Five organic movement and industry leaders discuss their vision, the potential risks and the pathways for organic agriculture to become the dominant farming system.
What is Your Vision for Organic Food in the Next 20 Years?
Responding to questions like this presumes some basic assumptions, like any one of us would have the sense of “sight” required to assess the incredible variables in human consumption, resource allocation, government decisions and corporate accountability nature will throw at us in the context of agriculture. We do know for sure that everything is connected. As I write this, four nuclear power plants are in various stages of meltdown in Japan, near genocidal wars are underway in the Ivory Coast and Libya with religious conflagrations simmering across Asia and the Middle East. Climate change is clearly impacting food production in some parts of the world (mostly noticeable by the increase of extreme weather events) leading to import/export disruptions and in a few cases food riots. The industrial world’s first response: silver bullet genetic engineering of cross species gene transplants to grow profit centers not food. Here in the United States radicals in the Republican Party have pledged to cut a significant number of critical safety nets for the poor, elderly, unwell and students. Hunger is growing by leaps and bounds.
Now do I have your attention?
It is within that context I wish to offer an organic vision of hope for the next two decades. I see organic farming and ranching as an integrated system modeling the complex web of natural systems as it takes root. All parties will come to celebrate the fertile soil that surrounds them. There will be ecological food hubs linking urban mini-farms with the surrounding countryside. Taking advantage of this indigenous system of organic production will be an educational system that inspires K-12 students to become young cooks and learn more about nutritional balance and preventive health care. New jobs will be created in food transport and processing. Trading collaborations will be established to reach outside of nearly full circle sustaining regional food sheds for national and even international organic products. If grey whales can migrate to Mexico and back within nature’s system of ecological balance, I see no reason why organic fruits and nuts can’t be exchanged for bananas and coffee elsewhere in the hemisphere. Distance traveled must be flexible and provide multiple benefits to all.
I see opportunities via the Farm Bill on the national level and activist students in our Community and State colleges on another, to rewrite our federal and state agricultural research priorities towards organic system research and education. We must reduce obscene commodity price support funding (why do we make an annual payment of nearly $150 million dollars to Brazil’s conventional cotton farmers?) with a commitment to train a new generation of young organic farmers and ranchers. We already have strong indications that integrating on-farm production systems with food justice activist’s policy objectives could provide good quality organic food to urban populations at a price which provides a fair return to growers and a nutritional return to consumers. Successful examples of these activities exist today.
The cost of energy alone should accelerate investments in all things organic. The increased demand for food stamps will create a political demand for a different way to grow and distribute food. The ever-expanding obesity crisis linked to an out-of-control health care cost system will call our attention to the abuse of certain processed foods. I think each of these constituencies will join together in common cause. The end result may well be that organically labeled food will be available through all food channels and represent over 40% market share.
Amigo Bob Cantisano: In 1982, I wrote a think piece for a magazine about where organic farming was going to be by the year 2000, an 18-year think ahead. I’m always an optimist, but I’m surprised how optimistic I was. I actually predicted that the majority of farming in the United States would be organic by the year 2000.
We’re at one percent [of farm and ranch land]; I missed it by a small fraction, but I am still an optimist, because when I started in the early ‘70s, it was 1/100th of a percent, so we’ve had a hundred-fold increase. It takes a long time for change to happen, many, many decades. As I get older I realize that you have to be patient, optimistic and realistic.
I have always been a small-scale farmer. The largest I ever farmed was 65 acres. I currently farm about four and a half acres of mixed crops for local market. My farthest market is 15 miles away. Simultaneously, I make my living as a farming advisor with mega-farms, as well as medium and small-scale farms. My largest client farm’s over 40,000 acres of crops, 6,000 acres of which are organic.
There have been a lot of arrows thrown back and forth about scale and commitment. Most of those 40,000 acres are farmed conventionally, and they went into the organic business because it is economically intriguing and viable, but they learned that it wasn’t an easy path. They learned that you couldn’t just transition and become a successful organic farmer overnight. They took a lot of lumps, as do most of my clients.
I teach people to become organic farmers from conventional practices. Those bigger farms, by and large, have learned how to become better farmers by becoming organic farmers. I would say that, almost without exception, the clients I have are much better farmers today than they were when we started because they learned about soil ecology and crop diversity and biological diversity. They learned that you can’t just kill everything with a new pesticide, that you have to learn about how plants resist diseases and insects, and different crop rotations. They are thinking about things differently than in the past.
Where are we going with that group? If organic still continues in 20 years to be an island in the midst of a sea of disaster, which is what agriculture pretty much is, I don’t know that we’ve really accomplished a whole heck of a lot. Now, I’m really thrilled by the growth and resurgence in small-scale farms. They’re fantastic. I’m one of them. I am really thrilled by the amount of young people getting into farming. The best news I could put on the table right now is the amount of young people who want to farm organically, and most of them are fairly small-scale oriented. They’re focused on direct marketing, value-added, heirloom crops and quality. Those are really important, valuable contributions.
However, they can’t feed all Americans. We would need a wholesale revolution in the amount of people going into farming, youth or otherwise, if we are to come close to producing the food needs of America. While that great, wonderful farmers’ market and CSA group is growing, we need to get the rest of agriculture on the same path, no matter what the scale, whether they are 1,000 or 100 or one acre or 10,000 acres.
Even though I live in a fairly isolated area, everything that happens on those farms down and upwind from me affect me. Many of the organic farmers I work with happen to be constrained regularly by the fact that their neighbors are using chemicals. The air, the water, the neighboring soils are all contaminated to some degree, and sometimes to a great degree. So, I’m not afraid of the process of getting more large farms into organic agriculture.
Where will organic be in 20 years? I’m going to go out on a limb again like I did in ’82. I’m going to say in 20 years, the majority of agriculture in the United States is going to be organically farmed, that’s 51 percent. If that happens, I’ll be absolutely thrilled. I’ll be in my 80s, and I’ll be jazzed that in my lifetime half of agriculture turned the corner because once the ball starts rolling the rest are going follow.
Manufacturers, distributors, marketers and consumers drive this process. I believe that in my lifetime that consumers are going to put down their dollars where they feel strongest, and they are going to put them in things that make them feel best. There’s a huge interest in things that keep you healthy, and that spins off into environmental issues. I think that the majority of the consumers in the United States will be eating an organic diet, and if they’re eating an organic diet, the farmers will follow.
Every large-scale farm I work with is initially driven by economics, but at some point in time they get the ecological and social issues. They realize that they’ve been hoodwinked; they were led down a path by the USDA and governmental organizations and peer pressure and farm magazines that’s a dead end street. When they see the organic side of it, they realize, “Wow, this is such a better way to farm, it’s so much more complicated, it stimulates my mind; I have to be a better farmer.” The best organic farms I work with get yields oftentimes better than conventional farm yields.
One of the farmers I am working with recently pointed out to me the hawks that were circling the farm. I know that that guy was not paying attention to that ten years ago. I know that for a fact because I worked with him then. But now he’s starting to see that interaction that he has with nature. Even if he didn’t get into organic farming for its ecological, sociological benefits, eventually he gets it. What I hope happens with the rest of agriculture is we get that we’re all part of an ecological system. It’s our responsibility to do the best we can, whether we’re doing a quarter-of-an-acre or a quarter-million- acres.
Michael Ableman: It’s somewhat awkward for me to be talking about organic because we don’t actually use the label in the marketing of our products. I currently run 120-acre farm up in British Columbia, and we have a little bit different marketing scheme.
I’ve always been a major practitioner of the basic tenants of organic farming. I believe in the system. I drifted quite considerably, in fact, to the point where I had been very critical of the evolution of the movement when it, in my view, moved from movement to industry. The word movement implies some form of societal change, whether it’s social, ecological, or cultural. The industry, in its narrowest view, is often just viewed in terms of economics.
We evolved an organic system in this country. After hitting our heads against the wall for many years to get recognition for a fringe movement, we suddenly had Uncle Sam regulating us. At first it appeared to be a wonderful thing, and I think for many, as time went on, they realized it wasn’t so wonderful; it was challenging.
Initially it was very much a one-size-fits-all legislation that essentially settled smaller growers with enormous amount of paperwork and fees and inspections that were pretty hard to take, and I think a lot of folks had trouble with this.
There was also a sense that our vision of organic as a broader system had been narrowed down to a system of substitution of materials: rabbit manure for ammonium nitrate or chrysanthemum extract for malathion, but it wasn’t that simple; we wanted a more complex practice of the organic system.
We grow grain on our farm. We bought a combine this year that we share with three other people on the island. But the reality is that we will never, on the scale we’re operating, which seems large relative to where I came from, be able to even supply the needs of the island that we’re on, let alone anything beyond that.
It’s the same thing as the urban agriculture movement, which many people believe that the production of food in the cities is going to take care of the needs of those cities; it’s not. We have to develop a system that is integrated so that urban production is connected to the peri-urban and the rural production, and that they all work in some way together.
What would it take to do that? One is land. We have a very significant issue around land, access to land, especially for newer growers, who will never in their farm businesses be able to service a mortgage based on current real estate prices. It’s not going to happen. What are the alternatives of that? There are many. I personally feel that long-term leasing is a far better alternative.
Minerals are a huge issue. It’s the elephant in the room. Currently, all farming, including organic farming, is dependent upon huge holes being made in the world to supply them with the fundamental minerals to drive their system, specifically phosphorous. Where is it going to come from in the future? What I’m promoting is that every community should have its own portable rock grinder that would be moved to farms to take all that embodied mineral energy and release it.
Protein. Including the increasing numbers of younger organic growers coming on the scene, most of us have been entirely focused on fruits and vegetables for a very simple reason, it pays the bills. But the reality is we could all survive without another carrot or tomato, but we cannot survive without the engine of the diet, which is the grains, the seeds, the beans, the meat, the dairy products. My theory is that farmers in the future should not be growing fruits and vegetables ever again, that should be the job of people in their homes, in their communities, so that we’re not turning ourselves into contortions to deliver these foods like organ transplants to market. It doesn’t make sense. We should be focused on protein sources.
Number four is people. Who will do the work? It’s an enormous cultural and social crisis. We now live in a time when we have multiple generations that have been raised not to use their hands for anything but pushing keys on a keyboard. It’s very difficult to learn to do farm work later in life. I know people who have and it’s tough. Many of them do not survive it. We have to start earlier. We have to find ways to create the mechanisms in the schools and otherwise to encourage this as an honorable and well-paid profession.
And lastly is access. Most of my farming career, I have been growing food for a very narrow segment of the society, those who can afford to buy my food. Inevitably when I go and talk somebody will raise their hand and say, “We love your work, but what are you doing to feed the world’s poor and to feed growing populations?
The first thing I say is that the growing population is a population issue. No agricultural system is going to be able to provide food at the current rate of population growth in certain parts of the world. That’s a social and cultural problem.
We also have an economic problem, which is also not an agricultural problem, and which has allowed some people to have access to organic food and others not. That is a social, cultural, and economic problem, as well, it’s not an agricultural problem, and it is not the job of farmers alone to resolve those issues. It’s everybody’s job.
Those are the five areas I think that we are going to have to address if organic is going to be the mainstream in the future.
Gary Hirshberg: We look ahead 20 years and it would be amazing if, in my lifetime, we could transition to 50 percent organic agriculture, but in your parents’ lifetimes, we have switched a hundred percent. People say organic isn’t proven. It’s actually the chemicals that aren’t proven. We’ve been on this experiment with our bodies and our air and our water and our soil for about 70 years. All food, until somewhere between World War I and II, all food through humanity was organic. That means every famous person you know from history ate only organic food. Jesus Christ ate only organic food, George Washington, Mozart, Joan of Arc. It was fine for them. We think that this is a big, bold visionary new thing, but really, we just got off track.
I agree with the impediments, which are labor, land, people and nutrients. But the reason we will get there is pure economics. There was this incredible healthcare debate. Did you ever hear the word preventative once in the whole dialogue? It never even came up. The cheapest healthcare is not getting sick. If you’re treating people after they’ve been sick that leads to bankruptcy.
Forty one percent of Americans are going to get cancer. Obesity has overtaken smoking as the most costly disease, but toxins and cancer will blow right by obesity.
From a strict outflow of money, healthcare will not be able to keep up. Thirty-five years ago the number one reason that people switched to organic was their children.
Now consumer research says the number one reason to eat organic is a health event, getting sick, or having someone in your life get sick. That’s a terrible indictment of where we are, but it’s also a very interesting trend, that in its weird way will drive more people to organic.
We need to have organic everywhere. If we believe in the social, environmental and ecological underlying principles, then you have to believe that anywhere food is sold, or stuff that looks like food is sold, has to be organic. That means some pretty strange places. That means places that we wouldn’t think of, but it certainly needs to start with our schools.
The data clearly shows that genetics is six to eight percent of the explanation for the correlation for breast cancer; 92 to 94 percent is environmental factors. The vast majority of the impact is what you consumed during adolescence. So, while we can engage in preventative behaviors at an older age- higher omega 3’s, less sugar, less poisons and so forth- the reality is it’s what we feed to the very young that’s really going to drive the curve back toward organic. Organic can’t be just food for the elite, if it remains just a niche that’s fatal.
To get to 50 plus percent, let alone back to the hundred, there are a lot of concerns. There’s research dollars that we need. There’s Ag extension. We have a whole generation of Ag extension agents who’ve been growing up, trained by Monsanto and Dow. So, we have to retake our land grants. We have to retake our share of the research dollars. Industrial agriculture gets their information from the land grants. We have to retake our piece of the pie.
We also have to level the playing field in terms of subsidies. I’m not arguing for organic subsidies. I’m arguing to get rid of the subsidies for other commodities. Let’s level the playing field and give organic a fair shake. Until that time, this whole limiting factor of premium versus cheap, we’re not playing by the same rules. We’re playing against so-called cheap food that isn’t really cheap. You do pay for it somewhere.
We have to deal with the subsidy issue or none of these visions will happen. The only way that it will happen is if enormous amounts of people demand it.
Theresa Marquez: Those of us in organic are hopeless idealists and hopelessly optimistic about the future direction of agriculture. We think that the future of agriculture has to be organic.
When you start peeling back the layers of our food system to look at what’s wrong, a lot of it starts with pesticide-intensive agriculture.
The biotech industry makes the claim that GMOs are going to feed the world, and yet they are using over twice the amount of pesticides and more water than non-GMO crops.
GMO’s promise has yet to come to fruition. They promise to feed the world, but most of the products that they’re making a killing on are not even edible for human beings; they are livestock feed like soy and corn, or cotton, one of the heaviest users of pesticides. I find it unethical for the biotech industry to use the fact that people are starving to promote their own profits and their own agenda.
The food system is currently broken. Agriculture should go in the direction of a severe, critical reduction of pesticides and contaminants in the environment, especially the neurotoxins.
For me, the future is organic in the next 20 years. Unfortunately, we’re probably not going to get there without a whole lot of pain, i.e., everyone realizing they know someone who has fertility problems and can’t reproduce without assistance. That’s only 15 percent of our population now, but it’s going to be 25 percent in not too long. People think that’s normal. We should be terrified about that.
For me, we have no choice. The future has to be organic. It has to be sustainable. Will it be the kind of organic regulations we have now? I would say in 20 years, no. Those organic agricultural standards are going to continue to evolve.
Can organic achieve the same kind of yields that conventional can? Yes. Can people in regions using organic practices do a good job of feeding the people in their community? Yes, we have models and proof of this all over the world.
In 20 years, I see an evolution of our food system, if we’re still around, because the human race seems to be intent on doing itself in. We need a Noah right now to start building his ark. Slow Food has an Ark of Taste. I see that there are food arks now popping up all over.
I think that what we’re going to see is an evolution of agriculture and it must become more organic, it must be more sustainable. We must reduce our poisons in our environment, or we’re simply not going to be around.
What risks could the organic industry face that could inhibit the potential for the vision?
Theresa Marquez: How do we keep our integrity in organic is a huge question, but one that I actually feel very, very sound about what the answer is. Organic companies have to be as transparent as they possibly can about what they do. They have to have a very strong mission statement and stay true to that mission statement.
I think that part of organizational integrity is sometimes acknowledging a competitors’ contributions. It’s part of how we can round ourselves up as an organic industry, by showing that we’re all in here for the good fight. Let’s find one place where we’re all going to have an agreement, and if we’re going to duke it out in the marketplace, that’s fine, but let’s keep that separate.
We need to re-look at our social systems. We need to re-look at how we treat each other as human beings on a day-to-day basis. We need to look at our family structures.
The challenge to the organic agricultural and food movement is we don’t know how to work together. We were in a meeting the other day in which George Siemon [CEO of Organic Valley] reminded everyone that the firing squad of The Left is a circle. We’re always shooting at each other. We can’t seem to agree on the most important one or two things that we should be working on. Instead, we focus on petty differences. I can name a few petty differences that take up hours and hours of time, like should the pasture be 90 days or 120 days or 180 days? If you don’t agree on that, you have an enemy for life.
Recently, the Organic Consumers Association, very irresponsibly put out an alert that said inaccurately Monsanto was buying Organic Valley. This is a perfect example. This has cost me hundreds of hours of people’s time dealing with hundreds and hundreds of irate people.
Right now, there’s too much of a them vs. us between organic and conventional farmers. It’s unnecessary and it’s harmful. We need to build more bridges and cross them because we’re all in this together. The conventional and biotech farmers are being sold a tool chest with the idea that you can’t farm without it. I’ve actually been in a room where conventional and biotech farmers have stood up and said, “You are liars, no one could milk cows without antibiotics.”
Gary Hirshberg: The one that I’m focused on at this moment is GE alfalfa and the risk of GE contamination for organic feed. Once the genie’s out of the bottle, you can’t put it back. You can’t really control what the birds and the bees and the wind are doing, which is how seed travels.
Alfalfa is the common denominator in all dairy production. When you’re screwing around with milk in this country that causes some big problems. This is why synthetic growth hormone got slammed. Interestingly it wasn’t until Wal-Mart declared that they were not going to accept it that some of the major dairy players finally stopped using it.
I see a risk in that organic is pretty highly dependent on the waste products of industrial agriculture for organic farming. We use a lot of manures and composting materials that come from conventional situations, simply because there’s very limited amount of fully organic materials.
A lot of farms I work with utilize water district water that’s contaminated by other farmers. People test for this and fortunately they don’t seem to show up as residue problems, but it still concerns me. If society looked very closely at those issues, that might make people a little more upset.
A microbiological outbreak would be a big problem as well as the GE issue. Those could cause a loss in consumer confidence that organic food is clean.
The last one is we’re vulnerable on labor. We use a lot of labor and a lot of its not legal. We need to make it legal. Organic agriculture generally uses more labor than conventional agriculture, and most of it’s Hispanic and most of it’s illegal. We need to change that.
A serious E. coli incidence related to an organic crop where the perception is that it is the nature of the organic system that caused the problem is a serious risk.
Lack of labor is another risk. A little plug for my new homeland, the Canadians have come up with a seasonal agricultural workers’ program that is really exemplary. It involves paid flights, full health care, inspected housing, wage requirement; everything is taken care of. When people from Mexico get into the Canadian program, they literally feel like they won the lottery. Very well run. A plan like that could be adopted in the US.
Bob Scowcroft: Both intentional and unintentional consumer fraud is the most significant risk that comes immediately to mind. One more recent example is the felony indictment of the owner of a so-called organic fertilizer (containing synthetic nitrogen) company whose products were sold in California and elsewhere to organic farmers. There was a very real chance that hundreds of producers could have lost their certification. The ripple effect of unknowingly using conventional fertilizer on organically labeled products would have had a major impact on the consumer’s trust in both the non-profit verification agencies and the federal National Organic Program’s ability to catch such blatant fraud.
More attention must also be paid to the false labeling of organic products coming in from overseas. Yes, we also need to test (not necessarily for pesticide residue though an occasional check is not a bad thing too) the family farmer’s market stand organic product. If we don’t use the powers of transparency- the right to know how our food was grown and processed- built into the organic federal statute from time to time, we will only have ourselves to blame. Remember it was small family farmers who led the way to writing the 1990 Organic Foods Act, in large part due to fraudulent labeling in farmer’s markets and the small wholesale stream of organic commerce.
Frankly I also think at times we’ve been our own worst enemy. Taking advantage of our collective embrace of transparency, a small minority of organic activists continues to attack organic representatives of all sizes and perspectives for their lack of so-called purity. With little to no collaboration with other organizations these individuals have set their own bars at a level seemingly more designed to gain media attention than any real meaningful change. Bullying rarely leads to consensus.
Certainly the widespread discovery of pesticide contamination and the insidious transfer of genetically engineered genes into an organic supply chain would rattle consumer confidence. Efforts to hide such disasters would only make it worse however. We have to remain leaders in the call for the enforcement of organic standards in collaboration with consumer and environmental activists. Consumers have the right to know how their Certified Organic products are grown and processed. We have to remain vigilant that goal is not weakened.
What is it going to take to realize your 20-year organic vision?
Our world functions very simply. Wherever you’re buying, whether it’s at the farmers’ market or the supermarket or Wal-Mart or convenience stores, those purchases are what drive the economy. Business exists to meet our needs. I think it starts with consumer power. I think it starts with the power of one. If we ask, they’ll build it. Farmers are business people, if the demand is there, they will meet it. The thing that causes retailers to give us more space, the thing that causes media to pay attention is revenues.
Michael Ableman: I do not think there will be a structural shift in the five pieces that I articulated earlier- land, people, access to healthy food, minerals and protein- until the system is forced to change.
In Cuba, the greening of their agriculture and the phenomenal system of urban agriculture didn’t happen because it was the right thing to do. They did it because, as a nation, they had to. They were about to starve to death because their supply of seeds, equipment, fuel, fertilizers etc. stopped with the fall of the Communist Bloc.
What happened in Cuba is rather remarkable and inspiring because it points out the potential that humans have to respond and to be incredibly creative and to be incredibly resourceful under duress when they have to.
The response elevated to the highest levels of government and empowered individuals who had been studying sustainable agriculture and organic farming, and they said, “Here, now, it’s time to make it happen.” And they, as an island nation, created a no or low-input system.
For the longer-term issues, such as minerals and people and access, etc., I’m afraid that we will have to be shaken up before we get there. That’s my less-than-optimistic view.
Amigo Cantisano: If you want to create change, yank the rug out from underneath the commodity subsidies and they’ll be some change. The approximately $19 billion commodity subsidy is keeping that system in place artificially that would not be there without that support.
I live on the edge of rice country. They would not be growing rice in my neighborhood if they weren’t getting the subsidies. They would be forced to work a crop system that was more sustainable and diverse. If you want to see a quick change, yank out all the subsidies, and you put everyone on an even playing field.
Farmers are smart. They’ll figure it out. There’ll be some struggles. It’ll be like Cuba. There’ll be a shakeup, but people will figure out those systems, and those systems will turn out to be ecological systems because they’re less expensive, they’re more sustainable, and they put money in the pocket of the farmer.
Virtually no one in the specialty crop [fruits, nuts and vegetables] industries get any subsidies, and we’re doing fine. It’s the grains, predominantly, and dairy that get the biggest chunk of the money. It has created a system that allows cheap hamburger and expensive salad. It’s an ironic phenomenon.
The second thing I think has to happen is we have to have a wholesale change in the education community. Generations of training exclusively on how to do monocultures and how to use chemicals have dumbed-down the system so that the information resource that most farmers utilize is not up to date in an ecological way.
I have a job because there are no farm advisors doing this that are on the public payroll. California has a huge Ag extension service, many hundreds or thousands of Ag extension people, and yet we don’t have one organic specialist in California. I believe there is only one USDA organic specialist.
To make the change, farmers need some assistance; that will have to come from within the research and the extension community. There has to be a major shift.
The organic industry is woefully under-funded. What the organic industry does accomplish with no money amazes the heck out of me. The organic industry needs a promotional board like the dairy board. Organic Valley is forced to pay into a dairy board that helped develop rBGH.
A promotion board has to be established by an act of Congress, and if Congress acts it becomes a mandatory check-off. For example, in the milk industry for every 100 pounds of milk, 15 cents of that has to go to the promotion board. Given the amount of milk produced in the United States, that’s millions and millions of dollars. We lobbied to get that 15 cents back, especially when (1) they were using that money to fund the milk campaign of the Hudson Institute, which we thought was tremendously unethical and against organic; and (2) they used our funds to help develop rBGH. Almost a decade ago, the Vermont farmers staged a milk dump; they said unless their promotion board stopped funding rBGH, they weren’t going to deliver milk. So they dumped milk into the streets.
Organic Valley lobbied and said we want our money back, and the milk promotion board gave back a nickel of the 15 cents. We asked our farmers to put it into a fund that we can then use to promote organic, and 80 percent of our farmers said yes; that adds up to about $600,000. Imagine if we could get the next dime, we’d have almost $2 million. We could be funding research and energy audits and so on.
The organic industry needs its own promotion board. The challenge, which we’re working on, is to get the status of a promotion board, we have to be seen as an individual commodity like eggs, milk etc. but organic includes all commodities.
So, there’s a lack of money. Then you have lack of support from the land grants. They just forgot who they work for. They think they work for the chemical and the biotech industry. That’s where all their money’s coming from. Unless we start helping to fund the land grants, all they will be able to do is biotech and chemical research. It’s kind of a chicken and egg. We need their help and yet we have to come up with some funds to try and help fund some of the land grants, otherwise, we’ll be out of business.
Cooperation needs more development and should at least get equal time with the competitive capitalistic forces of the world. The co-op model embodies democracy. It’s very frustrating at times, and we at Organic Valley don’t always make the right decisions. Whenever we make a bad decision, George Siemon quotes Winston Churchill, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
If we don’t continue to have our farmers voices through these annual meetings, through the committees and so on, then we’re not ever going to be true to the democratic model that we set out. It’s better to make a bad business decision and keep people involved in their co-op.
Bob Scowcroft: The words that first come to mind are intentional patience. It’s going to be a long march. We need to organize a new generation of food activists at the grassroots level. They in turn will have to reach outside of traditional boundaries and build new alliances. How new? How about getting the Defense Department involved in good health eating initiatives! This work will take time. Strategic compromise will be important too. Once we can identify a solid path to change we should be able to take small steps (at times) while being prepared to move by leaps and bounds when opportunities arise.
We will need to build a system of GE free farmscapes within USA’s heartland with a goal of eliminating their use “until and when…!” (This is what some of the architects of “organic coexistence” policies had in mind when working on recent GE alfalfa regulations. Their good work was crushed by the White House.)
Our policy objectives must be rooted in local, real-world environments. Rather than farmer fly-ins to Washington, DC, we should be inviting elected officials to “welcome, come on-in’s” at our farms, school kitchens, food hub distributions systems, urban farms and food service networks. They should visit our local food banks and hospitals. They must get the picture “up close and personal”! The next generation of activists must demand organic research systems at every Land Grant University. Young farmer training programs, including clear access to capital and business plan training, modeled after a number of successful programs already in existence should be established in every eco-region and related food-shed.
We must define and begin using the social building blocks needed for a successful campaign. We can use the current “communication currency of jobs, jobs, jobs”, but that will depend upon local conditions. Enhancing rural vitality and reinvestment in infrastructure might be most important in one region whereas fair returns for family farmers combined with fair wages for workers might bring a political majority to the table in another region. Certainly clean water (both ground and streams) and an embrace of the wildlife surrounding and on our farms is critical to gaining environmental support too.
It will take significant funding, both in grants awarded and strategic investments made, from all sectors of the non-profit community and corporate marketplace. USDA organic research grants must be increased. Non-profit policy initiatives will need multi-year funding commitments to build think-tanks chock-full of academic researchers and experienced organizers working in concert with organic producers and citizen food systems advocates to accelerate change. We’ll need a creative and vibrant arts and media community working to link and educate consumers on the benefits of organic food systems as well.
Mostly, I offered a set of tools and initiatives that we will need to build on the solutions we already see working. However, we must invest some time, funds and expertise into pointing out the long-term instability of our current industrial food system model too. We have to fight every bad legislative initiative (taking pictures of farms will be illegal if a bill proposed in the Florida state legislature passes!), outrageous regulatory pronouncements (we are united in opposition to the release of GE alfalfa) and waivers on the use of banned pesticides and herbicides. We must stop the use of methyl iodide and the return of DDT!
We need to repeatedly raise the fragility of our current multi-national industrial farming system by pointing out its dependence on cheap oil, massive “on-time delivery” box stores, the use of hundreds of suspected carcinogens, and the poverty that impacts many of the workers who actually plant and harvest our food. People must be informed (through every media outlet available to us) that they are, in fact, what they eat!
The organic industry needs to establish alliances with anti-pesticide and environmental groups for common cause, and engage with environmentalists on regional and national food policies. Welcome nutrition and farm labor activists to our collective dinner tables. Raise money then raise hell. Organize the next generation and then the one after that. Celebrate family. Dance to the music. Break bread together. Bless the soil.