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How confusion over GMOs undermines the organic movement

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The push to eliminate genetically modified organisms from our food has finally broken the surface of mass consumer complacency. Occupying a slot of infamy once reserved for trans fats and nitrates, GMOs are today's reigning symbol of the Evil Empire of Big Ag, and the latest target of a health-conscious public.

Genetically modified organisms are those whose genetic materials have been altered by laboratory technology. Such biotech alteration is experimental, and the fear among GMO opponents is that changes of this sort, on a genetic level, produce substances that the human body is not designed to process. Those can lead to cancer, allergies or other health problems.

One unexpected byproduct of the fight over GMOs is the confusion arising over GMOs and organic labeling.

The confusion is in part courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose standards for what constitutes "organic" are far below, for example, the Marin County standard under that county's Marin Organic Certified Agriculture (MOCA) program.

The USDA bar is set so low for the "organic" label that even China can clear it—"Which is just crazy," says Jeffrey Westman, executive director of Marin Organic, a Point Reyes Station–based nonprofit that promotes organic agriculture and food access in Marin County.

Organic angst is nothing new, says Westman; it's what prompted the nonprofit he runs into existence, about 15 years ago. "A group of farmers said what the USDA said was organic wasn't good enough," he recalls.

Now, 15 years later, everybody's jumping on the organic and GMO-free wagon. Even General Mills Inc. has gone "GMO-free" on Cheerios, the popular cereal which enjoyed sales of more than $365 million in fiscal year 2013.

The corporate push over organic-friendly labeling has left organic growers with the fear that consumers will leap-frog over the "organic" label and purchase the often cheaper products that tout non-GMO status.

Such confusion could be devastating for farmers who have earned the USDA "certified organic" label by forgoing toxic fumigants such as methyl bromide—or for those who have earned local organic certifications that are beyond the USDA standard.

The organic label certifies the method of farming; it is not a verification of the final product. "Our farmers are probably a lot less freaked out than others, because they are certified by MOCA," says Westman.

But Westman sees an unfolding irony as "organic" moves into its second decade as a corporate-embraced buzzword, and loses its power and meaning in the process.

He fears younger farmers might forgo the certification process entirely, since the locals who are buying their crops already know where it's coming from, and how it was farmed.

"There's a whole bunch of cool, young growers out there who are really walking the walk" when it comes to true-blue organic farming, says Westman. But they're working with tough margins already, and not necessarily putting a priority on being certified organic or interested in going through the process, on the logic that, as Westman describes it, "I'm selling locally to people who know my product, so there's no reason to get certified."

"The problem there is that there's no accountability," Westman says. In other words, if the really hard-core "organic" farmers forsake the labeling protocols, then Big Ag retains its dominance at the labeling table. Westman says he was at a recent conference attended by a staffer from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack's office. He was asked why it was so hard to create organic standards that have teeth. "The answer is, show up. They're listening, but we're not telling them very loudly."

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