In June, the USDA announced the appointments of 22 members to the reactivated Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture. Panel members include representatives from the biotech industry, farming communities, the seed industry, food manufacturers, consumer groups, and the organic food industry, including Dr. Benbrook.
Some organic advocates are not impressed. Re-establishing these advisory committees “appears to be window dressing,” said Jim Riddle, organic outreach coordinator of the University of Minnesota’s Southwest Research and Outreach Center in Winona. “Even if they are fully well-intentioned, if they come up with any substantive proposals that would cause the biotech industry to indemnify non-GM growers for losses incurred through genetic trespass, I don’t think it has a chance of seeing the light of day,” Riddle told Food Quality magazine. As Kastel puts it: “Coexistence is totally inadequate.”
The pragmatists continue to seek solutions. A number of coalitions and industry groups have been formed to discuss transgenes and other issues. The latest such policy group is called AGree, a bipartisan organization launched in May to tackle overarching issues involving nutrition, the economy, environment, and production. AGree is funded by the Ford Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, among others.
The influence of the pragmatics is also a function of the organic industry’s growth. Dozens of organic companies have been acquired by large conventional food processors. Nearly half of the 30 largest food processors have acquired or entered into a strategic alliance with an organic brand.
“Our current food system is broken for farmers, consumers, and the environment,” said Gary Hirshberg, president and chief executive of organic yogurt company Stonyfield Farm and one of AGree’s leaders. “We must move beyond the political knee-jerk defense of traditional agriculture and face the need for change armed with real-world, scientific facts and analysis that AGree can provide,” he said in a statement.
The influence of the pragmatics is also a function of the organic industry’s growth. Dozens of successful organic companies have been acquired by large conventional food processing companies. Dean Foods, for instance, owns Horizon Organic dairy and WhiteWave/Silk brand soy milk. The Coca-Cola Co. owns Odwalla juices. Nearly half of the 30 largest food processing companies have acquired or entered into a strategic alliance with an organic brand, says Philip H. Howard, PhD, assistant professor of community, food, and agriculture at Michigan State University in East Lansing.
This trend is to be expected as the organic industry grows. As for future acquisitions, most of the pioneering organic companies that had been available for acquisition have been snapped up, and many of the older, large companies that are still independent have decided to remain so as a matter of principle. “Most of the acquisitions now are of companies that started later and have been able to reach a size to make an attractive takeover target,” Dr. Howard told Food Quality magazine.
Ted Agres is a writer based in Laurel, Md. Reach him at email@example.com