constraints on small farmers who want to push organic farming
even further ahead.
The original vision of organic farming as ecologically sustainable
agriculture practiced by small farmers is giving way to big business.
Organic's success is sowing the seeds of its own co-optation.
"Certification used to favor the small farmer," says Gould, who holds a
life sciences degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and
claims a lifelong interest in the ways communities form around food
supplies. Now, he contends, the mass market is rewriting the grass-roots
story, turning organically grown food into a global brand (the National
Organic Program, notes Gould, is part of the USDA's Agricultural Marketing
Service) rather than a social, economic and ecological alternative to
"Organic is becoming one tool that people interested in sustainable
production can use," he says. "But you don't have to be sustainable to use
organic as a label." The real future of sustainability, he says, hinges on
local production and support of local economies. "'Know your farmer,'"
says Gould. "That was one of the keys of the organic mission that has been
Twenty years ago, inspectors and certifiers of organic foods were part of
a regional, insular profession characterized by a powerful streak of
political activism and ethical conviction. Developed in 1982, the organic
standards issued by Oregon Tilth, one of the country's original certifying
organizations, were a simple, one page description of farm production
practices that would galvanize the earth
Today, the National Organic Rule is a bureaucratic product, a 63-page list
of allowed and prohibited substances, land management practices, livestock
standards, and labeling requirements for processed foods. (Destined to
confuse even the most vigilant of consumers, product labels will read
either "100 percent Organic," "Organic," for products that are 95 percent
organic, or "Made with Organic," for products that are less than 95
As for Gould's job, it's become a combination of the exotic, the
ecological and the administrative. He harvests allspice with the natives
in the Guatemalan jungle, is feted by village elders in Mongolia
(inspections of mungbean crops), and slogs through the massive amounts of
paperwork involved in creating and maintaining macro-policies for food
production and handling. There are now 56 countries that have implemented
or initiated the drafting of organic regulations, each with its own spin
on what it means to be organic. Gould's recent inspection of a fertilizer
company in Northeastern China, for example, involved verifying that the
manure came from non-factory farm chickens -- a European regulation that
U.S. standards don't mention.
Gould's position in the global economy, working mostly for U.S. or
European clients who want to import certified organic products from the
developing world, embodies one of the central conundrums for the organic
movement: How does an eco-friendly, community-based food movement
reconcile the environmental costs of transporting massive amounts of food
around the world? The fact that the global organic economy is reproducing
neocolonial structures is, as it were, another pest in the corn.
Currently, cheaper production costs mean that the bulk of organic
production in developing countries is exported to Europe or the U.S.
Imposed by the West, certification standards and processes often have
little to do with the preservation of local practices -- another irony,
Gould observes, since many traditional cultures had been farming
organically for thousands of years until multinational corporations
encroached upon them with agrochemicals and, now, GMOs.
"The key challenge facing developing countries," says Gould, "is building
local awareness and domestic markets." Giving small farmers "value added"
opportunities, says Gould, are ways he tries to grow the local along with
the global -- in his case, helping small producers in China grow organic
green tea and medicinal herbs, or their Tahitian counterparts market
organic mango and star fruit to the foreign owned luxury hotels lining the
lagoons. "But no one's figured out a way to make the global economy
sustainable," he says, noting he avoids buying grown fruits and vegetables
that had to be flown in from the Southern Hemisphere.
To unpack Gould's arguments about the disintegration of the organic ideal,
go back ten or fifteen years, when organic farmers in the U.S. pushed for
national organic standards to clarify the label, win recognition for
organic as a viable, even superior kind of farming and gain access to land
grant and extension office money and research funds. "Well, we got what we
asked for," says Gould. Today, he says, the problem turns on the twin
specters of government standardization and corporate consolidation.
In California, five giant farms control half of the state's $400 million
organic produce market. Horizon Organic, a publicly traded Colorado-based
company, controls more than 70 percent of the nation's organic milk
market. More than 30 percent of its milk is produced at two
industrial-size dairies, one of which milks close to 5,000 cows. Corporate
food giant General Mills now owns leading organic manufacturer Cascadia
Farms, Kraft Foods owns Boca Burgers, and Heinz, reported the Wall Street
Journal this June, is seeking to develop an organic ketchup to sell at
Whole Foods and Wild Oats, the nation's biggest natural foods
"One of the grossest problems is the food distribution system is totally
screwed up," says Gould. "If you want to supply the big supermarket, you
have to have a lot of product." Coopted by big business, he says, the
organic movement has shifted away from the small farmer -- and its
corresponding focus on community food production -- toward the techniques
and problems of conventional and factory farming: "Big companies like
General Mills tend to process huge amounts of food, which results in huge
demand for food," he says. "This puts small farmers at a disadvantage and
results in the ecologically indefensible practice of monoculture...
because you need to feed this machinery at an insane rate."
Further derailing the organic mission, says Gould, are the increasing
costs of certification, which disproportionately harm small growers, and
the inherent conflict of interest that occurs in a system where certifiers
are paid by the companies they certify. "It opens the door for certifiers
to grant exceptions to standards, make things conditions for improvement,
when really they should have stopped things in their tracks," he said.
Government subsidy of organic farming, he says would alleviate both of
these problems. Gould also singles out a provision of the new USDA rule
that prevents farmers who want to use the organic label from certifying to
a more stringent standard than the federal government requires. This kind
of unwavering standard, he says, favors corporate producers who can
dominate the marketplace by buying and selling organic products cheaply
and en masse. Prohibited from advertising higher ecological performance,
smaller "best practice" farmers will be locked out of the competition.
"It's unconscionable," he says. "It's a power play by the government."
Gould is not the only sustainable food advocate to express concern about
the industrialization of organic production. "The current trend," says
Robert Simmons, international team leader for the private certifying
agency, Farm Verified Organic, "seems to be a race to the bottom for
standards." Last month, for example, Fieldale Farms, a Georgia chicken
processor that slaughters several hundred thousand organic chickens a
month, sought a waiver from USDA regulations requiring organically grown
chickens be fed 100 percent organically grown feed. Not enough organic
feed was available to meet company demands, a Fieldale spokesperson told
The Atlanta Journal Constitution.
For Josh Volk, field manager for Sauvie Island Organics, a seven acre farm
outside of Portland that sells its products directly to 200 Community
Supported Agriculture (CSA) members (individual households that own a
piece of the farms production), the key to survival, of both the farm and
the mission, is clear: don't get certified.
"When you're making less than minimum wage for long weeks it's difficult
to justify spending the money on an organic label that will probably not
make any difference in sales," he says. After the USDA law takes effect,
the non certified SIA won't be able to label its produce organic or even
say they use organic practices. "But since we have direct contact with our
customers every day," says Volk, "we can explain to people that we do not
use synthetics and that we try to farm as sustainably as possible."
So here's the final paradox. Mass production and government standards mean
more organic production and consumption, which means fewer chemical
pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers are going into the air, soil,
water, and, of course, our bodies. But just as U.S. regulations for
certified organic foods are about to be put into place, the label
"organic" may become obsolete -- or, at the very least, lose its cachet.
This is why Gould, who grinds his own flour, sprouts his own sprouts and
buys chicken from a non-certified Portland-area farmer, says the future of
sustainability depends on linking producers and consumers via regional
production and networks of farmers' markets, food coops, and CSAs.
"The story in this country is that wealth concentrates," he says. "That's
unstable. We need smaller operations, local processors, more evenly spread
As for his own role in the system, it's telling that Gould -- the
globetrotting inspector par excellence -- is now contemplating a career
change. "I see my job as evolving toward more local work," he says. "And
if that means getting out of the certification business, so be it."
Date: Mon, 29 Jul 2002 20:42:08 -0400
Subject: 21st Century PR: The war for ideas and ideals
From: "Ross S. Irvine"
The big PR battles of the 21st century will not be about the current
fiscal quarter or the next news cycle. They will be about ideas and
ideals. They will have a profound impact on business and society.
The current battle over genetically modified foods is an example from
which other businesses can learn. It also illustrates why modern conflict
theory and practice -- not risk communications -- provide insights and
tools to deal effectively with activists.
Read "21st Century PR: The War for Ideas and Ideals" at
Ross S. Irvine
President / Corporate Activist
ePublic Relations Ltd
Phone: 519 767-0444
Public relations is war. It's about winners and losers. Winners gain
public, media, and regulatory acceptance and support for their products,
services, and organizations. Losers see their products, services, and
organizations sacrificed on the altar of public opinion, pilloried by the
media, and trampled by excessive regulation.