T R A N S I T I O N S
by Steven Sprinkel
These may be the days long awaited and worked for: the genetically modified
juggernaut has three wheels spinning in the mud and now, hopefully a bit too
late, high-level salesmanship seeks to calm the trade and regulatory turmoil
Unless you are tuning into Hightower Radio, or subscribe to the Sanders
County Ledger in Thompson Falls, Montana, those of us in the United States
remain incredibly uninformed about the severe marketing and public policy
problems biotech agriculture has provoked. In mid-March, National Public
Radio aired what was nothing less than an infomercial for biotech
agriculture, with so little program objectivity that most listeners might
have mistaken the piece for a long Archer Daniels Midland promotional.
However, a little light is streaming through chinks in the gleaming
corporate armor: at the National Grain and Feed Association annual conference
in San Francisco, Reuters reported that brokers were openly warned that US
grain production will experience market unavailability because of consumer
disaffection for GMO products, chiefly in Europe. On 18 March, the National
Corn Growers Association (NCGA) warned farmers to "get the facts" before they
plant genetically modified seeds not approved for export to the European
Union. "If the biotech hybrid you plant is not approved for export, take the
necessary steps to keep harvested grain in the domestic distribution chain
and out of export channels," the NCGA advised on its web site. That will work
until US consumers share the same concerns as those in Europe now do.
In the EU and UK, market outlets are bowing to the consumer mandate to label
GMO products at retail, and a Rothschilds Management equity trading
subsidiary announced that it would close the biotechnology investment unit
that was founded 18 years ago. The smartest money in Europe wonít stash cash
in the burn bin.
In Scotland, Monsanto executive, Stephen Wildridge, was called to task over
the often-repeated industry claim that "the benefits of GM food outweigh the
risks" during a public presentation there. Alastair McIntosh, Fellow of the
Centre for Human Ecology, asked Mr. Wildridge if his statement implied that
Monsanto had " responsibly quantified those risksÖ (because) society's
definition of acceptable risk is that it is insurable risk."
But when asked how and by whom such potential liability had been provided,
(Monsantoís) "Mr. Wildridge replied that this was a question for which he did
not have an answer! In other words, he effectively admitted that the risks
are externalized on to society and the earth's ecology. Shareholders reap the
benefits on patented materials; the rest of us underwrite any costs."
"What other industry (apart from the nuclear industry) would proceed without
adequate product liability insurance? What better proof is there that
Monsanto's "limited liability" corporate status ultimately means limited
Such publicly reported confrontations are becoming more common. Some recent,
choice international headlines: "Super-virusesí Threat to Farms", "Monsanto
Dairy Hormone May Be Carcinogenic Says EU Vet Committee", "Brazilian State
Seeks Prohibition on GE Crops", "Corporate Power Silences rBGH Critics,
Panel Says", " Mitsubishi to Source 350,000 tons of GE-free Soya", and from
Washington, DC: "Judge Halts Monsantoís Yellowstone "Bio-prospecting" PUT A
Perhaps most significantly, on March 30th, Daniel Rosenberg authored a
summary article titled, "U.S. Awareness Slowly Growing Of EU Biotech Crop
Concerns" for the Wall Street Journal.
Two High Level US Studies Planned
Donít break out the champagne just yet. Half the deck is yet to be dealt. On
25 March, the United States information Agency reported that USDA Secretary
Dan Glickman is forming an Advisory Committee on Biotechnology to " study the
role advanced genetic research can play in expanding food production and
enhancing food security worldwide." While that carefully worded phrase looks
like a cover-up in the making, why does it sound future-tense when 60 million
acres are being planted to GMO crops in 1999? I sense a slight back-pedal,
meant to cool out the inflamed Euros more than anything else.
At the same time, the National Academy of Sciences formed another panel
operating under the auspices of its National Research Council, to study the "
benefits and potential risks of genetically engineered crops with an eye
toward recommending changes in government regulations", as reported by Bill
Lambrecht of the St. Louis Post Dispatch.
The National Research Council study will be conducted over a six-month
period, and will seek public input prior to releasing its report. Many
observers feel that the results of the USDA and National Academy of
Sciences/NRC investigations are foreordained to put an official stamp of
approval on biotech, but I am not entirely certain.
Certainly, the folks chosen to sit on these panels appear to have a pro-GMO
industrial bias, however, their resulting declarations are going to have to
square up against a lot of new scientific evidence and be defensible against
antagonistsí claims that the original review methodology was inappropriate
and that those who had the most to gain economically exerted unacceptable
influence on regulators who then acted unethically. The work of these panels
will not be kept secret; moreover, the intention seems to create a semblance
of openness and objectivity. Social and economic concerns will for the first
time be allowed a full hearing.
The PR flacks at the EPA and the USDA are going to be sorely tested if they
try to spin this. There is nothing to be gained by these institutions, from
top to bottom, including the NAS, by propping up flawed science and salvaging
the political relationships of a damaged US administration in the last year
or so of its power. Therefore, we could expect some objectivity to win out.
Working towards that end is essential. The two panels are partially comprised
of tenured science dons who may conclude that their best endowment to history
is to advise precaution in light of the field results which will be presented
to them. It would also be appropriate for the Department of Justice to report
on the anti-trust implications of seed monopolization and the emerging market
verticality of food production. My perspective may seem too idealistic, but
there will be an opportunity to slam the results later if they seem to be
A broad effort was underway in early April to change or add to the membership
of the National Academy of Scienceís committee, which should have been tested
for conflict-of-interest before being chosen.
As Illinois organic farmers Kevin and Juli Brussell recently said, "Who ever
gets on the NAS panel better have the diplomacy of a devil and the sweet
tongue of an angel to get these people to understand the impacts on
everything from marketing to varietal purity."
A Potential Legacy
In a recent open letter to USDA Secretary Dan Glickman, Dr. Jim Home,
president of the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Poteau, Oklahoma,
asked him to consider USDAís future " as the peopleís department" in light of
the current farm crisis, and the momentum to further industrialize
agriculture. Dr. Home asks Mr. Glickman to end USDAís policies which promote
industrial agriculture and to re-orient the USDA towards truly sustainable
agriculture particularly by funding it better, through research and
"Something is wrong," Dr. Home wrote, " when the Kerr Center, a rather modest
institution from a small state, itself devotes to sustainable agriculture the
equivalent of what the gigantic USDA spends!"
For more information: <http//www.kerrcenter.com>
If Dan Glickman wants to be remembered for having done something great as
Secretary of Agriculture, he may choose to fight for farmers rather than
agribusiness and the monopolistic ag-input cabal. The current USDA chief is
certainly better equipped to do this than predecessors like John Block and
Edward Madigan. Glickman is actually in a position to be considered
second-to-none, and that includes Henry A. Wallace, if bravery under fire
counts for anything. But the course Secretary Glickman must choose is almost
one hundred and eighty degrees away from where USDA is headed right now.
Continually cast as a representative of industrial agriculture, like most Ag
Secretaries, Glickman has been sending signals for over two years that he is
concerned about concentration in food production and how that relates to
depressed rural economies in the Heartland. He and his family also eat
organic food, and he doesnít mind saying so.
The USDA National Organic Program is on course to publish another proposed
rule implementing the Organic Foods Production Act ( OFPA) "sometime by the
end of the summer", according to Keith Jones, the NOP director.
Meanwhile, the Organic Trade Associationís Organic Certifiers Council has
drafted a work plan for its own private-sector version of a national organic
standard. The authors of the OTA/OCC document will be Jim Riddle, former
Executive Director of the Independent Organic Inspectors Association, Lynn
Coody, the agricultural policy director of Oregon Tilth, and Emily Brown
Rosen of the North East Organic Farming Association. One interesting addition
to this private sector initiative is the inclusion of Miles McEvoy,
administrator of the organic certification program for the Washington State
Department of Agriculture, who is on the OTA advisory committee.
Nonetheless, the Organic Trade Association remains committed towards working
with USDA so that a quality National Organic Program is implemented that
organic farmers and consumers can support.
Just as the OTA project got underway, all hands were needed to work on export
requirements required of certifiers, occasioned by the lack of uniform
accreditation, an issue that would have been solved long ago if the USDA
program had been handled more efficiently-and before Mr. Jones was hired a
year ago to clean this mess up.
Organic Food and Fiber Expansion
Quality Assurance International ( QAI), the Organic Growers and Buyers
Association (OGBA), and other private certification agencies all report
spectacular additions to their rosters of certified producers, manufacturers
and handlers. Texas Department of Agriculture officials note that expanded
acreage, especially in cotton, is more measurable than an increased number of
organic producers. Griff McLellan of QAI noted that the San Diego,
California-based certifier measured an average growth of 87% over the past
four years. The total number of QAI-certified entities is now over 500, with
certification offices in Japan and Canada.
OCIA International continues to provide service overseas as well, with plans
for an official Central American office in Nicaragua, and new certification
programs for thousands of producers in Timor.
Lead by advocates like Cecil Preston, growers in Oklahoma are looking at
growing organic cotton. And they are identifying parcels far from neighboring
corn production where they can plant a corn crop not liable to be
contaminated by airborne pollen.
In the wake of continued concern about GMO food products in the United
Kingdom, many mainstream retailers have opened or expanded their offerings of
certified organic products, resulting in severe price run-ups because winter
demand seems to be outpacing local supply. The Soil Association, the leading
organic certifier in the UK continues to be swamped with inquiries for
certification and organic education.
Boomerang or Boom?
The situation in the UK now is reminiscent of the fall-out that occurred
after the CBS 60 Minutes " expose" on the use of the chemical Alar on apples
in the late 1980s. While some good came from renewed concern on chemicals,
there were many needless problems, chief among them the immense losses by
conventional apple growers. Rather than winning over the agricultural
establishment, it helped sow the seeds of contention we now see detailed in
books like Todd Wilkinson's "Science Under Siege. The Politician's War on
Nature and Truth."
The antagonism aggravated organic-versus-conventional farmer relationships
over the fence-line and at the feed store, and the real enemy was left out of
the discussion: the input manufacturers. Surely, education compels
improvement, and if the GMO technology had been handled more openly and with
objectivity the questions would now be handled without as much contention.
I donít know too many organic farmers who want to see a repeat of the Alar
madness. While baring Alarís potential to do harm lead to some education,
the expose frustrated committed organic consumers due to resulting lack of
supply and retail price increases, and probably lead to a lot of short-term
organic fraud. Without a doubt, organic won new proponents who remained
committed after the panic. However, I remember getting calls from New Orleans
and Atlanta from feverish buyers that season who wanted nine pallets of
celery, or a whole semi-load of Romaine. Immediately.
" How about 9 boxes?" I replied. Never is there wisdom in riding a scandalís
rollercoaster, hurried along by external forces.
My recent reading in American History lends a (hopefully) interesting
analogy. In 1888, while defending Creek sovereignty over their Oklahoma
lands against the Federal threat to undo the US treaties with the resident
tribes, Pleasant Porter, Chief of the Creek Nation argued that: "
Öthis ( policy) must come from within us. All natures grow from within."
It is always the most simple truth that is hardest to learn. When the Indian
Territory was illegally opened to Anglo homesteaders in the Boomer Invasion,
grafters promoted the theft for humanitarian and even religious reasons, in
order to force native Americans to be assimilated into the western world.
Correspondingly so in biotech: who asked for this kind of "improvement"? GMO
supporters use opportunistically false altruism to promote genetically
modified agriculture to better " feed the world" , reduce chemical use, and
make US industry more competitive. None of the foregoing seem to be a present
priority in GMO biotech , since the corn lobby has won yet another battle to
keep the ethanol program alive ( what about the famished millions?), Round Up
is now sprayed on millions of acres, and the multinational corporations who
are in charge of the technology have freely given to Argentina the research
that was financed by the US taxpayer. As for US competitiveness, the reverse
is now true, since American farmers are restricted from trading the very
products which were supposed to be such a boon.
Peter Rosset, the Executive Director of the Institute for Food and
Development Policy in San Francisco, summed it up thus: "Of course the most
offensive aspect of genetic engineering is the Terminator technology. How can
GMO proponents use the specter of hungry people as a justification for taking
away from them the right to produce food from the seed they save?"
If the Terminatorís genetic traits escape into the wild, we may eventually
be obligated to spray antibiotics or other synthetics over everything ( the
genetic formula to override) to assure that the seed will be fertile.
Natural Foods: Run over by the Bulls
The natural foods sector is one group of publicly traded companies that has
not tagged along for the Bull Run, now at 10,004 as of this writing.
Stockholders want to know why Whole Foods Marketsí stock has tanked while
everything else is skyrocketing. Today WFM is at 33 bucks a share, whereas a
year ago it stood at 70. At the Whole Foods annual meeting in Boulder,
Colorado ( three blocks from "arch-rival" Wild Oatsí HQ?) one stockholder
attending was worried that" healthy eating may be a fad just like
microbreweries." ( Austin-American Statesman).
In my humble opinion, WFM chief John Mackey may have come unhinged in his
jealous pursuit for domination in this retail sector. Only fifty people
attended the annual meeting in Colorado, whereas fifty shareholders go
through their doors in Austin every few hours. Debt to income ratios are one
key negative in the competitiveness equation, but WFM recently snapped up
Natureís Heartland, another mini-chain in Boston, anyway. Whole Foods may
have posted 1.4 billion dollars in sales in 1998, but, as we have said
before, it isnít Wild Oats that Mr. Mackey should be watchful of, itís
As Seen On TV
And it is in Albertsons and Kroger where Kelloggís and General Mills will be
marketing their new lines of organically produced breakfast cereals. Rumor
also has it that Chiquita is an IPM consultantís dream-machine these days, as
the Cincinnati-based banana grower-shipper prepares to go one up on Del Monte
and Dole in he quality assurance labeling game. Got Milk? on your mind?
California Based Alta Dena has joined Horizon and Organic Valley in the the
national organic milk market.
So much for breakfast. What are we going to do about lunch? Letís take a good
look at what is happening to various players in the organic game.
There is plenty of market share going unspoken for. While Cal Organic may be
concerned about vegetable giant Tanimura and Antle, or Pacific Soy and Grain
may be wary of Cargill, remember that it was Cal-O that drove other potato
producers into growing other products, and that Idaho spud-king Simplot may
do the same to Cal-O someday. Cargill is the kind of
processor/handler-of-scale that a General Mills works with. One reason why
Kellogg and General Mills have created an organic product is because there
are so many alternatives competing for mainstream consumerís attention, and
organic is going mainstream. No one can make New York City or RJR Nabisco
disappear with a wand. In the corporate acquisition world, there is always
another shark big enough to eat the competition. Imagine instead the
opportunities you have sitting in the middle of your own hometown.