Organic Trade Meets in D.C. as Battle Brews Over Standards

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This article originally appeared in Huffington Post

It’s “Organic Week” again in Washington, D.C., and attendees of the “signature policymaking event” for the Organic Trade Association (OTA) have much to celebrate. Last week, the OTA, the leading voice for the organic industry, announced that the sector posted its largest-ever annual dollar gain in 2015, with total organic retail sales growing by $4.2 billion, or 11 percent, to a record of $43.3 billion.

“Fueled by consumer choice, organic is the future of farming,” the OTA said in a statement touting the conference, which runs May 23-May 27.

Still, the industry acknowledges that future is clouded by persistent supply shortages in the face of what OTA calls the “seemingly unquenchable consumer demand for organic.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is slated to address the OTA Wednesday, to tell organic leaders that the U.S. Department of Agriculture wants to make it easier for new farmers to become certified organic and to help the organic sector with its demand problem.

But across the country, in a federal courtroom in California, a group of consumer and environmental lawyers and nonprofit groups are raising a red flag in the face of the USDA push to grow the organic sector. Corners are being cut, they allege. Standards are being shirked, and consumers are being short-changed by USDA National Organic Program standard changes.

A hearing is scheduled Thursday in one key case involving synthetic chemicals in compost in organic production. The Center for Environmental Health, the Center for Food Safety and Beyond Pesticides sued Vilsack and other USDA officials last year for issuing a guidance document in 2010 that “radically changed organic requirements.” Under the new provision, organic producers can use compost materials that have been treated with synthetic pesticides that otherwise are banned from organic use.

Under the changes introduced by USDA, organic producers can use materials such as lawn trimmings that have been contaminated with synthetic pesticides as compost feedstocks for their crops. Compost contaminated with an insecticide known as bifenthrin and other pesticides are now allowed, the lawsuit alleges.

This flouts a key appeal of organics – the idea that synthetic pesticides have little to no place in production, the groups argue. And the agency violated the law by failing to give public notice or allow for public comment as they created this “loophole,” the groups allege.

“Organic consumers are being misled, and can no longer rely on the organic label to ensure the food they purchase is produced without synthetic pesticides in agricultural inputs,” the lawsuit states.

The Center for Food Safety and other plaintiffs describe themselves in court pleadings as working to protect the environment and public health and to act as a watchdog on the integrity of organic production. They expected the OTA to back up their bid for organic integrity, or at least not to try to get in their way. But on May 2, OTA asked to participate in the case not on the side of the consumer advocates but against them.

In its filing, OTA, along with California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) have joined with Western Growers Association (WG), which represents farmers responsible for roughly a third of fresh U.S. organic produce, to oppose the consumer protection groups over the compost issue. The OTA and other industry groups are arguing that if the USDA provision allowing for synthetic pesticides in compost is thrown out by the court, organic practices would be “severely unsettled.”

The groups say in court filings that it would be analytically and economically impossible to demonstrate all compost is free of each synthetic chemical substance prohibited in organic crop production. They say a sudden elimination of the compost provision could lead to costly civil litigation and many growers’ organic certifications would be directly at risk. Unwinding the USDA’s “professional and responsible approach to a complex subject” would be “extremely disruptive,” the organic groups say.

The plaintiffs counter that such claims of disruptive consequences are a “red herring.” An erosion of organic standards may help expand production and meet consumer demands, but such a path could make for a slippery slope and an ultimate demise of the draw organics hold. “These environmental values, and specifically not supporting pesticide-dependent agriculture, are a major driver to why consumers pay the premium to buy organic foods,” their filing states.

Thursday’s hearing in San Francisco will take up pending cross motions for summary judgment in the case. Meanwhile back in Washington, the OTA will be marking “advocacy day,” fanning out through Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers and push for policies that support continued organic industry growth.

Consumers would do well to keep an eye on both.

Carey Gillam is a veteran former Reuters journalist and now research director for U.S. Right to Know, a food industry research group.  Follow Carey Gillam on Twitter: www.twitter.com/careygillam 

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U.S. Review of GMOs Finds Risks, Rewards; Calls for Transparency

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By Carey Gillam

A new study of genetically modified crop technology by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine offers a mix of observations about the controversial crops, and takes U.S. regulators to task for an ongoing lack of transparency that is fueling distrust by consumers and calls for mandatory labeling of GMO foods.

The lengthy report, sponsored in part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, runs roughly 400-pages and seeks to address a range of environmental, health, social and regulatory issues surrounding genetically engineered (GE) crop technology. It is the culmination of work by a committee that includes scientists specializing in ecology, genetics and crop health from several state universities, as well as experts from the International Food Policy Research Institute, and other groups.

The release is timely, coming as Congress is debating whether or not GMO foods should be labeled, and as the Environmental Protection Agency assesses if glyphosate, a widely used herbicide whose use has increased with the commercialization of glyphosate-tolerant GMO crops, should be restricted.

Both critics and fans can point to findings they deem favorable, but the broad take-away from the committee’s work is that while GMOs on the market today appear not to pose a risk to human health, there should be greater accountability to a wary public and more independent study of a range of potential risks.

The committee steered clear of taking a stand on the current hot-button issue of GMO labeling, declining to clearly endorse either the consumer groups who want mandatory labeling of GMO foods or the food and agribusiness players who want to block mandatory labeling like the law set to take effect in Vermont on July 1. But the committee did state that GMO labeling “serves purposes that go beyond food safety.”

“There clearly are strong non-safety arguments and considerable public support for mandatory labeling of products containing GE material. The committee does not believe that mandatory labeling of foods with GE content is justified to protect public health… however, product labeling serves purposes that go beyond food safety. U.S. policy-makers and the private sector have the ability to address the broader social and economic issues and to balance the competing interests involved.”

The committee further stressed a need for public accountability when it discussed regulatory reviews of these GMO crops.

“Transparency and public participation have been shown by research to be critically important for appropriate, sound, and credible governance of all aspects of the development, deployment, and use of GE crops.”

The committee said that much of the information submitted to regulatory agencies seeking approval of new GMO products is kept secret, treated as “confidential business information.” This lack of public access to health and safety data submitted by developers creates distrust, the committee said.

“Given a developer’s self-interest in getting a product approved and its control over the material considered by the agency, the lack of access creates skepticism about the quality of the data.”

The committee pointed out that in 2002 the U.S. General Accounting Office (now Government Accountability Office) recommended that the Food and Drug Administration randomly verify raw test data provided by a GMO developer, but there is no evidence FDA has adopted that recommendation.

The committee said when it comes to environmental problems, the committee did not find conclusive cause-and-effect evidence of environmental problems from the GE crops. “However, evolved resistance to current GE characteristics in crops is a major agricultural problem.”

The committee criticized USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) for not requiring post-market controls and monitoring of GMO crops, which the committee said could have mitigated resistance problems before they spread.

When seeking to address a number of concerns about the health impacts of consumption of foods made with GMO crops, the committee said that there was little evidence of specific links:

“The committee concluded that no differences have been found that implicate a higher risk to human health safety from these GE foods than from their non-GE counterparts. The committee states this finding very carefully, acknowledging that any new food—GE or non-GE—may have some subtle favorable or adverse health effects that are not detected even with careful scrutiny and that health effects can develop over time.”

Regarding specific concerns about GMOs and concerns about ties to allergies, the committee said that “testing for allergenicity before commercialization could miss allergens to which the population had not previously been exposed,” and “post-commercialization allergen testing would be useful in ensuring that consumers are not exposed to allergens,” though the committee said it realized such testing would be difficult to conduct.

NO GMO YIELD GAIN

In another notable finding, the committee’s work countered the credibility of often-repeated industry propaganda that genetically engineered crops are necessary to “feed the world” because they yield so much more than non-GMO crops.

The report found little foundation for the claims of yield benefit, however:

“The committee examined data on overall rates of increase in yields of soybean, cotton, and maize in the U.S. for the decades preceding introduction of GE crops and after their introduction, and there was no evidence that GE crops had changed the rate of increase in yields.”

The committee’s work also addressed another hot-button issue – the safety of the herbicide glyphosate. Though agrichemical interests say the safety of the herbicide is firmly established and accepted by the world’s scientific community, the NAS committee said there “is significant disagreement among expert committees on the potential harm that could be caused by the use of glyphosate on GE crops and in other applications.”

The committee also addressed the dicey new debate over emerging genome editing technologies that are billed by developers as decreasing the risks of unintended changes in the plants. The committee found that this decreased risk should simplify food safety testing. However, the committee also warned that “major changes in metabolic pathways or insertion of multiple resistance genes will complicate the determination of food safety because changes in metabolic pathways are known to have unexpected effects on plant metabolites.”

As part of the study, the committee said it examined almost 900 research and other publications on the development, use, and effects of genetically engineered characteristics in corn, soybean, and cotton, which account for almost all commercial GE crops to date. As well, the committee said it listened to 80 speakers at three public meetings and 15 public webinars, and read more than 700 comments from members of the public.

The committee didn’t provide all the answers, and indeed in many ways, raised new questions. But the committee call for more transparency to a skeptical public was loud and clear. Lawmaker, regulators and crop developers would do well to answer that call.

Clock is Ticking on GMO Labeling Issue

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After years of state-by-state battles over consumer calls for mandatory labeling of foods made with genetically modified ingredients (GMOs), time is quickly running out for the agribusiness and food manufacturing industries working to block such labeling.

The threat that ticking clock holds for the food industry was underscored Tuesday in a hastily held meeting of the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee. With less than an hour of discussion, members voted 14-6 to move forward with legislation that would prohibit state GMO labeling laws, notably one set to take effect July 1 in Vermont. Other states are considering similar laws.

The measure preempts “any state or political subdivision law relating to the labeling of whether food or seed is genetically engineered or developed or produced using genetic engineering” and “authorizes the Secretary of Agriculture to promulgate regulations establishing a national voluntary bioengineered food labeling standard.”

The measure also outlaws any “express or implied claims regarding safety or quality based on whether food is or is not bioengineered or produced or developed with the use of bioengineering…”

Many of the senators in Tuesday’s meeting cited the notion that something had to be done quickly before Vermont’s labeling law takes effect.

“We’re running out of time,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota. She was one of three Democrats who joined with Republicans to vote for the bill –  She and other ag committee members said the bill needs work – “compromise” – before it can pass the U.S. Senate.

Sen. Pat Roberts, a Republican from Kansas and the bill’s sponsor, has been working with ranking member Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, to find a compromise that could pass the full Senate.

Compromise may be hard to come by. Consumer advocates for what has become known as the “Right to Know” movement across the country see labeling on a voluntary basis as little more than a slap in the face to millions of consumers who have concerns about the health and environmental impacts of GMO crops, and want to know if GMOs are used in the food they buy and consume. And nullifying a law already passed in Vermont only adds to the insult to voters and consumers.

“It is very disturbing that Republicans in Congress, while blocking any meaningful legislation, have found the time to push a law that deprives Vermont’s citizens their right to know about the food they buy, and could rescind over one hundred and thirty other state laws on food and seed,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Food Safety.

Those who want to see mandatory labeling say that among their concerns about GMO foods is a worry that the herbicide glyphosate, which is widely used on genetically modified crops, is harmful to human health. Residues of the pesticide have been detected in foods, and a World Health Organization research unit earlier this year said glyphosate was a probable cause of cancer in humans.

In the meantime, the food and agribusiness fear of labeling, and the efforts to scare consumers over the issue, only promises to heat up. Ironically, the food industry doesn’t just admit that they fear consumers will turn away from GMO foods if they are labeled; the industry embraces that fear as a central theme.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, a chief backer of the legislation and other food industry backers warn that if labeling is required, consumers will turn away from GMO foods in droves, meaning farmers who grow GMO crops – the bulk of which are corn and soy –  will suffer and food costs will soar. They give little to no nod to farmers who grow a multitude of other organic or conventional crops.

In a blog published Tuesday in The Hill,  Lorraine Merrill, commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets & Food, said: “Mandatory labeling of foods derived from biotechnology will create a ‘skull and crossbones effect’ on our safe and affordable food supply which will generate or exacerbate fears of advanced genetic techniques… If consumers and food manufacturers migrate to more GMO-free products, food costs will go up.”

The measure now heads to the full Senate where passage is expected to be tricky. Sixty votes will be required to overcome a filibuster, and both senators from Vermont – Sen Patrick Leahy and presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders – promise to oppose the law.

The GOP-backed bill would “move production methods into the shadows” and “give agriculture a black eye,” Leahy told The Hill. “The legislation undermines the public’s right to know.”

Stabenow has been quoted saying that if the law is to pass the Senate, “it must contain a pathway to a national system of mandatory disclosure that provides consumers the information they need and want to make informed choices.”

A similar measure backed by Republicans was passed last July by the U.S. House of Representatives, 275-150. Only 45 Democrats voted for the bill.

Kimbrell said on Tuesday that supporters of mandatory labeling would be pushing senators to vote against the bill.

“The Democrats who consented to pushing this bill forward will certainly be hearing from the food movement,” Kimbrell said.

Big Campaign Cash for Clinton from Monsanto Lobbyist

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A Monsanto Co. lobbyist, who is seen as Hillary Clinton’s “main man” in Iowa, was among the top financial bundlers of contributions to benefit Hillary Clinton’s run for the White House in the most recent quarter, new Federal Election Commission reports show.

Jerry Crawford of the Crawford & Mauro Law Firm in Des Moines, Iowa, bundled $151,727 for the campaign over the quarter ending Dec. 31, FEC documents show. Crawford is senior adviser to Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and was the Midwest Co-Chair of the Hillary Clinton for President Campaign in 2007-08. His firm listed Monsanto as a client in the most recent quarter, reporting $60,000 in lobbying income from Monsanto. Monsanto is known as one of the nation’s most powerful corporations, and is currently engaged in a range of public policy debates over regulation of its genetically modified crops and top herbicide product, Roundup.

Another Monsanto lobbyist, Steve Elmendorf, bundled $20,295 in contributions for the Hillary for America organization during the quarter, FEC documents show.  Elmendorf also does work for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which has been battling against mandatory labeling laws for foods made with GMOs.

The total of all bundlers for Clinton campaign over the quarter was $716,981, according to the FEC documents.

Clinton is widely seen as a friend to genetically engineered crop technology and agrichemical interests, while her chief competitor for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders, has been a supporter of mandatory GMO labeling.

Big Week for Big Ag Players Monsanto and Dow

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Monsanto Shareholders Meeting Draws Fire 

An array of GMO and pesticide critics spoke out at Monsanto Co.’s annual meeting of shareholders on Friday, Jan. 29  in the company’s hometown of Creve Coeur, Missouri, calling on the company to address concerns about the company’s genetically engineered crop products and the glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide used on those crops.

Shareholder representatives, as well as others from outside organizations, told Monsanto Chairman and CEO Hugh Grant that the company should take several steps, including reporting on any plans to  mitigate risks to human health and the environment tied to Roundup and its main ingredient, glyphosate.  In March 2015, the World Health Organization’s cancer experts classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” And Monsanto is facing numerous lawsuits filed by farmworkers and others who say Roundup caused their cancers.

“Given that about half of Monsanto’s revenue comes from Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides, the labeling of the company’s core product as ‘probably carcinogenic’ is not a healthy boost for the company’s prospects,” John Harrington, CEO of Harrington Investments, said in a statement.  Harrington Investments provide investment advisory services with a focus on environmental and social objectives, and has an active shareholder advocacy program.

Along with Harrington Investments,  representatives from the Organic Consumers Association, Moms Across America, SumofUs, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and GMO Free Midwest attended the meeting to protest the company’s promotion of Roundup, which the protesters say is tied to a range of diseases.

The group told Monsanto’s Grant that there are an increasing number of independent studies associating glyphosate with cancer, birth defects, kidney disease, and hormone disruption.

Grant deflected the criticisms and said that both glyphosate and GMOs are proven safe: “This is the 20th year of planting GMOs,” said Grant. “Four billion acres have been planted on the planet… without a single health issue. These are the most widely tested products that the food industry has ever seen.”

Monsanto brings in roughly $5 billion a year in revenues from sales of Roundup and related products.

Doctors and scientists have raised concerns about health trends in areas where farm workers and communities, such as Hawaii and Argentina, have high exposures to the chemicals used on Roundup Ready crops, which have been genetically engineered to tolerate being sprayed with glyphosate.

An audio replay of the meeting is available on Monsanto’s website at www.monsanto.com/investors.

Dow Gets Court Go-Ahead on Controversial New Herbicide

A federal appellate court has awarded a victory to Dow AgroSciences in the company’s controversial bid to bring a new weedkiller to U.S. farmlands. The new herbicide, branded Enlist Duo, combines glyphosate and 2,4-D, both of which have been linked to cancer and other health problems.

The Chicago Tribune reported that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s request to vacate its own scientists’ 2014 approval  of the Dow weedkiller without detailing the reason behind the order.

Dow’s new herbicide is designed to address widespread herbicide resistance that has taken hold on roughly 60 million acres of U.S. farmland after widespread use of glyphosate. Glyphosate, the primary ingredient in Monsanto Co.’s Roundup, became pervasive in production of corn, soybeans, cotton and other crops after Monsanto genetically engineered crops to withstand direct dousing of the chemical.

Enlist Duo is designed to be used on genetically engineered corn, cotton and soybeans developed by Dow to be immune to the glyphosate-2,4D  mix.  In December, the Chicago Tribune revealed that the EPA approved Enlist Duo after the agency discounted evidence of kidney problems that Dow’s own researchers said were caused by 2,4-D.

Dow has said it sees the Enlist line of crops and chemicals as a $1 billion market opportunity.

Read more here http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/watchdog/ct-dow-enlist-duo-court-ruling-20160127-story.html