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OrganicGate: Are Whole Foods, Stonyfield Farm, and Organic Valley Cozying Up to Monsanto?

BY Ariel Schwartz Wed Feb 2, 2011

In a move that threatens the organic meat and milk industries, the USDA last week approved the planting of Monsanto's genetically modified alfalfa, a crop used mainly as hay for cattle. Most organic farmers oppose the decision, but Forbes and the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) have brought our attention to an unsettling bit of information: Whole Food Markets, Stonyfield Farm, and Organic Valley--three of the biggest natural food brands--split with the rest of the organic community and opted to support "co-existence" with Monsanto's alfalfa. What does this mean?

In an email sent last week to customers, Whole Foods explains its stance:

So, faced with the choice between full deregulation of GE alfalfa or conditional deregulation of it, our best chance at preserving seed purity, and the future of organic and non-GE agriculture now is to fight for every protection available under the USDA’s conditional deregulation coexistence option.

That means Whole Foods expects the USDA to regulate GMO alfalfa and make sure that non-GMO varieties are preserved. Whole Foods also expects Monsanto to pay "the farmer for any losses related to the contamination of his crop"--a tactic that the OCA is referring to as paying hush money to farmers.

According to the OCA, Whole Foods and Stonyfield have stopped fighting against GMO alfalfa because of personal connections--the CEOs of Whole Foods and Stonyfield are personal friends of former Iowa governor and current USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, who has in the past gone so far as to travel in a Monsanto corporate jet on the campaign trail.

Stonyfield Farm, for its part, denies any wrongdoing. In an open letter on its website, CEO Gary Hirshbirg explains:

In December, to no one’s surprise, the USDA took a complete ban of GE alfalfa off the table as an option, leaving only two choices: complete deregulation or deregulation with some safeguards to protect organic farmers, which they called "co-existence." The choice we were faced with was to walk away and wait for the legal battle in the courts or stay at the table and fight for safeguards that would attempt to protect organic farmers and consumer choice, still maintaining the option for legal battle later...When faced with the overwhelming reality that GE alfalfa would be released despite our best efforts, we believed fighting for some safeguards to protect organic consumers and organic farmers was the best option.

So it probably doesn't make sense, then, to vilify Whole Foods, Stonyfield, and Organic Valley. Indeed, boycotting these companies would only hurt the organic family farmers who supply them. "OrganicGate" isn't a major scandal--it's just disappointing.

Update: Stonyfield Farm contacted us to say that they do not consider a dispute with the OCA to be a dispute with the organic community. Check out our latest post on the issue here.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.