Criticizes the Organic Trade Association and Some of Its Powerful Members
Cornucopia’s Take: David Bronner, CEO at Dr. Bronner’s, has been an activist and a leading voice for the real labeling of GMO foods. He also happens to be a long time member of the Organic Trade Association (OTA). He is harshly critical of how the OTA, and some of its most powerful members, secretly worked to “sell-out” the GMO food labeling movement and enable the recent passage of the toothless GMO food labeling bill signed into law by the President last week.
Although the OTA defended their position as being pragmatic, as the best compromise that they could broker, it gave, primarily Democrats, the political shelter to go ahead and switch their votes in support of the giant agribusiness lobby that favored the bill. Without a radical change in Washington, this will, for the foreseeable future, end any debate about legitimate/substitute GMO labeling.
This legislation was opposed, on the record, by The Cornucopia Institute and approximately 275 nonprofits involved in food and agriculture, along with a handful of ethical businesses like Dr. Bronner’s. Besides for the organic industry lobby, the OTA, Organic Valley and Stonyfield, only two nonprofits supported the legislation: Just Label It and The Environmental Working Group who both receive funding from the aforementioned businesses.
OTA’s betrayal of the movement to mandate labeling of GMOs in America is now complete, with Obama signing into law Friday the Stabenow Roberts legislation requiring only electronic disclosure via QR code or an 800 number of “bioengineered” content, that forever preempts Vermont and all other states from mandating disclosure of GMOs on packaging. Apparently Executive Director Laura Batcha and board chair Missy Hughes, with support from Organic Valley CEO George Siemon, decided to act unilaterally and endorse the Stabenow Roberts legislation, without OTA board review. The explanation given is pathetic and self-serving: that organic products can claim to be produced without genetic engineering, which was already the case; and that dairy and meat products from animals fed GMO grain cannot automatically make a GMO free claim. This latter issue is trivial compared to pre-empting citizens’ right to mandate disclosure of the positive presence of GMOs, and should be addressed through separate litigation and legislation.
More importantly, OTA’s leadership demonstrated a complete lack of integrity and courage in standing against the biotech agenda championed by Vilsack, Stabenow and Roberts. As a movement we already went through this exact scenario in February, when Vilsack and Stabenow were leaning hard first on multiple movement representatives to take this deal, myself included, and then focused on JLI/EWG to split the movement and provide enough political cover to wavering dems to get 60 votes to cloture. At that time movement leaders circled with JLI to get them sorted, where I had written:
I and others appreciate that you believe we will lose a floor vote and thus we should cut a deal along lines that Vilsack and Stabenow are pressuring on: industry gets two years to prove that people know their QR code or whatever tells them if a product is GMO or not. The rest of the movement’s intel is that it will be very difficult for the opposition to get enough dems, and we want to fight this out. If we concede and give them cover to preempt VT, then there are any number of ways they can keep kicking the can down the road. Vilsack and Stabenow believe in the stupid patchwork BS and want to see VT preempted, and are leaning hard on you and JLI to help make it happen.
It’s time to come together and fight. You guys are crucial leaders and allies but part of a much larger movement… if JLI and EWG go rogue it’s going to suck on every level for you and all of us. You made your case to movement leaders, we debated and considered and none of us is down with the course you want to go. So bam let’s throw down and take it to em, let’s target the farm state wavering dems and bring the fight like we’ve been bringing it all along.
And then we brought it united and hard in March, and knocked them on their asses. Farm state dems for the most part went our way. Importantly the reason we won, as much as the voluntary nature of the legislation, was that the QR code disclosure itself was such a lame and discriminatory way to bury product information and preempt states rights.
Once we won that decisive victory, the new baseline “worst case” result for our movement was “mandatory” disclosure via QR codes, and given the huge momentum we were riding, our movement correctly believed we had more than a fighting chance of defeating a compromise mandatory QR disclosure that Stabenow would fashion with Roberts. Getting 60 votes to cloture would be a very difficult lift when the BS nature of QR disclosure itself was so central in defeating Roberts’ voluntary version.
Knowing this, unbeknownst to anyone except probably JLI and EWG, Stabenow and Vilsack evidently leaned on OTA to be the movement traitor, giving trivial concessions to organic interests in return for OTA to not only endorse but actively lobby and campaign on behalf of their bill to pre-empt Vermont and other states with federal QR BS. OTA played their Judas role to a T, providing the necessary political cover to wavering senators, and their press release endorsing pre-emption of on pack labeling of GMOs is masterful in disguising the knife into the back of the movement. Their subsequent efforts to put lipstick on this travesty of a bill were extraordinary, working hard with Stabenow and USDA to counter FDA’s exposure of how fatally flawed this legislation is.
Since this deal OTA took was the same that JLI and Gary were advocating the movement take over the winter, many believed that JLI was party to this and giving tacit blessing behind the scenes with relevant Senators and staff. I hoped this was not the case and that Gary and JLI/EWG were with us, as only JLI was in a position to stop OTA’s betrayal. JLI and OTA overlap substantially and Stonyfield is OV’s largest customer. If Gary and JLI chose, they could have freaked out on OTA and make them publicly walk back their endorsement of the Stabenow Roberts bill. That didn’t happen and actions speak louder than words, although recent JLI and EWG statements are also pretty revealing. It’s now clear JLI played a Pontius role washing their hands without doing anything to stop OTA’s betrayal.
No one got anything good here except the pesticide and junk food industries. The red line for our movement is on-pack disclosure that clearly indicates whether a food is GE. A QR code is a joke and lauding this “compromise” for trivial BS concessions to organic industry interests is ridiculous. What if instead of the USDA organic seal we could only use a QR code? It’s not for OTA, Organic Valley or any other organization to trade away Americans right to know what’s in the food we eat.
Laura and Missy claim they are authorized by OTA’s membership to make unilateral decisions of this magnitude without board review, because they are informed by task force recommendations representing membership expertise and perspective. This of course is false: the red line that came out of the OTA task forces on GMO labeling, is that clear on package disclosure of GMOs is a sovereign right of all Americans. Laura and Missy chose to go rogue preempting this right, for which there is no excuse. Nature’s Path has already resigned its board position and Dr. Bronner’s will resign from OTA itself if we don’t see actions taken to remedy the leadership problems at OTA by/at Expo East. I’m not sure how deep and broad the lameness is at OTA, but I half expect Laura, Missy and/or JLI to get awards for this whole fiasco.
Seperately, leaving alone the merits or lack thereof of the organic checkoff program that limits marketing claims to those that don’t “disparage” the disaster of industrial agriculture, OTA’s leadership is now advocating that OTA and its membership should also not “go negative” on industrial ag. I just ordered OTA’s own consumer survey data, and I’m pretty sure that it’s going to show what we all know: the number one driver of organic food, especially organic produce, is consumer concerns about toxic pesticide residues in their food. We should further be communicating that the industrial ag machine is ripping fertility out of our soil, poisoning our water and bodies, killing huge amounts of non-target wildlife while creating massive dead zones in the ocean, and driving us off the climate change cliff. We need to transition agriculture globally to sustainable organic practices that builds soil health and sequesters carbon, that provides healthy food for our children and children’s children, and provides biodiverse habitat for wildlife on a planet not facing catastrophic climate change. We also need to get animals out of their cages and back on the land in mixed organic farming systems, and reduce consumption of animal products.
Apparently OTA’s leadership has lost perspective and doesn’t have the strength to maintain core organic values dancing so close to the devil in DC. Organic industry interests will be best served by leadership that is organizationally feared not personally liked in DC. And if OTA wants to avoid the “circling firing squad” then next time when thinking of sticking a knife into a much larger movement we are all part of for trivial self serving reasons, hopefully OTA will think twice because there will be new leadership doing the thinking.
All is not lost of course: we have unleashed market and cultural drivers here and abroad for more transparency and away from ingredients engineered to be saturated in toxic herbicide; we have exposed industry collusion with academics that whipsaw US regulatory agencies and process regarding both GMOs and pesticides; and we have built a politically potent food movement that is battle tested and ready for the next fight, knowing who our real friends are.
At Expo East it will be good to circle up with dedicated organic companies (95% plus NOP certified sales) and allied NGOs, regardless of whether or not still part of OTA, and explore whether there is an existing or new organizational entity to unite behind, that can better represent organic regenerative interests in the world. If interested let me know by email and we’ll post out a formal time and agenda later this month.
Cosmic Engagement Officer