Market boosts organic while GMOs wane
Arcata Eye, CA, September 5 2006
HUMBOLDT Genetically engineered crops are being upstaged by organic farming in Humboldt, as biotech trends continue to be offset by economic and political forces.
The growing demand for organic products, particularly dairy products, is being met with an increase in local organic farming. With Humboldt’s organic farming economy ascending, the use of genetically modified crops is believed to be on the wane, as local dairies are increasingly switching from conventional to organic production.
And the local campaign to protect crop integrity through voter-approved legislation will soon re-emerge. The treasurer and co-chair of the Humboldt Green Genes coalition has said that a new anti-GMO (genetically modified organism) ballot measure campaign will focus on the spring 2008 election.
That effort is still viable thanks to the recent rejection of Senate Bill 1056, the so-called "Monsanto law," named after its corporate sponsor, which would have blocked counties and cities from passing GMO bans.
But regulation of a different sort has vaulted the prevalence of organic farming in Humboldt County and the region surrounding it.
"A radical swing"
Market forces have strongly encouraged organic crop production here, as the demand for chemical-free food escalates nationwide.
Corn for livestock feed is the county's primary GMO crop, and Frank Holzberger, the county’s senior agricultural inspector, reports that an increase in organic dairies responds to market trends and may reflect a downturn in the local use of high-yield GMOs.
The county's first organic dairy established itself in 2001, Holzberger said, and he guessed that 30 more have come since. "More will soon," he continued. "The needle is going way toward organic."
The reason why is explained by the cornerstone of economics supply and demand.
"Economics is driving this," said Holzberger. "The demand for organic milk is so strong and supply is so limited, more dairies have gone the organic route."
With the organic food economy becoming more entrenched here, the need to protect it intensifies. One of the reasons why GMO crops are so controversial is concern over cross-pollination and contamination of non-GE crops. Holzberger thinks the advent of organic agriculture will be the ultimate GMO regulator.
"This is going to take care of itself," he said. "Recently, the dairies here have made a radical swing and it was the market that drove that."
Quantifying the trend is hard because its scale is more accurately gauged by numbers of cows rather numbers of diaries. And some conventional producers will continue to lean on GMO crops, but Holzberger thinks the organic upswing will crowd out GE farming.
"That would be a reasonable assumption to make, as the number of organic acres increase, and the numbers of conventional acres and cows decrease," he said.
The organic trend is also noted by Len Mayer, general manager of the North Coast Co-op, who said that the attention-getting growth of the organic market is magnetizing food producers.
Mayer said food markets usually match population hikes with two to three percent a year production increases. The growth rate of the organic market far exceeds those expectations, seeing 15 to 20 percent annual increases over the last ten years.
"That is getting everybody's attention," Mayer said. "And that's why even the big guys are entering the organic market."
The market for organic milk is wide open. "For a long time, there's been a surplus of milk in the U.S. and there's also been a shortage of organic milk," Mayer explained.
"Producers see that there is excess milk in the market on the conventional side, and the real opportunity is with organic."
The Ferndale-based Humboldt Creamery produces both its own conventional milk and organic milk for other distributors, but Mayer said the creamery's involvement in the organic market is about to become more evident with the production of organic milk under its own brand name.
"More and more products are going organic, and that is displacing conventional production," said Mayer.
Nevertheless, there will be political action to protect what has become a prized aspect of local economy. Mike Gann, Humboldt Green Genes' treasurer and co chair, said the anti-GMO coalition still has $9,000 left over from its 2004 campaign and will propose another ballot measure for the June 2008 election.
The first effort to pass a local anti-GMO law was dropped due to flaws in its content, but Gann noted the failure of SB1056, which would have exclusively placed all forms of seed and crop regulation with the state. He doesn't doubt that the biotech industry will again encourage legislation against local authority, and said that his coalition "remains steadfast in our commitment to draft a GMO-free ordinance."
And as organic food becomes more popular, the rationale for such an effort has a decidedly economic angle. "To have an anti-GMO measure gives us a record of GMO-free, safe food and it gives us a market advantage," said Gann, who pointed out that Mendocino County already has a GMO ban and the trend could become regional and define a united organic front.
"We definitely feel that our movement is spreading," Gann said.