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Organic food for thought

(Saturday, June 28, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Bob Walter, Sacramento Bee, 06/25/03: As showdowns go, it hardly was historic. It didn't make the evening news or the front page; neither party was wearing a carrot costume or full riot gear.

But a low-key exchange on the trade show floor might have summed up one of the key controversies at the international agriculture expo that ends today in Sacramento.

Zea Sonnabend, a stalwart of California's organic farming movement, told of a woman from the biotech food camp who visited the colorful and overflowing organic food booth.

"It wasn't a confrontation," Sonnabend said. "But she engaged us.

"She said 'we have to have this (genetically modified food) to feed the world.'

"We said, 'no, you don't.' " In the end, they agreed to disagree.

And that's why a coalition of organic farming groups paid $6,500 for a booth at the trade show portion of the three-day international ministerial conference. That was just the rental fee; it doesn't coun salaries, displays and enough organic fruit, nuts, coffee, wine, chips, pretzels and other organic food to feed plenty of hungry ministers.

"Our message is too important for the ministers to miss," said Brian Sharpe, a coordinator for the Santa Cruz-based California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF).

"This is supposed to be an ag tech conference, and a lot of the technology and solutions that organic farmers utilize can be very beneficial to farming in general," Sharpe said.

Sharpe declined to characterize the trade showfloor as "us against them," but the other exhibitors were heavily tilted toward genetic engineering, government and corporate interests.

And organic farming, the fastest-growing segment of U.S. agriculture, does not allow for genetic engineering.

Which made things somewhat awkward at times during the conference.

"We felt not like the enemy, but a little like minfiltrators, especially on the way in yesterday," said Sonnabend, who works with CCOF and the Ecological Farming Association of Watsonville.

Sonnabend said both groups were participating "both inside and outside" the conference, with the booth on the trade show floor and representatives at the rallies and protests on the streets of Sacramento.

"We want to protest the U.S. politics of genetically engineered organisms," she said, "and to show the ministers that organic is a viable alternative to what they are being fed by the (U.S. Department of Agriculture)."

Reaction to the food-laden organic booth has been terrific, Sharpe and Sonnabend said, with ministers from around the world munching away.

"And (Agriculture Secretary) Ann Veneman was kind of fun," Sonnabend said. "She posed for a picture and took a bite of an organic strawberry."

Other exhibitors, from genetic giant Monsanto to irradiated food specialist SureBeam Corp. of San Diego, welcomed the organic group's presence at the show.

"It just makes for a wider-ranging conference," said Kim Eason, a senior market analyst for Surebeam. "We consider organic a technology in itself."

George N. Gough, Monsanto's manager of governmental affairs, said the organic farmers should be commended for participating in the conference.

"Hats off to them for choosing to bring their message to the ministers from the inside," Gough said. "It will be interesting to see what turns out to be the most effective."

Less than 25 feet from the organic booth, Judith A. Kjelstrom and DeeDee Kitterman were staffing an exhibit from the University of California, Davis.

Kitterman, executive director of research and outreach in the UC Davis college of agriculture and environmental sciences, noted the university is equally involved in organic/sustainable agriculture and biotech. She also said organics are becoming an even stronger focus at UC Davis.

And Kjelstrom, associate director of the biotech program, insisted that her specialty was not the opposite of organic.

"It's a safe technology ... to reduce pesticide and herbicide use, feed the hungry and help be good stewards of the land," she said.

"We want to provide the right tools to do the job, and the organic farmer has chosen to eschew our technology."

The California-led organic movement has seen sales nationwide increase by at least 20 percent a year since 1990.

Though organic products account for less than 2 percent of food sales in the United States, the industry is projected to reach $13 billion in sales this year -- double the sales of four years ago.

Total certified organic acreage topped 2.3 million acres in 2001, including 163,000 in California, according to the USDA Economic Research Service.