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Biotech Bullies: The Debate Intensifies

Ronnie Cummins
Little Marais, Minnesota

Quotes of the Month:

"The hope of the industry is that over time the market is so flooded [with genetically engineered organisms] that there's nothing you can do about it, you just sort of surrender." Don Westfall, vice-president, Promar International, Washington-based food and biotech industry consultants. Cited by <> (4/5/01). "Our investigations thus far from the 2000 harvest lead us to believe that virtually all of the seed corn in the United states is contaminated with at least a trace of genetically engineered material, and often more. Even the organic lots are showing traces of biotech varieties." David Gould, Farm Verified Organic, a leading US organic certifier. <> (5/1/01).

"Why let Ronnie Cummins and his gang trample on your business? Why not turn to valid scientists and food technologists." "The activists' attack on Starbucks is an example of organized crime," says a food industry insider. "It's called a shakedown. They attack a business; threaten to shut it down in exchange for a payment-attention. And that raises funds. This is illegal.". "Starbucks surrendered to thugs and now suffers from battered socially responsible syndrome." Excerpts from letters to Starbucks from the biotech industry. Quoted in the PR trade industry newsletter, Ragan's Interactive Public Relations, <> 5/01.

Biotech Bullies

Percy Schmeiser
Percy Schmeiser speaking at the 2001 Biodevastation conference in San Diego, July, 2001. A Canadaian Federal Court judge ruled the fifth generation Saskatchewan farmer, guilty of growing herbicide-resistant canola in 1998 on his farm near Bruno, Saskatchewan without paying Monsanto. Schmeiser, now liable for hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines to Monsanto, claimed the seed for his crop came from his own fields, which were contaminated by genetic drift from neighboring farms. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
The global battle over genetically engineered (GE) foods has reached a new level of intensity. While in Europe and Asia strong resistance continues, and in Africa and Latin America a debate has begun, in North America the gene-foods issue has moved from being a back-burner item for most people to a major topic in the media. Under attack on all sides, frustrated by growing global marketplace and activist opposition, agbiotech corporations and the White House have been forced to go on the offensive.

*Regulatory Arrogance On January 17, the FDA announced a set of highly controversial proposed regulations on genetically engineered foods and crops. The regulations, disregarding the overwhelming sentiment of consumers, require neither pre-market safety testing nor labeling--nor do they require biotech corporations to assume financial liability for damage to public health and the environment. Nearing the close of the public comment period on May 3, the FDA had already received over 100,000 negative comments from irate consumers (including nearly 30,000 comments from the Organic Consumers Association), but Washington insiders predict that the Bush administration will ignore this avalanche of public criticism and proceed with the industry's favored "no labeling, no safety-testing" policy. Underlining public rejection of the FDA's "Shut Up and Eat Your Frankenfoods" policy, 75% of Americans stated in a poll released by the Pew Charitable Trust on March 26 that they wanted mandatory labeling of all gene-altered foods, with 58% saying they would not buy them.

Propaganda Barrage

The North American mass media recently have spewed out an unprecedented number of stories and fluff pieces on the wonders of "bioengineering" and the willful arrogance of anti-biotech Luddites. Even
PBS, the Public Broadcasting System, supposedly the most liberal TV network in the US, aired a biased two-hour special program on April 24 called "Harvest of Fear," which praised the supposed virtues of genetically engineered crops (fewer pesticides, better nutrition) and attacked activist and so-called "eco-terrorist" groups for falsely maintaining that GE foods are unsafe. "Food companies have learned that the [anti-genetic engineering] groups are not intent on having a reasoned debate about biotech or helping consumers find out about biotech," stated Gene Grabowski of the Grocery Manufacturers of America. "It seems that their motive is to scare people."

Suing Farmers

Monsanto has now sued or threatened thousands of farmers across the US and Canada for the "crime" of saving seeds or for having the company's patented Frankencrops growing on their land without paying royalty fees. On March 29, in a troubling and likely precedent-setting case, a Federal Court judge in Canada ruled that a 70 year-old, fifth generation Saskatchewan farmer,
Percy Schmeiser, was guilty of growing herbicide-resistant canola in 1998 on his farm near Bruno, Saskatchewan without paying Monsanto. Schmeiser, now liable for hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines to Monsanto, claimed the seed for his crop came from his own fields, which were contaminated by genetic drift from neighboring farms. According to a Washington Post story filed on April 30, the Court ruled that Schmeiser was liable for damages, even if he didn't deliberately plant the GE canola. Monsanto's legal victory comes at a high cost however, in terms of enraging the majority of the world's farmers who are not using genetically engineered seeds. A spokeswoman with the National Farmers Union, which represents 300,000 small farmers and ranchers in the United States, told the Post "the organization has been following the Schmeiser case with apprehension. We're extremely concerned by what liabilities may unfold for the farmer, particularly with cross-pollination of genetically modified plants." The National Farmers Union of Canada, where two-thirds of all canola acreage is genetically engineered, has called for a moratorium on all GE crops. Canada previously exported $400 million dollars of canola each year to Europe. Now that market has been lost, due to EU rejection of GE crops. Analysts warn that Canada may soon lose most of its canola markets in Japan and Asia as well.

Manipulating Statistics

Last spring
BioDemocracy News reported on a USDA survey that acreage of the two largest GE crops in the United States was in decline (GE soybeans were down from 57% of all soy planted in 1999 to 54% in 2000; corn was down from 25% to 19.5%). Monsanto and the USDA had previously even claimed that the 1999 acreage of US corn was 33% GE-suggesting a massive decline in Bt and herbicide-resistant corn varieties in 2000. But apparently after hearing from Monsanto, Aventis, and Novartis (now Syngenta) that projections like these were bad for their bottom line, the USDA recently recalculated the figure for last year's GE corn crop--now claiming that GE corn constituted 25% of all corn acreage last year and will amount to 24% this year. The USDA also maintains that GE soya plantings will increase in 2001, even as global export markets shut down. Before swallowing media stories that biotech is booming, it's important to keep in mind that current government or industry figures on biotech crop acreage are all estimates, thereby subject to manipulation. But in the wake of the StarLink debacle, which has contaminated 10% of all the corn in storage in the US, you don't need a PhD to understand that a projected figure of 24% of all US corn acreage in 2001 planted with Frankencorn is ridiculous. The real figure will undoubtedly fall below 15%. Harder to conceal for the USDA and the biotech industry is the fact that Monsanto has ceased production of genetically engineered tomatoes (taken off the commercial market in 1996) and potatoes (earlier this year), and that global acreage of all genetically crops has leveled off. According to the public interest group RAFI, <>, global "demand for GM seeds almost flattened in 2000 with an increase of only 8% after years of doubling and redoubling. Analysts predicted that, at least until 2003, demand would remain flat or decline." Perhaps even more significant, the two most important GE crops in the pipeline--herbicide-resistant wheat and rice-may never even reach the marketplace, due to global opposition.

Another big lie repeated ad nauseam by Monsanto since 1995--faithfully regurgitated by the media--is that their genetically engineered recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (now banned in every industrialized country except for the US) is being injected into 30% of all US dairy cows. Dairy farmers and analysts tell BioDemocracy News that the real figure is closer to 10%. In 1998 Dow Jones reported that Monsanto was anxious to sell rBGH to any company willing to take this product off their hands. There were no takers, however-- not surprising since rBGH has been linked to increased cancer hazards as well as to an increase in pus, bacteria, and antibiotic residues in rBGH-derived milk and dairy products.

Fostering Fatalism

The Gene Giants have been forced to change their marketing and regulatory strategy over the past several years. Having utterly failed to convince a significant number of consumers or farmers around the world that genetically engineered foods and crops are safe, "substantially equivalent," or that they have any beneficial characteristics whatsoever, the industry has adopted a new hard-line attitude. Basically the chilling new message is that agricultural biotechnology is inevitable, that genetically engineered crops, food ingredients, and drift are everywhere, and that anyone who labels their products as GE-free is lying. As former USDA Secretary Dan Glickman stated on the PBS special, "Harvest of Fear" (4/24/01) "We will not be able to stop this technology. Science will march forward." Or as John Wichtrich, a top Aventis executive, admitted to a
Knight Ridder news service reporter on March 19, "the food supply will never be rid of the new strain of corn (StarLink) that the company genetically engineered." And since the genetic pollution caused by hundreds of thousands of acres of this likely allergenic Bt corn will be permanent, Wichtrich and Aventis have called "for a change in federal regulations to allow some level of the engineered corn, known as StarLink, in human food." With former biotech lobbyists such as Monsanto's Linda Fisher occupying prominent roles in the Bush administration. Aventis will very likely soon get their wish for an "allowable limit" of genetic contamination.

In a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal on April 5, Scott Kilman and Patricia Callahan report that many leading US natural food brands with "GMO-Free" labels are contaminated with significant quantities of genetically engineered ingredients. The WSJ tested top-selling brands such as Yves, Health Valley, Hain's, Clif Bar, Whole Foods, White Wave, and Gerber-and found that they were all contaminated with GE ingredients. As Frank Palantoni, chief executive of the North American consumer-health businesses for Gerber parent Novartis put it, "I don't think anybody in the U.S. can guarantee zero." Gerber, the nation's largest baby food manufacturer, announced in 1999, under pressure from Greenpeace, that they were going GE-free.

The Harder They Fall

The bluster and bullying of the agbiotech industry are, at least in part, an attempt to cover up the fact that they are losing ground all over the globe-not just in the marketplace and in the court of public opinion, but also in terms of mounting scientific evidence that GE foods and crops are unsafe for public health and the environment.

On the political and marketplace fronts agbiotech interests are taking a beating:

Asia and Pacific

On April 6, the government of Thailand issued a ban on all GE crops. On May 1, a similar ban came into effect in Sri Lanka. On March 19, a million farmers marched in New Delhi, calling for, among other things, an end to the World Trade Organization and a ban on genetic engineering and life form patents. In Japan and South Korea government inspectors have continued to test for StarLink and other unapproved varieties of GE foods, while importers are steadily turning away from the US and Canada to other suppliers such as Brazil, China, and Australia for GE-free corn, soybeans, and canola. On April 20 consumer groups in Japan called for a halt in all corn imports from the US. In the Philippines, a bitter debate has erupted over field-testing GE rice and corn varieties. Protests against GE cotton have erupted in Indonesia. Mandatory GE labeling laws begin coming into effect in New Zealand and Australia in July, while labeling laws are already being enforced in Japan and Korea. Labeling laws are under discussion in the Legislative Council of Hong Kong, as well as in the Philippines and Taiwan. Perhaps most significant of all was the announcement on April 18 that the government of China was banning the cultivation of GE rice, corn, soy, and wheat-out of fear of losing its major export markets. Monsanto and the biotechnology industry had previously held out hope that China would be the "promised land" for biotech expansion. Despite all the hoopla about how great biotech is doing, the same three countries most heavily promoting the technology, the US, Canada, and Argentina, are still producing almost 99% of all GE crops.

Latin America

A mounting controversy is developing over Cargill and other US exporters dumping genetically engineered corn in Mexico-despite a supposed ban by the Mexican government on the import of GE corn varieties. On March 2, indigenous groups from all over Mexico, spearheaded by the Zapatistas, signed a document calling on the Mexican government to recognize the autonomy and legal control of the nation's 10 million indigenous people over their land and resources, including a ban on bioprospecting and biopiracy by transnational genetic engineering companies. Hoping to head off a mandatory labeling bill making its way through the Mexico federal legislature, on February 4, the American Farm Bureau and 20 other agribusiness groups sent a letter to US officials urging them to intervene "at the most senior levels" to "prevent this legislation from becoming Mexican law." The letter urged Washington officials to use President Bush's "upcoming visit to Mexico" to pressure the Mexicans. The Farm Bureau and biotech industry warned that "The ramifications (of mandatory labeling) to US farmers, grain handlers, food companies and biotechnology providers would be enormous and threaten our favorable relations with Mexico as an ally and NAFTA trading partner." The letter also warned that labeling "would not only confuse and mislead Mexican consumers about the safety inherent in biotech foods but also create a negative precedent for NAFTA."

In Brazil, the ban on planting GE soya remains in effect, considerably boosting exports to the EU, Japan, and other nations. Meanwhile the press in Argentina has reported that the country is losing corn export markets, as well as soy markets, to Brazil. Corn acreage this year is up 27% in Brazil, partly due to the demand for GE-free corn. A ban on planting GE crops remains in effect in Paraguay. Meanwhile a preliminary but growing debate over GE crops has emerged in other Latin American nations as well, including Ecuador, Chile, Colombia, and Peru. A similar debate is emerging in Africa and Eastern Europe.


Confronted with growing public alarm about food safety, the European Parliament is preparing to implement a resolution that will impose tough labeling and tracing requirements on genetically engineered foods. Labels will be required for any food item that contains genetically engineered ingredients, even when these GMOs (genetically modified organisms) cannot be detected because of processing. According to William Drozdiak of the Washington Post (4/11/01) these new regulations "could trigger a major trade dispute with the United States and deal a serious setback to the booming biotech industry." American grain and food exporters are increasingly concerned about their apparent inability to segregate out GE and non-GE food ingredients-reflected by the continued contamination of seed stocks and food exports with unapproved varieties of corn, soybeans, or canola. Once strict labeling laws go into effect in the EU, it will become nearly impossible for US food exporters to sell GE-tainted products in Europe, the world's largest agricultural market.

North America

On May 4, the powerful Grocery Manufacturers of America trade association, heretofore staunch supporters of biotech food, told the Bush administration that new varieties of genetically engineered food should not be approved "unless there is a way to test for them." In a similar vein, the American Millers Association, a trade group representing the nation's grain millers, told farmers in the US in April to stop planting GE seed varieties unless these varieties are approved in the US's overseas markets. According to a story by Anthony Shadid, of the
Boston Globe (5/2/01), "Of 16 bioengineered varieties of canola, for instance, 14 are approved in Canada, but only 10 are sanctioned in Japan and three in the European Union. Corn, whose exports earn the United States nearly $4.5 billion a year, is similar: While 16 varieties are allowed in the United States, only 10 have received approval in Japan and just four in the EU."

Recent corn and soy export statistics reported by the Agribusiness Examiner #109 (3/19/01) by Al Krebs:

USDA recently lowered its forecast of corn exports for the marketing year by 90 million bushels, a cut private analysts say is largely due to the impact of the contamination of the corn crop by the genetically modified corn StarLink (Des Moines Register: 2/25/01)

Europe is buying non-GMO soybeans. From 1995-2000, the US has lost 14.3% of its export market share in soybeans, while Brazil's market share has climbed 10.7% (USDA PS&D Database)

As of the third week in February, the combined total of accumulated U.S. corn exports and outstanding U.S. corn export sales to Japan is 65 million bushels less then at this time last year. (USDA- FAS online, U.S. Export Sales as of 2/22/01)

In related news, according to the Wall Street Journal U.S. sugar refiners and food companies such as Hershey are telling farmers not to grow genetically engineered sugar beets sold by Monsanto and Aventis SA, even though the seed has been cleared by regulators for commercial planting.

The Canadian Wheat Board, the world's largest distributor of wheat, reiterated on April 3 that they want the Canadian government to ban the growing of GE wheat for fear of losing overseas grain markets. In a dispute with Monsanto, who are frantically trying to get approval to grow GE wheat in North America, the Wheat Board said that since industry currently lacks the ability to properly segregate GE and non-GE grains, the government should not allow the planting of GE wheat varieties. In a related story, Monsanto lobbyists in April successfully killed a bill in the North Dakota state legislature that would have imposed a moratorium on GE wheat. Monsanto's aggressive lobbying angered many US wheat farmers, who fear losing their one billion annual export sales to Europe and Japan. "We could create a train wreck in our own markets," said North Dakota Wheat Commission administrator Neal Fisher. "The concerns are mounting, rather than diminishing. There are producers out there, certainly, who are clamoring for the technology. But we can't afford to lose 40 percent of our markets." (Reuters 4/29/01)

Maryland passed a bill on April 12 that bans the raising of genetically engineered fish in ponds that connect with state waterways. The law requires that fish farms be able to guarantee that GE fish cannot escape from their facilities. The law is the first of its kind in the US.

Monsanto suffered another major blow in Canada April 26 when it was forced to recall a massive amount of Quest brand genetically engineered canola seed, which was contaminated with an unapproved variety. Last year Canadian farmers planted Quest on 1.2 million acres of farmland. Total canola exports were worth $1.8 billion. A federal official speaking on condition of anonymity described the Monsanto recall as "a fairly significant development," saying, "this has the ability to compromise exports of the Canadian canola crop." The Canadian Health Coalition compared the recall to "a canary in a mine falling down dead" and said it highlights the lack of control over genetically modified foods. (The Edmonton Journal 5/25/01)

Nature Strikes Back: More Bad News for AgBiotech

Noted biotech expert Dr. Charles Benbrook, of the Northwest Science and Environmental Policy Center, released an explosive report on herbicide-resistant Roundup Ready (RR) soybeans May 2. The report, based upon recent USDA and university research, <> not only reaffirms previous studies that RR soybeans produce less of a yield (5-10% less) than conventional soybeans, and that weeds are growing resistant to Roundup, but also that farmers growing the GE soybeans are using considerably more herbicide than farmers who are cultivating non-GE varieties. As Benbrook points out, RR soybean growers are on the average using one-half pound more of herbicide (in this case Monsanto' s broad-spectrum Roundup) per acre-which amounts to 20 million more pounds of toxic herbicides being sprayed this year on American soybean fields. "You just can't say with a straight face that the Roundup Ready system reduces herbicide use if the measurement you're talking about is pounds per acre," Benbrook said. (St. Louis Post Dispatch (5/3/01)

Even more alarming for Monsanto are Benbrook's observations that RR soybean plants, due to damage to an important chemical plant pathway, are more susceptible to plant diseases such as sudden stress syndrome. The American Soybean Association (ASA) immediately attacked Benbrook's report, calling it "sowing seeds of distrust" in a national press release.

Interestingly enough, the ASA had nothing credible to say in terms of disputing Benbrook's central thesis (less yield, growing weed resistance, and more use of pesticides), but rather relied on the well-worn argument that RR soybeans must be great since so many farmers are planting them. Of course the main reason hapless US soybean farmers (who generally receive less money per bushel for their beans from ADM and Cargill and other wholesale buyers than it costs to produce them) are planting RR beans, besides the massive "price support" subsidy the USDA provides to soybean growers, is to save them time. It takes less time to spray several applications of Roundup than it does to spray several of the 15 or so different herbicides which non-GE soybean grower's use. With 88% of the average farm family's income now derived from off-farm employment, soybean farmers are desperately searching for anything that will save them time-which in this case turns our to be genetically engineered soybeans. But as Benbrook's report indicates even this "benefit" will likely be short-lived as weeds develop increasing resistance to Roundup and as the herbicide-resistant plants themselves degenerate in terms of hardiness and resistance to disease over time. "There's a clock ticking now for Roundup," Benbrook stated. A press release from the University of Missouri in Columbia 2/5/01 reported that soybean seed germination rates were "down sharply" this year, a likely reflection of the lack of hardiness and susceptibility to disease of genetically engineered plants. Roundup and other glyphosate products made up $2.6 billion of Monsanto's $5.5 billion in sales last year.

More bad news for Monsanto

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, April 19, reported that insects are becoming resistant to Monsanto's genetically modified Ingard cotton. The New South Wales Department of Agriculture has been monitoring crops and has discovered a noticeable increase in the survival of cotton bollworms this season, indicating the worms are less susceptible to the Bt spliced cotton. Monsanto denies that there is a problem.

Bio-Pharm hazards -- the next StarLink disaster

A group of Canadian scientists warned in the
Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper 5/2/01, that genetic drift or pollution from plants gene-spliced to produce medical drugs or industrial chemicals is a disaster waiting to happen. The letter--signed by retired Agriculture Canada scientist Bert Christie, former McMaster University science dean Dennis McCalla, McGill University animal-science professor Dick Beames, and Dr. Hugh Lehman, an expert in agricultural ethics at the University of Guelph--warns that there is a "high probability" that a StarLink-type contamination incident could occur because of open-air testing and cultivation of crop varieties spliced to produce pharmaceutical drugs or industrial chemicals. In other words, a person could be eating corn or soybeans or some other common food and instead get a dose of a powerful medical vaccine or drug, or a toxic dose of an industrial chemical.

Aflatoxin levels in Bt corn in Texas In 1999, researchers in Corpus Christi, Texas were surprised and alarmed to find that aflatoxin levels in Monsanto's Bt corn were significantly higher than in non-GE varieties. Aflatoxins, created by bacteria, appear in warm, humid environments on fungus spores on corn or other grains and vegetables. It is illegal to sell corn or other grains containing toxic levels of aflatoxins, since they are powerful agents for causing liver cancer. One can only imagine, if aflatoxin levels in Texas Bt corn were reaching alarming levels, what's happening with Bt corn in the more tropical and humid environments overseas (the Philippines, Thailand, Latin America) where the biotech industry is working overtime to convince farmers to grow Bt corn.

Grassroots - Anti-Biotech Campaigns in the US - Starbucks and TraderJoe's

After several years of preliminary consciousness-raising on the GE foods issue, two of the leading grassroots groups in the US, Greenpeace and the Organic Consumers Association, have gone on the offensive. As outlined in the last issue of
BioDemocracy News, (and detailed on our website) the OCA has launched a national leafleting and pressure campaign in over 130 cities across the world against Starbucks, which began on March 20. Starbucks has 2400 cafes located across the entire US (and another 1100 cafes globally). The OCA, supported by five other groups, is demanding that Starbucks remove rBGH and all genetically engineered ingredients from its foods and coffee drinks, start brewing and seriously promoting Fair Trade and organic coffee, pledge never to use GE coffee beans, and fulfill its longstanding promise to raise the wages and improve the working conditions of coffee plantation workers in Guatemala and other nations.

Greenpeace, meanwhile, with the support of the OCA and other groups in local areas, launched a national campaign on 4/17/01 against the upscale Trader Joe's supermarket chain, which has outlets in 13 states. In response to pressure from Greenpeace, Trader Joe's has announced that they are contacting all of their food suppliers for their brand name products, to inquire about the availability of GE-free ingredients. According to Heather Whitehead of Greenpeace, the Trader Joe's campaign will continue until the company agrees to follow the lead of its EU parent company, Aldi, and removes GE ingredients from all of its brand name products.

Starbucks meanwhile apparently has begun moving part way in terms of meeting the demands of the OCA's Frankenbuck$ campaign. The company has begun telling reporters that it will, as soon as possible, be eliminating all rBGH-derived milk from its cafes and offering rBGH-free milk instead. Starbucks purchases 32 million gallons of milk a year in the US. This announcement by Starbucks on rBGH has provoked the ire of the biotech industry and angered Monsanto, who have accused the company of being "cowards" and "caving in" to the pressure campaign of the OCA. In terms of brewing and seriously promoting Fair Trade coffee, the company has begun a limited (as of yet, one day) trial program of brewing Fair Trade coffee as its flavor of the day in its 2400 US cafes and offering Fair Trade coffee beans to its hundreds of restaurant and university retail accounts. In terms of GE coffee beans, the company has stressed that it does not use them. But in regard to raising the wages and improving the working conditions of coffee plantation workers, Starbucks has made no public statements, other than finally admitting to the Chicago Tribune 4/22/01, that they can't apply their company's Code of Conduct standard in Guatemala, since their coffee wholesaler in that country will not divulge the names and locations of the sweatshop plantations which supply them. In addition, Starbucks has remained silent on whether or not it intends to remove GE ingredients from its chocolates and baked goods. In response to Starbucks going "half-way" in terms of meeting consumer demands, the OCA and its allies will continue to pressure Starbucks until all Frankenbuck$ demands are met. Stay tuned to BioDemocracy News and the Daily News and Starbucks sections on our website <> for the latest developments. If you are willing to help distribute Starbucks leaflets in your community send an email to the OCA <>

And please check out the "Participate Locally" section of our website. If you are willing to join 25,000 other volunteers who have signed up online to work with the OCA in your local community on food safety issues, please go to <> and sign up now.

Published in In Motion Magazine August 7, 2001.

Ronnie Cummins.
Originally published by Ronnie Cummins in the Internet publication BioDemocracy News, A publication of the Organic Consumers Association. Republished with permission.

Also see:

The Campaign for Food Safety is a public interest organization dedicated to building a healthy, safe, and sustainable system of food production and consumption. We are a global clearinghouse for information and grassroots technical assistance.To subscribe to the monthly electronic newsletter, BioDemocracy News, send an email message to: < > with the simple message: subscribe pure-food-action.

Affiliated with the Organic Consumers Association <>

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