Satya  [Printer-friendly version]
April 15, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: "Part of the overall problem is that our
social change and progressive movement has been fragmented for the
last 30 years. The movements for health, justice and sustainability
must work together in this age of Peak Oil, permanent war, and
climate chaos."]

The Satya Interview with Ronnie Cummins

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."

KAM: Can you discuss the corporate takeover of the organic food

RC: 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.

KAM: What kind of impact is this having on our food?

RC: 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.

KAM: That's madness! What can we do about this?

RC: 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.

KAM: I'm curious, what is the difference between "natural" and

RC: "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

KAM: But with the way things are going, what will the standards mean
by then?

RC: 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.

KAM: In terms of transportation and its effects on the environment,
what is your take on local vs. organic produce?

RC: 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.

KAM: 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.

RC: 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.

KAM: What do you think is the main problem facing the organic movement

RC: 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.

KAM: It is so true. All of the movements are linked.

RC: 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.

KAM: How did you get involved in the organic food movement?

RC: 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 Lappe 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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