A Growing Debate: How To Define 'Organic' Food In many places, cross-pollination between genetically modified crops and non-GMO varieties is unavoidable. If a dairy cow eats corn that contains any genetically modified genes, is its milk still organic? Such questions are vexing the organics industry.
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A Growing Debate: How To Define 'Organic' Food

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A Growing Debate: How To Define 'Organic' Food

A Growing Debate: How To Define 'Organic' Food

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

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

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

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.

BLOCK: From here, we can see everywhere we graze. See those posts on this side of that school bus?

CHARLES: Yeah.

BLOCK: 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.

BLOCK: 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.

BLOCK: 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.

T: 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.

BLOCK: We just make certain that we're meeting the letter of the organic regs to the T.

CHARLES: 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.

BLOCK: 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: Christine Bushway is executive director of the Organic Trade Association.

BLOCK: 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...

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

CHARLES: 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.

BLOCK: 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.

BLOCK: 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.

BLOCK: 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: 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."

BLOCK: What's really important is: Can we reduce use of insecticides? Can we foster soil fertility? Can we feed the poor and malnourished?

CHARLES: For NPR News, I'm Dan Charles.

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