MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Just over a month ago, the Department of Agriculture announced that it will allow American farmers to plant a genetically engineered version of alfalfa. Organic food producers oppose the decision, some more fiercely than others.

As Dan Charles reports, the news also sparked an angry debate among organic advocates about what's most important in the organic label.

DAN CHARLES: Looking out over the rolling pastures of this farm near the Chesapeake Bay in Eastern Maryland, the world of organic milk production seems peaceful.

Mr. DUDLEY McHENRY (Farm Manager): From here, we can see everywhere we graze. See those posts on this side of that school bus?

CHARLES: Yeah.

Mr. McHENRY: That's the end of our pasture.

CHARLES: Dudley McHenry manages this farm for Horizon, one of the biggest organic milk producers in the country.

Mr. McHENRY: And then up here in this corner, those gates, that's actually the farthest point our milk cows will walk for pasture.

CHARLES: They will, at least, in summertime. But it's February, so they're eating inside.

Mr. McHENRY: We feed corn silage, triticale, clover, alfalfa, ground corn, roasted soybeans.

CHARLES: But there's a tiny bit of something in the feed that these cows eat that's provoking a bitter division among people who all describe themselves as defenders of organic farming.

The provocation is GMOs: genetically modified organisms. That's the popular term for plants with genes that were inserted in the laboratory. Organic farmers aren't allowed to plant GMO seeds. But most conventional corn in America is genetically modified, and corn, among all grains, is perhaps the most promiscuous cross-pollinator.

So those genes often migrate into organic fields via windborne pollen that lands on the tassels of organic corn. As a result, grain traders say organic corn in the U.S. typically contains anywhere from half a percent to two percent GMOs. It's been that way for the last 10 years or so.

Now, does that matter? Maybe not. Tom Spohn, Horizon's director of dairy operations, says it doesn't keep Horizon from calling its milk organic.

Mr. TOM SPOHN (Director of Dairy Operations, Horizon): We just make certain that we're meeting the letter of the organic regs to the T.

CHARLES: Those regulations say if a farmer plants non-GMO seed and uses organic methods, the harvest is organic, even if a few stray genes blow in.

But in the past few years, anti-biotech activists like Ronnie Cummins from the Organic Consumers Association have been calling on organic businesses to fight back against GMO contamination.

Mr. RONNIE CUMMINS (Organic Consumers Association): If you're not willing to sue the person who pollutes the organic crop and, you know, really undermines organic integrity, then we're not standing up for you, you know. It's like: You've got to do the right thing.

CHARLES: Cummins and other anti-GMO groups are aiming their attack at a crop called alfalfa because that's the GMO crop that the government approved most recently.

Alfalfa is widely used as feed for horses and dairy cows. When this crop is grown for animal feed, it's actually much less likely to cross-pollinate than corn. But activists say even a little bit of contamination would be a disaster for organic dairy farmers, and that claim is echoed by some organic executives.

Christine Bushway is executive director of the Organic Trade Association.

Ms. CHRISTINE BUSHWAY (Executive Director, Organic Trade Association): The threat to the alfalfa supply is very real, and the concern for our dairy producers is a huge one.

CHARLES: And Bushway even says if pollen from GMO alfalfa fertilizes alfalfa in organic hay fields...

Ms. BUSHWAY: ...you can't, at that point, sell it as organic.

CHARLES: This is a dangerous claim for the country's biggest organic trade association to make because if that claim were true, if cross-pollination actually turned organic crops non-organic, there wouldn't be much organic corn left in the country.

Charles Benbrook, chief scientist for the Organic Center, says this anti-GMO campaign is a risky thing for the organic industry. It could undermine the trust that more and more consumers have in organic food.

Mr. CHARLES BENBROOK (Chief Scientist, Organic Center): It would be a shame for the momentum behind the growth in the organic livestock industry to be siphoned off or diverted because of one-tenth of one percent contamination in a source of animal feed.

CHARLES: In fact, he says if you insist on milk and eggs from animals that eat absolutely no GMO genes, you'll have to get that food from Europe.

Mr. BENBROOK: And that's hardly a welcome solution for people that see in the organic food industry the best hope for positive change and innovation in the U.S. food system.

CHARLES: Some organic executives are worried that this infighting will lead to unrealistic demands by consumers; George Siemon, for instance, who's CEO of Organic Valley, one of the country's biggest organic food companies.

Mr. GEORGE SIEMON (Chief Executive Officer, Organic Valley): You know, there's reality, and there's perception. And perception is consumers are saying they don't want any pollution in organic products, and whether that's realistic or not is another matter, but for sure consumer perception is a real concern.

CHARLES: Siemon cited a survey in which 77 percent of organic consumers said they would stop buying organic food if it contained GMOs. Pamela Ronald, a plant biologist at the University of California, Davis, says those consumers are losing track of what's most important.

Ronald has a foot on both sides of the biotech wars. She works with genetically engineered plants in the laboratory, and she's married to a long-time organic farmer. She and her husband together wrote the book "Tomorrow's Table."

Ms. PAMELA RONALD (Plant Biologist, University of California, Davis): What's really important is: Can we reduce use of insecticides? Can we foster soil fertility? Can we feed the poor and malnourished?

CHARLES: Those are the most important goals of organic farming, she says, and they're much more important than avoiding laboratory-spliced genes.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Charles.

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