Robert Sacerich on the Organic Industry: Planting Seeds of Doubt to Gain Market Share

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Guest writer Robert Sacerich is back with his investigation into GMO critic claims as well as a comparison of biotech and organic businesses. In the following article, he argues that the organic industry has a role in framing biotechnology negatively and does so for their own business interests.
Robert is a Philosophy of Science and Bioethics student, as well as blogger and science advocate/activist. He has worked extensively within the secular community for various secular nonprofit organizations and public communication causes. You can find his other writing at Rationality Unleashed or follow him on twitter @Rationalityunle.
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Organic Industry:

Planting Seeds of Doubt to Gain Market Share

By: Robert Sacerich
Monsanto

I want you to imagine a scenario. You are reading the newspaper and see an article that talks about Xbox speaking out against PlayStation. It discusses the new research that it has found that shows that parts made in Japan are harmful to your health, and since PlayStation has its parts made in Japan, that you should no longer use PlayStation. You should only buy Xbox, since it gets its wholesome parts from Malaysia.

As time goes on, protestors start organizing outside of the PlayStation offices protesting their use of Japanese parts. The protestors have websites making claims that PlayStation is causing Autism, Cancer, and ruining the environment. They’re even proposing legislation to label PlayStation with “Japanese Parts: May be harmful to your health.”

This scenario would look like the greatest marketing scheme Xbox has ever pulled off.

Some of the claims made against GMOs are:

This one is a favorite of mine, as it is demonstrably false. This entire mythos revolves around “The Seralini Study” that was discredited and retracted, yet is still making its rounds. This study is very reminiscent of Andrew Wakefield and the anti-vaxxer movement, where a long discredited study persists and becomes almost a rallying mantra of the movement.

A really common theme when it comes to pseudoscientific claims is when you have an illness where little is known, it because part of a fear mongering narrative typically used to sell a product. We’ve heard of all manner of things causing autism over the last 10 years or so, and none of them have turned out to be accurate. There is no scientific evidence of GMOs having anything to do with neurological disorders. Actually, the only thing visible is that the GMO technology came about around the same time we made advances in Neurology that allowed us to better diagnose these illnesses. Correlation is, of course, not causation, though perhaps we can say that GMOs caused advances in Neurology? No, I didn’t think so.

The best part about this one is that GMOs have been named to cause an imaginary disease. The more interesting part is that people are falling for it. Gluten Intolerance stems from “Gluten Syndrome” first coined by Dr. Rodney Ford, who has been using the concept to sell books and gain speaking engagements ever since.

The reality is that you either have Celiac Disease or you do not. It is an autoimmune disease with a genetic component that affects only 1 in 1,750 people on average.

These types of claims, as well as claims of harm to the environment and some wilder claims that tend to fall along the “chemtrail” spectrum of conspiracy theories has led to a massive labeling campaign in America. Some of these campaigns are promoted using propaganda about harmful pesticides While containing exemption clauses for the organic growers who also use pesticides. Others, like in Alaska, go after GM salmon, while stating overtly that the legislation is being proposed to protect the financial interests of the non-GM fishing industry. All of the legislation, however, leads explicitly to the organic industry gaining a larger market share if it passes. Let’s look at the numbers as they stand right now. According to the 2014 Farm Sector Financial Indicators data, the US farm industry netted $97.7 billion dollars in 2010. In 2010, the organic food industry had sales around $26.7 billion. This only tallies the sales for specifically marketed organic foods. The full industry of non-GMO foods is currently around a $178 billion industry. When you look at the focus of the anti-GMO movement being on the “big business” of seeds, you need to put it in perspective. The seeds sales yearly for GMO seeds are only in the millions of dollars. They’re barely a drop in the bucket. That brings me to the real focus of the anti-GMO movement: Monsanto. The focus on this singular company, caricatured into a monolithic evil controlling the market, has become such a spectacle that a logical fallacy was created for it. This concept stems from more ideological underpinning that are discussed in a previous article I wrote for Biology Fortified. Let’s take a look at the numbers. In 2013 on the Monsanto annual report, their total net sales were just under $15 billion. This is hardly the control of market that we’ve been led to believe. This isn’t competition when compared to the organic industry, let alone the non-GMO foods industry. It’s not even a relevant focal point within the farm industry. The organic industry has been pushing the anti-GMO rhetoric with Monsanto as a focal point, even though their control of market is nowhere near substantial enough to warrant this spotlight. Looking into the prominent organic companies and who owns them tells us why this is the case.

  • The Hain Celestial Group

According to their 2013 annual report, they net around $2 billion. They produce brands such as Westsoy, who are part of a Non-GMO Verified project. That’s a decent financial incentive to go after the competition.

  • Coleman Natural Farms

Coleman prides itself on feeding its chickens only non-GMO corn, and is marketed as such. They are owned by Perdue Farms, who bring in $6 billion annually.

Right there in two organic companies, we’ve exceeded half of Monsanto’s net sales. That’s impressive incentive to work towards discredited GMOs, while focusing on your own competition.

Some others include:
  • Odwalla is owned by Coca-Cola.
  • Tribe Mediterranian Foods is owned by Nestle.
  • Naked Juice is owned by Pepsi.
  • Kashi and Morningstar are owned by Kellogg.

As the list goes on, it brings into perspective the focus on a singular GMO seed company. The best way for the organic companies to grow their own industry is to discredit the most well-known and well-established of the companies producing GMOs. If any other industry tried this sort of campaign, trying to discredit and legislate against their competition instead of using ethical business practices in the market, everyone would be up in arms.

Photo Credit: Thierry Ehrmann | CC
  • Mischa Popoff

    No-no-no Robert. The problem isn’t that the organic industry has played “a role in framing biotechnology negatively.” The problem is that attacking this perfectly-safe and sound technology has become the raison d’être for organic activists.

    Forget anything else that the organic industry once stood for. They are now well and truly the face of the anti-GMO movement to the exclusion of all else.

    And, all the while, as I mentioned in response to your other excellent article, there is no such thing as contamination of an organic crop by GMOs.

    Go figure.