Monday, 31 January 2011

A spat among friends over GMO alfalfa

Last week, Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack announced rules that would de-regulate a genetically modified (GMO) variety of alfalfa.  This decision disappointed advocates for organic agriculture, because there are legitimate concerns that the new variety will sometimes spread to the fields of organic alfalfa farmers, who are not supposed to use GMO varieties.

Earlier, Vilsack had made some effort to explore a co-existence policy, which would permit GMO alfalfa, but with restrictions to ensure that it does not contaminate the fields of other farmers.  In the end, bowing to intense pressure from agricultural technology companies and major farm interests, USDA mostly skipped the co-existence idea and opted instead for what amounts to outright de-regulation.

Different regulatory agencies in different countries may react differently to the possibility of an occasional GMO plant in organic fields.  In the United States, although this possibility may not put organic farmers in much jeopardy of losing their certification, most organic farmers and organic-friendly food companies are upset by the USDA decision.

In this circumstance, it was surprising to read the ferocious attacks on big-business organic companies -- such as Whole Foods and Stonyfield Yogurt -- in a recent column by Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association.  Cummins was angry that these big-business organic companies had written favorably about "co-existence" while lobbying Vilsack and USDA.  Cummins felt these companies should have advocated more whole-heartedly for even stricter regulations against GMOs, not co-existence.

Cummins' column is strangely defeatist.  When USDA is deliberating between two policies -- outright de-regulation or "co-existence" (the first two policies on the left in the figure below) -- it seems more sound for organic consumers to think of "co-existence" advocates as relatively favorable to organic agriculture.  Later, if a policy argument arises between co-existence and stricter rules against GMOs (further to the right in the illustration), that would be the right time for Cummins to argue with Whole Foods and Stonyfield.

My interest in this debate goes beyond organic alfalfa.  The general principle, in any argument over incremental policy change, is that one should generally be thankful for any support that helps in putting together a winning coalition.

Update (March 4, 2011): First, after a friendly grilling from wise people, let me retreat a little from the broad tone of the post's final paragraph. I do still suspect that strong GMO critics picked the wrong moment to seek an intramural fight with business-friendly GMO critics in this case, but it is not more generally always true that strong advocates on any moral or social issue are obliged to be thankful for support from moderates. There are very good occasions to be impatient with moderates (see King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail).  I shouldn't have drawn such a broad conclusion. Second, on a more upbeat note, further fascinating discussion of this debate has continued at NPR, Huffington Post, and the Friedman School's student-run online periodical Sprout.

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