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April 2006
The Rotten Side of Organics
The Satya Interview with Ronnie Cummins


The sample cereal boxes illustrate the four labeling categories. From left: cereal with 100 percent organic ingredients; cereal with 95-100 percent organic ingredients; cereal made with 70-95 percent organic ingredients; and cereal, with up to 70 percent organic ingredients. The makers of the cereal with up to 70 percent organic ingredients may list specific organically produced ingredients on the information panel of the box—but may not make any organic claims on the front of the box. Courtesy of the USDA

Many compassionate consumers believe that buying organic food is the only way to go. The label “organic” means refuge from pesticides, chemicals and the damaging practices of the commercial food industry. High-quality, mouth-watering, nutrient-rich produce—all harvested fresh from the farm, right? We tend to assume organic food producers are all small farmers who combine ecologically sound farming practices with a political agenda to promote and develop local sustainable food systems. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case.

The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) formed in 1998 after organic consumers criticized the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s proposed national regulations for organic certification of food. Today the OCA, a nonprofit public interest organization, strives for health, justice and sustainability, and takes on such crucial issues as food safety, industrial agriculture, corporate accountability and fair trade.

The OCA has been able to rally hundreds of thousands of consumers to pressure the USDA and organic companies to preserve strict organic standards. Kymberlie Adams Matthews had a chance to talk with OCA founder and National Director, Ronnie Cummins about uniting forces to challenge industrial agriculture, corporate globalization, and inspiring consumers to “Buy local, organic, and fair made.”

Can you discuss the corporate takeover of the organic food market?
Well the good news is there is a huge demand on the part of health conscious and environmentally conscious consumers for organic products. On the downside, right now there is a shortage of organic foods and ingredients in the marketplace. And unfortunately, corporations are noting this huge demand and are not only moving into the organic sector, but doing it in a way which is not helping American farmers and ranchers go organic. Instead, they are basically degrading organic standards, bending the rules and starting to outsource from slave labor and exploitive nations such as China for organic foods and ingredients.

What kind of impact is this having on our food?
Well the most glaring example presently is the blatant disregard for organic standards in the dairy sector. Right now 40 percent of organic milk is coming from Horizon Organic and Aurora Organic, producers who are both practicing intensive confinement of farmed animals, allowing them no access to pasture. They are also regularly importing calves from industrial farms and simply calling them organic. These heifers have been weaned on blood, administered antibiotics, and fed slaughterhouse waste and GMO grains. Again, this is not helping thousands of humane family-scale farmers make the transition to organic. Instead they are changing the rules and allowing industrial agriculture to call it organic.

And then there is the corporate takeover of organic food brands.
This is a major trend, all the way from Unilever taking over Ben and Jerry’s to General Mills taking over Cascadian Farms and Muir Glen. These transnationals deliberately conceal the names of the parent corporation on the label because they know those corporations have such a terrible reputation that consumers would be unlikely to want to buy the products. Also, for the most part, they do not list the country of origin on the label. So organic consumers continue to buy their products, while remaining in the dark about who produced them and where they were produced. For example, people who buy the top-selling soy milk Silk, don’t know that Silk is actually owned by Dean Foods, the $10 billion dairy conglomerate notorious for bottom line business practices such as injecting their cows with bovine growth hormone and paying the lowest prices possible to dairy farmers. They also don’t know that the soy beans in Silk are likely coming in from China and Brazil rather than the U.S. or North America.

What about the organic standards in China? Are they the same as here?
There has been a lot of criticism that Chinese organic products are not really organic. But certainly the most incontestable fact about Chinese organics is that the workers are paid nearly nothing for their work. It is slave labor.

That’s madness! What can we do about this?
We are going to have to stop companies from outsourcing the organic foods and ingredients that they can buy here. One way to do that is to pressure companies to put the country of origin on their label. Congress actually passed a law three years ago—after receiving a lot of pressure from consumers—requiring country of origin labels. Unfortunately, they turned around and listened to corporate agribusiness and never allocated the money for labeling enforcement. Then last fall in the waning days of the Congressional session, they passed a rider that would delay the country of origin labeling law for at least two more years.

How important is food safety to American consumers today?
Eighty percent of American consumers tell pollsters they are very concerned about food safety issues while the majority says they are more concerned than they were last year! It’s understandable. We have alarming levels of food poisoning—87 million cases a year—leading to thousands of deaths, hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations. And that’s only the short-term damage. Consumers are becoming more and more aware of the long-term damage—the chronic sickness and illness derived from the cheap food and junk food paradigm.

There was a story in the London Times that reports high levels of benzene in soda pop! Nearly every day there is a story regarding mad cow disease, pesticide levels, and toxic chemicals; yet the federal government wants to restrict food labels. Two-thirds of organic consumers say food safety is the primary reason for paying a premium price for organic foods. The natural food and organic food market is growing enormously. Ten cents out of every grocery store dollar is now spent by consumers on products labeled either natural or organic.

I’m curious, what is the difference between “natural” and “organic”?
“Natural” is mainly a marketing tool. It simply means that there are not supposed to be any artificial flavors, colors or preservatives in the product. But a lot of consumers are still learning about food safety and they believe that “natural” products, like organic products, are safer than foods that don’t bear that label.

There has been a steady dynamic in the marketplace over the past ten years. Companies that market “natural” products are tending to move to “made with organic ingredients” and products marketed with “made with organic ingredients” move on to “95 or 100 percent organic.” There is no doubt that within 5-10 years the majority of products in grocery stores are going to bear a label that says “natural” or “organic.” And within 10 or 15 years most things will have an “organic” label on them.

But with the way things are going, what will the standards mean by then?
Well, that is what we are facing right now. If we allow corporations to take over the organic sector and degrade organic standards, then most organic products will be coming from China and sold at Wal-Mart. And you will not be able to trust the label. We are going to have to get better organized than we are now, both in the marketplace and politically and make some fundamental changes in policies. For example, right now there are no subsidies helping American ranchers and farmers go organic. This is ridiculous given the huge demand. So we are going to have to stop the $20 billion annual subsidies going to industrial agriculture and intensive confinement farming and start subsidizing the transition to organic.

We also obviously need to subsidize farms being able to adopt renewable energy practices and to develop and expand local and regional markets. Studies indicate that 25 percent of greenhouse gasses in the U.S. are generated by industrial agriculture and long-distance food transportation. We need to switch over to sustainable practices if we are going to slow down and stop the climate chaos that is accelerating. To fund this we’re also going to have to stop the administration’s insane project for world domination and begin dismantling the military-industrial complex.

In terms of transportation and its effects on the environment, what is your take on local vs. organic produce?
The Organic Consumers Association launched a long-term campaign last fall called Breaking the chains: Buy local, organic, and fair made. We believe it is time to raise the bar on organic standards. We need to recognize that the label USDA Organic is a good first step, but it is just the beginning. We have got to start reducing food miles and reducing the greenhouse gas pollution by creating a food system similar to what we had 60 years ago—local and regional production for local and regional markets. Family sized farms need to become the norm again and not the exception. We also to need to think hard about things, like 80 percent of the world’s grain is going to feed animals, not people, and begin eating lower on the food chain if we are going to survive.

Fair made, I like that. Will the campaign touch on labor practices on organic farms? People think organic means humane treatment of workers, but that is not always the case.
Thirty years ago, the roots of the new organic movement came out of an anti-war, pro-civil rights, pro-justice movement. As the founders of the new wave of food coops in the late-1960s, we believed that organic meant justice as well as health and sustainability. Unfortunately, the federal organic standards that the USDA passed in 2002 did not incorporate the demands of groups like the Organic Consumers Association who said that social justice had to be criteria. So they passed a very narrow definition of “organic” that just included production methods in terms of pesticides, synthetic chemicals and the impact on the environment. They didn’t take into consideration the treatment of small farmers or farm workers. So it has been left to us as consumers to exert pressure in the marketplace to make sure that organic means justice too.

We have seen a strong growth the last few years in the fair trade movement which is now a $600 million market globally. And finally the fair trade movement and the organic movement are starting to work together. We are involved in a long-term project with a number of organic companies and farm organizations to create a new Fair Trade or Fair Made label, which will be both certified fair trade and certified organic. We think this is necessary. Until we can get the USDA and the government to see things the way we do, we need to have our own label and be able to point out to consumers that the USDA label doesn’t include social justice as a criteria.

What do you think is the main problem facing the organic movement today?
Part of the overall problem is that our social change and progressive movement has been fragmented for the last 30 years. Perhaps this fragmentation or specialization was initially beneficial or necessary to understand and focus on all the issues and types of oppression in our particular sectors and organize our sectors, but it is time we start to bring it all together in a great synergy. The movements for health, justice and sustainability must work together in this age of Peak Oil, permanent war, and climate chaos.

If the organic community does not unite its forces with the anti-war movement, with the movements for environmentalism, social justice, animal rights, then we are not going to make any changes. As we say increased market share for organic and fairtrade products in the age of Armageddon and climate chaos is not going to count for very much. We really have to stop thinking single issues and start thinking movement building. For this reason, every one of the OCA’s campaigns is trying to reach out to other movements and show them that we are willing to work in a holistic way to raise consciousness over the full range of issues, and we are asking them to do the same.

For example right now I have been participating in a series of national conference calls with the Climate Crisis Coalition. It is very good to see that the climate crisis leaders understand that 25 percent of global greenhouse gasses are coming from industrial agriculture and long-distance food transportation, and that we are not going to stabilize the climate unless we convert global and U.S. agriculture production to local and regional production. So they are willing to help us as we lobby to change the farm bill and the yearly agriculture appropriations.

It is so true. All of the movements are linked.
It doesn’t do any good to buy local, organic and fair made if you then hop on an airplane or jump into a gas-guzzling car without thinking . We have to take on the climate crisis issue together—this is the number one issue in the world. If we don’t stop this, there isn’t going to be any food period—much less organic food for the future generations. The same thing with the anti-war movement. We have to start talking about solutions to permanent war. Not just bring the troops home from this particular war. The reason we are in Iraq, the reason we are probably going to start a war in Iran shortly, is because of oil. We are going to keep having these wars until we have energy independence—until we convert our economy into something that is renewable and sustainable. And we are not going to do this with the organic community, the environmental community, the animal rights community and the anti-war communities working on our different issues in isolation. We have to create synergy between them all.

How did you get involved in the organic food movement?
I grew up in Texas. In the 1960s I got involved in the civil rights movement and in the anti-war movement. And part of what all the participants in those movements understood at the time was that we had to create one big movement to deal with all the interrelated issues. Food and coops were a strategic part of what we called the New Left and the counter-culture. Many consumer food cooperatives and the new wave of the organic movement came out of the anti-war movement. Frances Moore Lappé laid it out for a lot of us in Diet For a Small Planet, “The act of putting into your mouth what the earth has grown is perhaps your most direct interaction with the earth.” In other words, what you do with your knife and fork has a lot to do with world peace and justice.

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