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A Personal Report on the GMO Summit Meeting in Boulder, CO

By Ed Maltby, NODPA Executive Director

Added July 18, 2011.
There is a quote from Margaret Mead favored by advocates and activists: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed it's the only thing that ever has." While this continues to be true in many areas of life, the organic and sustainable agricultural community has a bad habit of proving the opposite by engaging in what many have called a "circular firing squad." Too often, advocacy groups have engaged in activities that project their strongly held beliefs in isolation to, or at the expense of, other sympathetic and friendly groups as they seek to protect their position, power, fundraising niche and media exposure. Occasionally, there are times when the threat to organic agriculture, the environment, or our ideals is so great that those differences are put aside in an effort to work together. In the past, the organic community has stopped fighting with each other long enough to focus on an external challenge or opportunity such as the creation of the Organic Farming Production Act and overturning the first proposed NOP Organic Regulation. In both of these situations we achieved our goals against great odds.

On June 28th and 29th, about 60 people from every side of the organic and sustainable agriculture community (industry and NGO) gathered at the invitation of Michael Sligh, Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) and Robynn Shrader, National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA) to test whether contamination by GMO's would be one of those issues that our community could unite behind with a common message and coordinated actions. Despite some fears of boycotts and picket lines, the gathering took place and we were "tough on our issues but not our fellow travelers"; we all actively participated (despite the pull of Blackberries, iPhones and laptops that some occasionally succumbed to); we did approach the work with a 'roll-up your sleeves and get it done' attitude and there was never any doubt that we were "celebrating our diversity, and common opportunities." It was evident that there is no national coalition that is solely dedicated to fighting GMO's with dedicated resources that include representation in Congress and the ability to mobilize and coordinate grassroots opposition. The work of opposing GMO contamination and pollution of our seed inventory is part of the work of many organizations. From every corner of the room there was agreement that our external messaging needs to be one of cross-sector unity to the external enemy and a coordinated cooperation with our Administration allies. All the discussions in small groups and reporting out to the whole group agreed that our lack of consensus on these issues is hurting us.

Inevitably, as the meeting progressed it was when we discussed the details that the real challenges became apparent, with the following questions coming up:

If we don't accept co-existence as an answer, do we accept a certain limited, time limited tolerance for some crops within organic regulations? Due to the movement of pollen, seed, and even crop dust, it is common for engineered crops to contaminate organic or other non-engineered crops.

Who pays for the loss of income? Despite the fact that growers do not lose their organic certification if a crop is contaminated by GMO's, many domestic and foreign markets - not just organic - do not accept GE crops or non-GE crops contaminated with GE material, leading to possible loss of income to non-GE farmers and loss of crucial export markets at the national level when contamination is found as a result of testing by buyers.

If we recognize that a few organic crops (soy, corn, cotton) are already contaminated, is preventing GMO contamination a part of the continuous improvement principle within organic or an outside threat that, no matter what precautions are taken, the contamination cannot be prevented?

How much improvement can organic producers afford/achieve?

What did the Boulder meeting achieve apart from the opportunity to listen and work with some of the finest minds in organic and sustainable agriculture? The test will obviously come as we move forward with the continued fight on many different levels from legal court cases to marches and boycotts to working on the AC21 committee. We will need to answer the following: Can we unite when necessary behind some easy to understand messaging whether it be "Freedom to Farm" or "Right to Know, Right to Grow" or "protect us from Super Weeds"? Can the NOP under USDA be a vehicle for change under organic system plans? How do we maintain the integrity of the organic seal with the current NOP position that doesn't recognize what the market is demanding? Can we validate and support those that want to work within the Administration or are the experiences of the past year such that this work by well intentioned and committed individuals will be inevitably manipulated by the GE and "big ag" sponsored and controlled groups?

From a personal point of view of one of the few producers attending this meeting, it was encouraging to hear big ideas spoken out loud as well as different interpretation of the issues. The elephants in the room were clearly identified and articulated, with some media activities recognized as possibly counterproductive to the success of uniting the opposition to the proliferation of GMO's. The small number of producers, and those that represented producer groups, was a concern especially when discussing financial li ability (everyone agreed it shouldn't rest with the producers) but when it came to discussion about how producers can recoup losses, there was no coherent and practical solution, and definitely not one that the marketplace can solve with fairness and equality. Most importantly, the effect of consumers rightly demanding accountability for any contamination of their organic product (whether it be directly from product that has been manufactured using GE contaminated materials or from livestock inadvertently eating GE contaminated feed) needs to be faced by the USDA NOP as it directly affects the integrity of the organic seal as a marketing program for producers.
I hope my return flight from Denver was not prophetic of the success of this meeting – the flight was delayed by four hours and I arrived home at just after 4:00 am. The airline did apologize but said it was circumstances beyond their control!