Occasionally, I'll have a conversation with someone that completely crystallizes what I've only suspected to be marginally true in the past.
The most recent example occurred a couple weeks ago, as I wrapped up interviews for a GMO labeling story that will appear in several Farm Progress magazines in July. I wanted to speak with organic farmers and with an organic association. So it was that I found myself on the phone with Katherine Paul, the communications director for the Organic Consumers Association.
She established their position very clearly, very quickly: "We were the largest donor to the GMO labeling campaigns in California and Washington. We gave $1.5 million in California and $700,000 in Washington.
"Every other country in the world has this law, unless that country has banned GMOs altogether. Sixty-two countries have banned GMOs or require labels. We're the only country that doesn't and that's a disservice to consumers. They should have that information," she said.
At this point, I knew this much: she is solidly entrenched, which is ok; she is entitled to her own opinion. Also, she doesn't know how many countries there are in the world (195, not 63). Moments into the conversation, but already loose with the facts. I was reminded of that grandfatherly adage: you're entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.
From there, she asserted states' rights: "States have the constitutional right to require this sort of labeling."
She disregarded food companies' labeling concerns: "We as consumers shouldn't be overly concerned about the burden on food manufacturers. We should be more concerned about public health and safety than businesses."
I asked about businesses like farmers? "They have choices. Consumer demand is calling for non-GMO. Look at the growth of organic."
I asked about organic's percentage of U.S. food production. "I don't have those numbers at my fingertips."
Ultimately, I asked her what OCA's goal is in the GMO labeling discussion. "That GMOs would go away," Paul said. "Rather than re-label, companies would re-formulate. They did it in Europe, we can make it happen here. We need to transition back to sustainable organic production."
To be clear, for the average Joe on the farm, that means fewer choices. Take away biotechnology and crop protection technologies and farmers have fewer production choices, even though she just asserted that farmers have choices. Apparently we do, and the OCA wants to put a stop to that kind of nonsense.
But here's where the conversation went off the rails for me. Paul asserted, "Anybody with any common sense says we have to transition away from GMOs."
Soooo, do farmers have common sense?
"Farmers were sold a story," she said. "They were sold a myth. They're under contract and they're stuck. We've talked to many farmers who say they're locked into a contract. 'I've sold my soul to Monsanto or Dow and now I can't get out of it.'"
It's a tragic story, to be sure, especially if you don't know any better. So I mentioned that technology agreements are just for one year and they allow you to use the technology, not lock you into using it.
She actually sputtered. "That may be. But the transition to organic has to happen. Or we're just going to poison our soils and our waters."
From there, it was a litany regarding glyphosate and DDT, FDA and revolving doors, cancer and autism and "massive amounts of herbicides and pesticides." Over and over, she asserted that farmers were duped into believing that with GMOs they'd have higher yields and use fewer pesticides. She cited "research and studies" that show farmers use "more and more toxic chemicals with GMOs." Monsanto and Dow know full well resistance will develop and they can sell "more toxic chemicals." In her mind, organic production was the only answer.
Here's the thing, as anyone involved in production agriculture has already surmised: she has no idea.
Technology agreements don't lock farmers into growing GMOs. Biotechnology has easily increased yields and profitability on the farm, while letting farmers use less potent pesticides per acre. Weed resistance, while real and important, existed far before biotechnology.
Moreover, farmers are sane, educated and experienced. They choose to grow or not grow GMOs based on their own research and experience, not because they're saps who were sold a story. They're a group of professionals with nearly 20 years' experience growing GMO crops, and they've used that information to adjust their rotations and grow what works on their land. Sometimes that means non-GM to capture a premium. Sometimes it doesn't. Always, it means a conscious decision based on land, markets and agronomy.
Katherine Paul refused to believe that particular farmer exists. It's tempting to suggest you all contact her and tell her your story but in this case, I don't think it would matter. OCA is a group of ideologues with an agenda and a budget, and your facts won't get in the way of their story. To my knowledge, they don't even represent the majority of organic farmers, many of whom don't agree with their extremist ideas.
In the end, the only real answer is for OCA's sort of uneducated, unscientific extremism to be relegated to its proper place in a heap of agenda-driven junk science. It does not deserve credibility, nor even the aura of credibility it has managed to scrape together in certain corners of the internet. It's impossible to even relate their position to production agriculture, when they so firmly deny certain parts of it even exist (i.e., nearly every farmer I've ever interviewed).
Ultimately, they remove themselves from the conversation by ignoring basic agricultural facts. By the time our conversation wrapped up, my head was spinning at her lack of basic ag production knowledge. Spinning.
I am all for choice: for organic farmers, for conventional farmers, for GMO seed and non-GMO seed, for growing what the market demands. But I firmly believe an organization that seeks to change our nation's entire food production system should be a little more informed about how the food is grown.