Organic Valley recently announced a plan to distribute more than $1 million in grants to fund research, education and advocacy on the production of organic foods. The grants have long term goals and a near term objective, with one of the biggest individual chunk of funding going toward supporting the push for GMO labeling.
The CROPP Cooperative (more commonly known by its brands Organic Valley and Organic Prairie) is distributing the grants through an organization called Farmers Advocating for Organics (FAFO)— which the group says is the only farmer-funded and -governed granting program in the nation.
GMOs and organics
The GMO question has two facets for organic farmers: What happens in Washington and what happens at the seed supplier, said Organic Valley CEO George Siemon. Of the recent grants, $100,000 went toward the Just Label It campaign that advocates for GMO labeling.
“It’s two GMO subjects – how GMO affects organics and GMOs themselves. It’s two different fields but often the same person is involved,” Siemon told FoodNavigator-USA.
“GMO is a frustrating subject because it is a favored technology in Washington DC and there are really not any regulations for it and there is a flood of GMOs coming onto the market. I’m involved in GMO activism. I don’t believe that an honest conversation is happening in Washington. They are using a 1950s regulation to regulate a 21st Century technology,” he said.
“My first thing in GMOs is about choice. For people who really don’t believe in GMOs they should be able to choose not to buy them.”
The GMO grant is the biggest individual piece of the funding pie, but the lion’s share of the grants is going toward education and research. But even here, genetically modified crops are making their presence felt. Organic farmers, and especially organic dairy producers, suffer from an inadequate supply of seed and feed that can be proven to be free of GMOs, he claimed.
“We are really trying to work positively with providers of foundation seed so that people who grow organic can get clean seed. The people who grow organic seed can’t always seem to get an assurance that they are getting clean seed that is free from GMO,” Siemon said.
“Our co-op has a policy that all the seed our producers buy has to have been tested for GMOs. Most of the (GMO) contamination in the crops we grow comes from the seed, not from pollen drift or anything like that."
So the growth of the organic sector, especially organic diary, is being held back by what Siemon sees as a pro-GMO stance in Washington. But another federal government initiative is serving to restrict supply, too, he said.
“Organics is limited in part by the supply. Any effort to increase the market share of organics has to be coordinated with how we manage supply. The ability to get feed has been altered by the ethanol boom that has gone on, and that has affected the price of rent, the price of land, the ability to get long-term contracts. All that has changed significantly in the last five years,” Siemon said.
The seed question is part of a longer-term focus in the FAFO grants program, which includes a focus on soil health. One of the strongest arguments in favor of organic agriculture is the superior results it shows in soil health and retention.
“We have a focus on seed and soil. We try to have themes and stick to them,” Siemon said. “We have a wide community of people, some who are brand new to (organic farming) who are jumping off a cliff to take this chance and we have people who have been doing this for 25 years and have had fantastic results.
"We want to make sure that farmers understand how important soil mineralization is. It all starts with the soil. We need to make sure we are advocating for that. We now have an agronomist on staff.”
10% growth rate
Even with the limits on the supply end, Siemon said he foresees a healthy rate for the organic sector.
“Historically things have happened ‘organically ‘and the supply has kept with demand one way or the other. Right now the growth of organic dairy is being held back by the lack of supply of feed.
“I think it’s realistic that we are going to see a 10% growth rate. Certainly if we were like Europe and we were in a more supportive government environment we could grow faster. But a 10% growth rate is a healthy growth rate and that means the organic sector will double in 10 to 12 years,” he said.