The Rotten Side of Organics
The Satya Interview with Ronnie
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
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
What about the organic standards in China? Are they the same
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
But with the way things are going, what will the standards mean
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
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
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.
For more information visit www.organicconsumers.org.
© STEALTH TECHNOLOGIES INC.