USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s Odious Association with the Biotech Industry

tom-vilsack-secretary-USDAOrganic products already face many challenges. To name a few, organic products have to compete with the generally less expensive pricing of non-organic products (albeit they have extremely expensive external costs!) and there is the fact organic products must maintain profitability in an economic culture that values convenience over long-term effects and consumption over sustainability. Not only that, but the biotech industry is thriving and has a lot of money, and therefore political clout.

An example of the struggles the organic movement faces came to light recently in the case of genetically modified alfalfa. The approval of the unregulated cultivation of genetically modified alfalfa by the USDA occured in January of 2012. The effects of this approval will be detrimental to the health of the environment, the health of cattle, and the health of humans The approval of GM alfalfa has the potential to end the organic dairy movement, because cows consuming GM alfalfa will produce products that will no longer be considered organic. That means no more organic milk, yogurt, cheese, and butter will be produced in the United States. Alfalfa is the first perennial crop to be genetically modified and because it is a perennial it has a far greater chance of cross-pollinating with non-GM alfalfa. Perennials are incredibly prolific and restrictions would be required to maintain the genetic dignity of surrounding alfalfa strains and crops. Cross-pollination with genetically engineered alfalfa would mean that all strands of alfalfa that presently exist would be contaminated.

Prior to the January decision that approved the unregulated use of GM alfalfa, Secretary of the Department of Agriculture Tom Vilsack seemed to be leaning towards a sharp reversal of prior government GMO regulations. Vilsack was considering putting geographic restrictions on GM alfalfa in order to protect organic alfalfa growers, but given his history, seemed doomed to cave in to the pressures of the biotech industry, specifically Monsanto, which stands to make lucrative profits from the approval. As usual, GMOs get unrestricted approval from the United States government, while sectors of the organic industry are being threatened with annihilation.

The situation is not helped by the fact that Vilsack is very much in favor of the biotech industry. Vilsack, former governor of Iowa, has a record of supporting corn and soy based biofuels. While these are alternatives to petroleum, unfortunately they are not more sustainable. The production of biofuels uses as much, if not more, fossil fuel energy than they generate. This statistical problem of biofuels consuming more energy than they create actually would drive up the price of food around the world and end up potentially increasing world hunger and starvation.

Prior to being appointed by President Obama, in 2001 Vilsack was named Governor of the Year by the Biotechnology Industry Association. He received the award based on the fact that he showed a commitment to biotechnology and had a vision of Iowa as a central part of biotech’s future in the United States. As governor of Iowa Vilsack created the Grow Iowa Values Fund, which was half billion-dollar appropriation that was used to boost Iowa’s economy through corporate grants. A significant amount of these grants were allotted to the biotech industry.

Vilsack also created the seed pre-emption bill of 2005, which took away Iowa’s local governments’ ability to regulate seeds. The effects of this bill meant that genetically engineered products could be grown anywhere because there would be no local government regulation and it took away the ability of local governments to regulate GE-free buffers.

While Vilsack claims that the regulation of genetically engineered agricultural products must be based on science, his record shows that he has no qualms about supporting the biotechnology industry. It is incredibly problematic and challenging to the biotech industry to have a patron of biotechnology as the Secretary of Agriculture. Although President Obama already appointed Vilsack to chief of the USDA in December of 2008, the Organic Consumers Association worked rigorously to fight Vilsack’s nomination. They continue to fight relentlessly for the rights of the organic industry and are working on many relevant campaigns, which you can check out and get involved in by clicking on the following link: Organic Consumers Association. To sign a petition directly aiming to end genetically engineering in industrial agriculture check out this petition addressed to Secretary Vilsack located on ForceChange.com.

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Second State Bans Undercover Investigations of Factory Farms

It seems that in Utah, investigative journalism is a thing of the past.

Utah has passed legislation deeming undercover surveys of agricultural enterprises illegal, joining Iowa on the short list of states to do so. Now, under state law, taking, possessing, and distributing photos, video, or audio of factory farms, or attempting to gain entrance to the farms “under false pretenses” is punishable by up to a year in jail or a 1,000 dollar fine.

The bill, now popularly referred to as the ‘ag-gag bill,’ was signed into action by Governor Gary Herbert, whose office has claimed that the legislation aims to prevent whistleblowers from unfairly damaging farming operations.

“These individuals and organizations have done more of a disservice than anything positive,” said Sterling Brown, vice president of public policy for the Utah Farm Bureau. “There’s a proven way for these operations to be investigated. But to intentionally be hired by a farm or ranch for the purpose of making undercover video or sound recordings is not, we feel, a professional or accurate way of doing it.”

On the flipside of the issue, animal activists, including actress and Utah resident Katherine Heigl, have called the bill an assault on consumer and animal protection, and have urged legislators to repeal the measure.

“By enacting a law that criminalizes undercover investigations revealing cruelty to animals, corporate corruption, unsafe working conditions, environmental violations, or food safety issues at factory farms, Governor Herbert has helped turn factory farms in the state into safe havens for criminal and unethical conduct,” said Nathan Runkle, executive director of Mercy for Animals, an organization that has conducted several unauthorized investigations of factory farms. “Consumers have a right to know how their food is being produced and how animals on modern farms are treated so they can make informed choices,” he added. “But now, due to this misguided law, consumers would be wise [to] assume that food produced on Utah farms is the product of systematic cruelty and corruption.”

Similar bills are currently being discussed in Minnesota, Nebraska, Missouri, Texas, New York, and Tennessee.

The ‘ag-gag’ issue first cropped up back in September, when legislators in New York and Iowa pushed for adoption of the bill. While the measure fell through in New York, as well as three other states that introduced the bill, the proposal eventually passed in Iowa, making the state the first to adopt such legislature.

The intent is fairly clear in a state with an agriculture-heavy economy. In the past, investigations have revealed inhumane and even illegal practices on factory farms, leaving a trial of financial and legal messes for offending farm owners and corporations. Photos and videos have surfaced of animals being mutilated, kept in unsanitary conditions, and otherwise unethically treated, while some doctors have linked antibiotics used on animals to superbugs in humans.

For now, activists are urging residents of Utah and Iowa, as well as states still deliberating over similar bills, to contact legislators and demand protection for animals, consumers, and the idea of transparency in the public market.

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Organic Farmers Sue Agricultural Giant Monsanto

A large group of farmers, organic agricultural organizations, and seed business are joining together as plaintiffs in a lawsuit against agricultural giant Monsanto, who they claim is threatening to monopolize food production in environmentally and socially destructive ways.

The plaintiffs are being assisted by the Public Patent Foundation. Representatives from the foundation say that the farmers are trying to delegitimize Monsanto’s patent on genetically modified crops in order to protect themselves from copyright infringement suits in the future.

Monsanto has sued hundreds of small-scale farmers for copyright infringement before, often because their own genetically modified seeds blew in with the breeze and infiltrated the fields of nearby farms without the farmers realizing it. When genetically modified seeds contaminate organic crops, they automatically take over, and Monsanto is accused of taking advantage of farmers whose crops meet this fate.

But with this case the plaintiffs hope to turn the tables on the conglomerate. Some 270,000 people will be involved as plaintiffs, many of them small businesses and family farms.

David Ravicher, the executive director of the Public Patent Foundation, explained how Monsanto threatens the biodiversity of the food supply as well as the livelihood of farmers.

“Some say transgenic seed can coexist with organic seed, but history tells us that’s not possible, and it’s actually in Monsanto’s financial interest to eliminate organic seed so that they can have a total monopoly over our food supply. The release of GM canola contaminated organic canola, leading to its near extinction,” he said.

Ravicher went on to say that organic corn, soybeans, cotton, alfalfa, and beets are now at risk, which in effect threatened the “future of food.”

The agricultural giant has further been accused of exploiting farmers by convincing many of them to buy its genetically modified seeds. After hearing promises of high yields and disease-resistant crops, the farmers found that these problems actually worsened.

David Murphy, one of the plaintiffs and the founder of Food Democracy Now! explained, “None of Monsanto’s original promises regarding genetically modified seeds have come true after 15 years of wide adoption by commodity farmers. Rather than increased yields or less chemical usage, farmers are facing more crop diseases, an onslaught of herbicide-resistant super weeds, and increased costs from additional herbicide application,” he said.

Monsanto is no stranger to infecting the environment with threatening substances. They are the same company that introduced chemicals like Agent Orange, DDT, PCBS’s, and other harmful substances, all of which Monsanto had claimed to be safe and were later found to be harmful.

The company also has corporate lobbyists that support their interests, possibly making it more difficult for the plaintiffs to obtain the evidentiary support they need to win their case. The plaintiffs need to show that the GM crops are harmful to the environment and health in order to invalidate Monsanto’s patent.

“It is outrageous that one corporate entity, through the trespass of what they refer to as their ‘technology,’ can intimidate and run roughshod over family farmers,” said Mark Kastel, one of the plaintiffs and the Senior Farm Policy Analyst for The Cornucopia Institute, as quoted by The Huffington Post. Kastel claims that Monsanto has a responsibility of ensuring that the GM crops do not trespass to neighboring farms.

Kastel went on to explain how the conglomerate planned to gain control of the entire agricultural industry.”Farmers are being intimidated into not saving seed for fear that they will be doggedly pursued through the court system and potentially bankrupted,” he said.

If the small farmers succeed, then it will prevent Monsanto from suing farmers for copyright infringement in the future, and it will force the company to take responsibility for the way their seeds infect neighboring farms.

Many believe the suit is a crucial step in support of sustainable, organic farming and democratic access to agricultural production.

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