Into that conflict comes Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who for two years has been promising something revolutionary: finding a way for organic farms to coexist alongside the modified plants.
But in recent weeks, the administration has announced a trio of decisions that have clouded the future of organics and boosted the position of genetically engineered (GE) crops. Vilsack approved genetically modified alfalfa and a modified corn to be made into ethanol, and he gave limited approval to GE sugar beets.
The announcements were applauded by GE industry executives, who describe their genetically modified organisms as the farming of the future. But organics supporters were furious, saying their hopes that the Obama administration would protect their interests were dashed.
“It was boom, boom boom,” said Walter Robb, co-chief executive of Whole Foods Markets, a major player in organics. “These were deeply disappointing. They were such one-sided decisions.”
To a growing cadre of consumers who pay attention to how their food is produced, the agriculture wars are nothing short of operatic, pitting technology against tradition in a struggle underscored by politics and profits.
“Each side is so passionate,” Vilsack said in a recent interview. “And each side is convinced that it’s right.”
The two sides are not clashing over the ethics or safety of genetic engineering, in which plants are modified in the laboratory with genes from another organism to make them more pest-resistant or to produce other traits. Instead, the argument is over the potential for contamination: pollen and seeds from GE crops can drift across fields to nearby organic plants. That has triggered fears that organic crops could be overtaken by modified crops. Contamination can cost organic growers — some overseas markets, for example, have rejected organic products when tests showed they carried even trace amounts of GE material.
Organics supporters also say that, as the number of genetically engineered crops grows, so does the risk. And some conventional farmers who don’t use GE seeds are also concerned about their crops. USDA has approved 81 GE crops — it has never denied a proposal — and 22 applications are pending.
“It’s really about the right to farm and the right to choose,” Robb said. “You shouldn’t farm in a way that affects the way others farm.”
But the GE industry counters that farmers should be free to grow the crops because they do not harm other plants. GE boosters say it is the best way to feed a growing global population because farmers can raise more food and use fewer pesticides and less fertilizer.