Hi, I’m Caryn Hartglass and you’re listening to It’s All About Food. Thanks for joining me today. We have a very important guest with us today and I know that you are going to get a lot of very worthwhile information. I’m going to be speaking with Ronnie Cummins. He’s the founder and director of the Organic Consumer Association, a non-profit US Based network of 850,000 consumers dedicated to safeguarding organic standards and promoting a healthy, just and sustainable system of agriculture and commerce. The Organic Consumer Association’s primary strategy is to work on national and global campaigns promoting health, justice and sustainability that integrate public education, marketplace pressure, media work, litigation and grass roots lobbying. Cummins is also editor of the Organic Consumer Association‘s website which you can go to at OrganicConsumers.org and the newsletters, Organic Bytes and Organic View. He has been active as a writer and activist since the 1960’s with extensive experience in Human Rights, anti-war, anti-nuclear, labor, consumer environmental and sustainable agriculture campaigns. Over the past decade he has served as director of US and international efforts such as the Pure Food Campaign and the Global Days of Action against GMO’s. From 1992 to 1998 Cummins served as a campaign director for the foundation of economic trend in Washington, DC. In1998 Cummins organized the SOS Save Organic Standards campaign spearheading the largest consumer grassroots backlash against the USDA. In recent history, he’s a frequent lecturer both in US and abroad and he has published numerous articles and authored a series of children’s books called “Children of the World”. Cummins most recent book is “Medically Engineered Food” a self-defense guide for consumers. Please welcome Ronnie Cummins.
Caryn Hartglass: Hi Ronnie
Ronnie Cummins: Well, good to be with you, today.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh, I feel like you’re a kindred spirit, you’ve done such amazing work and everything that you’re doing is so, so important. You’ve had such an incredible impact over the last decade
Ronnie Cummins: Well thank you Caryn
Caryn Hartglass: The question I have is “How did we get here?” How did we get to this place and I was just reading your post on Huffington Post which touches on a lot of things I wanted to talk about today. So I was happy to see that there but one of the things that’s really problematic I think is just semantics. What’s in a word and, one of the things that really bothers me right now is what’s considered ‘conventional’. How did the food that’s produced today with toxic chemicals, pesticides and herbicides and chemical fertilizers with horrific, unsustainable practices. How did this become ‘conventional’?
Ronnie Cummins: Yes, well, if we think about it a little bit, we realize that humans have taken care of animals and used them for food and clothing for 30 or 40 thousand years in a pretty organized way and people have been cultivating crops for about 10 thousand years and it’s only since really World War 2 that big corporations, chemical companies, mining companies decided that hey let’s use a bunch of toxic chemicals in agriculture and we could make more money. That’s exactly what happened is that some of the chemical companies like Dupont, like the predecessor BASF had produced bombs and nerve gas in World War 1 and World War 2 and explosives and then when World War 2 ended, they were looking at “Oh we’ve lost the market for these chemicals” and so they said “Hey why don’t we use them for agriculture we can turn the bomb making materials into chemical fertilizer we can turn the nerve gases into pesticides, we can keep making enough money” and so it took a long time for chemical and mining companies and ammunitions company to basically convince farmers around the world that using toxic chemicals was a good idea but unfortunately starting in about 1945 they made a lot of headway. So here we are 65 years later, at the end of the so-called ‘green’ revolution in agriculture that the end of this period where anyone in their right mind thinks using toxic chemicals is a good idea and along comes Monsanto and these other chemical companies who decide that they’re going to stop calling themselves chemical companies because everyone is so angry about what they’ve done to public health in the world so they say “oh no, we’re life science companies now, we’ve got this new technology called genetic engineering and it’s even better than using a bunch of chemicals and we’ll tell the public that we can feed the world’s hungry, that we can get the pesticides out of agriculture, we’ll tell them since chemical agriculture and industrial commerce have destroyed climate stability we’ll also tell people that “hey, we can help you grow crops in this new era of severe climate change”. So here we are and thank goodness millions and millions of people are waking up and realizing there’s no such thing as conventional. Conventional means chemical, conventional means toxic and that this whole myth of using genetic engineering in agriculture is actually dangerous to our health, dangerous to the environment and it’s just further destabilizing the climate and when they use a third of the US’s corn crop – it was actually more than a third last year – to produce genetically engineered ethanol, which they claim will relieve the pressure of our dwindling oil supplies but it turns out now that producing genetically engineered corn to produce ethanol actually uses up more fossil fuel than if you just burned gasoline in your car. So all these frauds have been perpetuated on the public with the connivance of unfortunately, our elected public officials and regulatory agencies and so here we are today a third of all our crop in the US is cultivated with genetically engineered crops, 80% are non-organic processed food in grocery stores is contaminated with GMO’s and the public never wanted this. The public continues to say in polls “We don’t want genetically engineered food, we don’t want genetically engineered ethanol, we don’t want genetically engineered trees, we want a safe, sustainable, healthy environment and food chain.” So, that’s why more and more of us are involved in a campaign called “Millions against Monsanto” that’s why millions of Americans have now started thinking a lot more about what they’re eating, have gotten back into growing their own, and paying attention to what they buy in the stores.
Caryn Hartglass: Ronnie, I’m just going wow, wow, wow, wow, wow. You’ve hit so many issues and it’s almost unbelievable that we are where we are today and everything is so integrated and connected and inter-woven and it’s so overwhelming and I can imagine, the average consumer is overwhelmed to the point that they don’t even want to think about it. But, fortunately we are seeing a trend and we are seeing in some of the urban areas and more affluent areas we’re seeing more organic produce available and healthier food available.
Ronnie Cummins: One thing that’s an encouraging thought is a report just came out that 12% of the fruits and vegetables sold in the US last year, 2010 were organic.
Caryn Hartglass: 12%?
Ronnie Cummins: When you look at grocery store sales, only 4% of grocery store sales are certified organic. But another 8% of grocery store sales are this so-called ‘natural’ and even ‘natural’ in most cases is a marketing term rather than a clear alternative. The consumers who are shelling out $60 billion a year for natural products, they actually are trying to cast a vote for their health, for the health of the planet, for a more just system of family farms. And so, it’s not their fault that they’re not totally clear about the difference between natural and organic.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes.
Ronnie Cummins: It’s the fault of the industry who are deliberately green washing conventional products, calling them sustainable or calling them natural and charging a higher price for them. So in terms of public consciousness and intent to make a better world every time they pull out their wallet in a restaurant or a grocery store we’re quite a ways down the road and I think what’s going to happen is we’re going to reach a tipping point if we can convert the natural food and products industry, if we can force them to go down a track to a transition organic we can get to a tipping point in the US and across North America in time to deal with the oncoming economic and energy collapse that more and more people are now saying ‘it’s inevitable’. In other words, we gotta setup a food and farming system across the US and all of our 3200 counties that is crash resistant that can supply us with food and fiber over the next decade into the next century. We certainly don’t have that right now but we have the potential to build it if we get to work.
Caryn Hartglass: I want to go back to ‘natural’. I like the concept of actually making ‘natural’ have true meaning and I look forward to that, rather than it just being a meaningless label. So I definitely hope that the people that are using ‘natural’ will go in this direction of making those foods that we call ‘natural’ really organic and healthful. The food and farming system crash–resistant, one of the scary things about living in an urban environment like New York city where I am, is, if there is some sort of crash, of course all of us we don’t grow food. We don’t have access to any food. And these giant agri-businesses make the small local farmers make it really impossible to survive. But there is this movement of eating locally and this locavore concept that’s come up recently and people are starting to choose between local versus organic. I loved your post in the Huffington Post recently talking about local versus organic. Can you give us a little summary about that?
Ronnie Cummins: Yes, well I mean obviously for most of the last 10,000 years we’ve had a food and farming system and a ranching system that was both local and organic and looking to the future, this is what we got to have.
Caryn Hartglass: Absolutely
R; If you look at 1974 in the US during the era of oil embargo, people strip the supermarkets bare of food in parts of like Detroit within about 3 days in 1974. We had lines at gasoline stations that were hours long, people were fighting, people were actually shooting each other in gasoline lines and you look more recently at Japan what happened when the nuclear meltdown began is food and bottled water were stripped off the shelves very, very quickly. This could happen at any time in the US through a bird flu, a nuclear meltdown, a serious international conflict and so on. So we need to start thinking about this in a serious manner and the only way that we can have food security is to get back to the kind of system we had in 1945, for example, in the US when anywhere between 42 and 50% of all of our fruits and vegetables were grown in backyard gardens, community gardens, school gardens when most of the food that was in grocery stores had been grown in a 100 miles radius. This is not rocket science, this is the way things used to be. This is the way they’re going to have to be again. So that’s why it’s important and we also have some traditions in the US that we need to look at again. The Amish people, the Menonite people, Mormons, it’s a traditional rule in the Mormon community that you’re supposed to have not only an organic garden but you’re supposed to have 2 years worth of food stored away. And these traditions are worth looking at again. We need literally millions of green houses and hoop houses across the country, we need millions of root cellars, probably many of your listeners have never even seen a root cellar. Certainly, those of us that are grandparents were sustainable organic farmers that used to be the norm that everyone had a big pantry of stock with food that had been canned and put into jars. You know when you get the stuff during the harvest season you produce it like root cellars where you had significant amounts of food put away. So it’s really, we need to start thinking about these things. We need to create a political and economic situation to where small farms, which are starting to grow across the US and backyard and community gardens which are certainly starting to grow and farmer’s markets, which are certainly starting to grow. That could become very quickly, scaled up, because we may not have as much time as some of us hope to get this in place. Otherwise, we’re going to be eating c-rations in Haliburton relocation camps when the system comes crashing down.
Caryn Hartglass: I certainly hope that a crisis never comes but it’s certainly good to be prepared and there are benefits to doing everything that you said, even if some horrible thing never did occur. We certainly will benefit if our food is grown locally, we certainly will benefit if we’re growing our own food and we have community gardens and our own gardens. Our food will be healthier and fresher and people will be more interested in eating produce because our diet today is ridiculous where we’re eating so many empty calories, packaged, processed foods. We have a lot of work to do. I want to go back in history a little bit and talk about the history behind the Save Organic Standards campaign that you organize because it really was something and I remember it and I remember how many people wrote in to the government about wanting organic standards and wanting organic food as the grassroots movement had created it.
Ronnie Cummins: Yeah, well I think the government and industry, the chemical industrial farming conflicts did not take it seriously as an alternative counter culture if you will, as an alternate economy until about 1998. What happened was the toxic sludge industry, the bio-technology industry, the food radiation industry and the nuclear industry, they started looking at this new organic food and farming system in the US we were just over a billion dollars in sales, between one and two billion in ’98 and they said “O my God, this organic industry is going to start to grow.” We better make sure that it’s the type of industry that our good old boys network can control. The big supermarkets, the big seed and chemical companies, the Monsanto’s and Dows and Duponts and Archer Daniels Midland, Walmart and the rest and so they said. Oh yes, let’s say that you can use genetic engineering, you can use municipal sewage sludge and you can use radiation and you can still call it organic. They put out these proposed federal regulations in mid December 1997 and this campaign that we had started to organize across the country called SOS (Save Organic Standards) we were ready because we had insiders, inside the government who were telling us what was going to come down. So immediately we were able to sound the alarm, start sending out leaflets and petitions to natural food stores all over the country and this was just when people were just starting to learn how to use their internet for activism. So we were able to get petitions on the internet that went viral and the government had never seen anything on this scale after they got 280,000 official comments and so on and hundreds of thousands of phone calls and so on and they realized, O my god, I guess we better take these granola eaters a little more seriously. These people seem to have large numbers, they’re telling us they’re registered voters, they’re telling us they’re going to vote us right out of office if we don’t listen to them. So by May of 1998 even Monsanto realized they had created a public relations nightmare here and so Monsanto asked the US Dept. of Agriculture to withdraw the request to allow genetically engineered foods and ingredients in organic. The nuclear industry also realized that there’s no way that people were going to accept irradiated food with an organic label on it. And similarly the sewage sludge industry these are Synago right now in the US the biggest corporation in fact they’re the Carlyle Group a division of the infamous Carlyle Group who got us into Iraq and other wars but they’re producing billions of pounds of toxic sewage sludge every year because in the US we allow chemical companies to use our sewage systems as dumps. Hospitals are dumping whatever they want in there. We got sewage, excuse me, stormwater overflow when it rains all the chemicals are going in there and everything that consumers feel like throwing down the drain ends up in the sewage sludge so we got a tremendous problem so they said hey, we let chemical farmers in the US spread this toxic, sewage sludge on 140,000 farms across the US. Let’s give it the veneer, the real veneer of greenwashing, let’s allow it under organic. That was ridiculous, people said and so we beat them back on those three issues, we beat them back as they tried to say that certain pesticides could be used and we had to fight these last 12 years over and over again but I must say that up until now the organic community has been able to keep organic standards pretty darn strong and that if we continue to be vigilant and organized we can probably continue to fight off industry’s attempts to weaken standards.
Caryn Hartglass: It was amazing what happened and I wanted to talk about it because people as I mentioned before get overwhelmed and forget about how powerful our individual voices are and how important it is to speak out when something so ridiculous, so horrible is pending in front of us. We can make a difference, we can make change. But are people getting complacent because I’ve heard a variety of different attempts to kind of water down the organic label recently.
Ronnie Cummins: Yes, I think people are, you know, we’ve gotten so large, 30 billion dollars in certified organics, 60 billion dollars in so-called natural. We’ve gotten so large that a lot of people take it for granted that you’ll still be able to find non-chemical, non-GMO food no matter what happens. But Monsanto and the rest have a different plan their belief is that they can so contaminate the seed supply and they can so contaminate the crop land out there and they can so brainwash the public is that they come in the back door and they anticipate that genetically engineered food and crops will be allowed in organic within a few years. And so they have managed to convince the billionaires like Bill Gates and elected public officials like Barack Obama that genetically engineered food and crops are the wave of the future and so right now we’ve seen a wave of approvals by the regulatory agencies of some extremely controversial crops that should have never been approved like genetically engineered alfalfa, like this genetically engineered corn for ethanol that’s going to pollute the food chain as well, the genetically engineered sugar beets which are going to spread their mutant herbicide resistant genes into a wide swath of the US. So it’s just absurd that you look at every single poll including polls over the last couple of months by CNBC and National Public Radio when you have 80, 90% of the public saying they want labels on these products so that they can avoid buying them, they really don’t want them commercialized and yet the government goes right ahead. What is going on here?
Caryn Hartglass: What is going on here, yes?
Ronnie Cummins: We’ve got a type of arrogance in Washington DC and in the state capitals. We’re going to have to show them again that you can’t just push around 50 million people in the US that is the segment of us who are trying to create a more sustainable food and farming system. We’re trying to create a healthier population. You can’t just push us around, we’re not going to allow this. We gotta draw a line in the sand if you will, we got to get back to that spirit of rebelliousness and determination that we had in 1998 and we’ve got to basically say genetically engineered foods, we’re not going to buy them in stores whether they’re labeled or not we’re not going to sell them in stores and we’re not going to grow them. And that’s why we’ve launched our Millions against Monsanto campaign – it’s a shot across the bow so far to tell the natural food industry that we’re no longer going to let you get away with selling genetically engineered foods tainted with genetically engineered ingredients and call them natural. If you’re going to sell this junk, you’ve gotta put a label on it and basically if you put a label on it people are going to complain and you’re going to have to get it out of your store. So the series of protests, we have 30 cities we have protest rallying for the right to know, protests against GMO’s on March 26 next week in Chicago. We’re going to be having a protest after the greenfest at Whole Food’s flagship store in Chicago. We’re basically challenging the industry to walk their talk. Hey you guys trying to be natural. We have kept GMO’s out of organic, but now we gotta get them out of natural. We’re going to do it whether you like it or not, and we’re going to do it by focusing on your bottom line and your corporate reputation. I mean if Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s and United Natural Foods and all the natural food stores want to retain their green image, they’ve gotta listen to what 90% of their customers are saying which is get those GMO’s out of your stores and in the process while they’re still remaining, we want clear labels and store signs telling us what and what is not likely to be GMO contaminated.
Caryn Hartglass: Amen, Ronnie Cummins, let’s do it! And let’s do it soon.
Ronnie Cummins: We don’t really have any choice.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s right
Ronnie Cummins: One third of all US crop land is now planted in genetically engineered crops and if we don’t act soon thesecrops like GE(?) , alfalfa and sugar beets – they’re trying in the wings, they want to have genetically engineered wheat and rice and so on. It’s going to be so contaminated out there that people are going to throw up their hands and say it’s impossible:
Caryn Hartglass: I give up! Yeah, It’s really, really frightening and it’s frightening that so often our government and our legal system supports Monsanto and not the small farmer.
Ronnie Cummins: It is, they keep telling us that, I guess organic farming and gardening are a good thing and raising animals organically is a good thing but, you know, it’s not practical in the modern world. We can’t feed the 9 billion people we’re going to have in 2050 using antiquated organic methods. But actually, you clear this away, this is propaganda. The United Nations, a food and agriculture organization recently did a summary of all the research that’d been done over the last couple decades and what they found was that in the developing world where most of the world’s population still live and where 30-40% of the population are still small farmers or villagers. In the developing world, when farmers adopt organic farming and animal husbandry practices they actually double their yields or in some cases the yields go up 5 times. The chemical, industrial, GMO model really is not appropriate at all to small farms across the world and that the quicker we can help farmers re-establish their organic traditions, the quicker we’re going to be able to address this issue of a billion people going to bed hungry every night.
Caryn Hartglass: Genetically modified foods don’t address any of the serious problems that are related to hunger and the inability or difficulty in growing food and distributing food and they use it as an excuse, o we’re going to feed the world’s hungry and it’s just not happening and we see.
Ronnie Cummins: It’s not happening
Caryn Hartglass: We see so many farms in India that are going bankrupt because they invest so much either in toxic chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides now in the genetically modified seed crop and they end up killing themselves because their farms are not yielding and they can’t pay their bills.
Ronnie Cummins: Exactly and the so called free-trade agreements, like the North American Free Trade Agreement these free trade agreements with small countries all over the world developing countries. What it is just a cover to dump subsidized crops on their countries, destroy their ability to feed themselves and get them dependent and hooked on importing foods from the US and the European Union. So, even the UN has pointed out that if we’re going to feed the world which basically we should put it, we’re going to let the world feed themselves they’re going to do it through organic small farms and raise it in the developing world. Now if you look at the industrialized world, it’s a little more complicated but if you look at the studies over the past 2 decades in the industrialized world, organic farming yields are pretty darn close to chemical intensive and GMO yield in what you get per acre. But the important thing is you don’t have the collateral damage and side effects from using all these chemicals when you use organic. So you can make a case that even in the industrialized world, if we’re going to continue to feed ourselves, we can’t keep destroying soil fertility, we can’t keep on creating these dead zones in our surface water, rivers, oceans and so on and so forth. But the really important factor that some scientists are pointing out now recently is – oh yeah, but look at the statistics for yields in the industrialized world when you start to have droughts and you start to have these intensive downpours in other words when you start to have the kind of wacky weather that now appears to be the norm. Wow, then you start to see that organic farming produces 50% more than chemical intensive or GMO farms.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s really amazing. That’s really amazing.
Ronnie Cummins: In other words we have no choice, we have no choice. You look at the price of chemical fertilizer which is de-stabilizing the climate and killing the earth’s fertility, killing the waters and marine life, it’s like. Natural gas is a major component in producing chemical fertilizer. The prices are going up and up and up. Soon, it’s going to be too expensive for everything except the largest factory farms. Seeds, pesticides, electricity for irrigation, all these inputs in chemical, industrial GMO farming are not sustainable. We better get back to organic farming, ASAP, because this is the only crash-resistant, this is the only climate friendly type of agriculture and it works.
Caryn Hartglass: And it works. Ronnie, I want to talk more about a few more of these things that you just brought up but we need to take a quick break and we will be right back, so stay with me.
Caryn Hartglass: Hello I’m Caryn Hartglass and you’re listening to It’s All About Food and I’m here with Ronnie Cummins, the founder and director of the Organic Consumers Association, and I’m trying to stay calm here as I listen to all of the very important issues that Ronnie’s been talking about, about the importance of organic farming, and we’re talking right now about industrial farming. It’s amazing what nature has done and how we’re seeing now the benefits of organic agriculture as the climate is changing and we’re seeing more hurricanes and tornados and droughts and all kinds of severe weather conditions and what you’re saying is that organics stands up to some degree to some of these events much better than, I hate to use the term, conventional farming, but certainly there’s a benefit to having trees and healthy root systems and deep rich soil and all kinds of organisms in the soil, holding it all together to be able to withstand severe weather.
Ronnie Cummins: Yes, and the simple reason why we’re going to have to get back to organic soil management in order to survive in this era of climate instability is because with organic farming and organic husbandry or ranching, the soil is alive, it’s filled with trillions of micro organisms and fungi, and it’s like a sponge, really, compared to chemically treated soil, you put a shovel in it and you can see a difference. But the nice thing about having the soil alive and sponge-like is that when it rains, it retains that moisture below the soil, for a considerable period of time, so that when you have a long period between rainfall, the plants can still survive. And conversely, you know, lately, we’ve had instead of a steady rain at predictable times, we often have all the way across North America, these torrential downpours, when it finally does rain, it’s a flood, and the thing about organic soil, is that it can absorb a lot of the water, it doesn’t all just run off and wash away the soil, so it can enable the plants to survive, it holds the soil, it holds the nutrients in, so we don’t really have much choice but to all become reacquainted with the soil. The soil is actually the very most important thing around us, if we don’t pay attention to this, we’re going to be very very sorry, but the good thing is that we can all become organic gardeners, even if we’re just starting with pots in our windowsills, and then our backyards, and so on. As I’m talking to you I’m looking at my rooftop garden which is an unbelievable amount of food I’m producing in a 25 by 25 space, I’ve got organic tomato plants growing in these in these feed sacks, these 50 pound feed sacks, looking really happy today, we got a little rain last night, finally. So, we can all become organic gardeners again like our grandparents were, we can think before we pull out our wallets, we can learn how to cook again from basic grains, eat lower on the food chain, you’ll be healthier, you’ll be happier, and this is the way we’re going to be eating in the future.
Caryn Hartglass: Can we talk a little bit about fair trade and the difference between free trade and fair trade?
Ronnie Cummins: Yes, well back in 1998 like we were talking about when we fought off genetic engineering and sludge and food irradiation under organic standards, a lot of us in the organic community were trying to say, well, you shouldn’t be able to have an organic label on stuff unless it’s certified as fair trade, you can’t be exploiting farm workers or small farmers or ranchers, and call that stuff organic. And the USDA did not listen to us at the time, they said all that’s too idealistic, that’s not reasonable and so on. But nonetheless, a fair trade movement developed alongside of the organic movement, and it’s worked really hard over the last couple of decades, so that we do have now billions of dollars worth of products sold in the United States every year that are certified as fair trade. Now fair trade is very simple, it means that we should not exploit people, it means that we pay a farmer for example, or we pay a rancher for example, a fair price for their products so that they can cover the cost it took them to produce it, and so that there could be a small margin for them, to use.
Caryn Hartglass: To feed their family, and send their children to school
Ronnie Cummins: Yeah it does not mean the whole paycheck phenomenon, where a natural food store tries to figure out just how high they can jack up the prices, it means that you pay attention along every supply line. For example, you go into a store, a clothing store, and you’re going to get your shirt or pair of pants, it’s like, what you should be thinking about, what is that item of clothing made out of? If it’s made out of cotton, is it organic cotton? Cause if it’s not organic cotton it means that the farm workers on the fields were exposed to tremendous amounts of toxic pesticides, it means their children are going to have a very very difficult time growing up and being “normal” in terms of health. The other thing you want to look at is “oh, that item of clothing, where was it made?” If you see a label on there, because we still do have country of origin labels in place for clothing in the United States, although industries try to, every year in congress, they try to eliminate this, but you look at the label, if it says Made in Haiti, or Made in Indonesia, the next thing you should think about is “Oh my god, this is probably adolescent and kids in a sweatshop”. So if you don’t see a fair trade label, if you don’t see an organic label, you should maybe think about, “Is there a used clothing store, where I can purchase something?” and so on and so forth. We call our campaign Clothes for Change, and our slogan “Care What You Wear”. Don’t put aside your consciousness.
Caryn Hartglass: I think it’s really, really important, all of this, I don’t think the majority of people are as focused on these issues, their clothing, as they are with their food, because it doesn’t affect their health directly, and I would hope that more and more people would think about wanting to reduce exploitation and pain and suffering, not just in our own lives, but in the lives of everyone that we touch by what we consume, but it’s unfortunately not as powerful an argument to many people, they want to do what’s best for themselves and their families, and not as concerned with the plight of other people, especially when it comes to getting a bargain.
Ronnie Cummins: Yeah and with food, the reason why you want to make sure fair trade and organic go hand in hand with local is, if we don’t start paying small farmers and producers the fair trade price, that is the price so that they can continue doing it, they’re not going to be there when we need them.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s right
Ronnie Cummins: The reason why WalMart and McDonald’s seem to be cheap is because there’s hidden costs involved in what they’re selling for a cheap price, and once the system begins to sag, you’re not going to be able to depend on WalMart for your food.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m glad you brought up WalMart because there are a number of chains like WalMart that are starting to offer organic products, and I don’t shop at WalMart and I don’t intend to, but, are these really organic? Are these quality? And how does that affect everyone else that’s providing organic food, I ultimately, of course, I want everybody to offer only organic food, WalMart and all the stores, but I’m uncomfortable about it.
Ronnie Cummins: Yeah, when you look at WalMart for example, they brag that they’re now the biggest seller of organic food in the United States, and they are in terms of the volume, but it’s a very tiny percentage of their overall sale. It’s really a greenwashing tactic, it’s like when like 99% of what you sell is from exploited labor, it’s from chemical intensive and GMO agriculture, and you throw in the 1%, what you’re trying to do is create the impression that you’re sustainable and community responsible when you’re not. But even there, WalMart, for several years, has been trying to be the biggest seller of organic milk in the United States, but we had to launch a campaign, looks like we’re finally winning it after seven or eight years, WalMart was buying so-called organic milk from this company called Aurora Organic, and from this company called Horizon Organic, Horizon is a division of Dean Foods, which is the largest dairy in the world. But basically, when you took a closer look at these suppliers of so-called organic milk in WalMart, they were factory farms. They were indistinguishable from chemical/industrial factory farms except for the fact that they fed the animals organic corn and soybeans instead of chemical corn and soybeans. So we had to fight a huge battle in the organic community to boycott these factory dairy farms, so-called organic factory dairy farms, and we were finally able to get the National Organic Standards Board, and eventually the USDA to say that you have to have, on a so-called organic dairy farm, you can’t just confine the animals, you have to give them access to pasture every day of the growing season if that’s possible, 30% of their feed, at least, by weight has to be grass and the forage and the pasture and so on, but it’s an indication of what these companies can do, because WalMart moved out there, they start, they said “Oh let’s start selling organic milk, but we’ll buy huge quantities from you, but it’s got to be this price”, and of course the price was so low the only way you could provide anything called organic to them at that price was you have to break the rules, cut the corners. Organic valley, to their credit, which is a large cooperative of organic farmers across the US, they refused to sell to WalMart at such a low price, because they said there’s no way we could do it right and sell it to you for that, but Horizon and Aurora were quite happy to make a quick buck and it was only when we took them into court, it was only when we and the Cornacopia Institute filed complaint after complaint against them, it finally got into the mass media, and retail stores like Whole Foods finally got the message that “Oh my god, we better not sell these so-called organic dairy products that are coming actually from factory forms”. WalMart may claim that they want to be green, and I assume some of these executives have convinced themselves that they’re going to be greener, but the bottom line is that whole system of globalized sourcing, of giant centralized distribution centers, of paying people the bare minimum wage, this is not sustainable, we got to get back to local stores and farmer’s markets that are organic and that are based on fair trade practices.
Caryn Hartglass: You can’t trust these companies because they’re so vertically integrated that so many things can be hidden and disguised, and it’s really hard to figure out what’s going on, it’s amazing that you had the success that you did with organic milk. I personally as a vegan don’t get into the organic animal products but I certainly would like to see the end of animal agriculture, factory farming, and for those who are going to consume animal products, for them to be organic and to be as humane as possible, but with WalMart doing what they’re doing, it kind of taints the image of organic to some people, some people wonder how can I trust that my food is organic, or how do I know that it’s any different.
Ronnie Cummins: Well the only way you know is, because there is this organic community out there, that is paying attention, and has principles, and we’re willing to mobilize. That’s our only guarantee of organic standards, is our ability to create a ruckus when they’re not doing things right. Of course, down the road, this is all about politics and political power, it’s like if we can’t regain control of our government at the federal and state levels where we have quickly lost it to the large corporations, it’s going to be impossible and we’re going to have to have a much more localized standards, and so on and so forth. But at this point, you still can trust the labels of organic, you still can trust the label of fair trade, but this only part of the issue, it’s got to be local, we must relocalize the economy, and we must do it as quickly as possible. Because no matter how much the mass media’s trying to reassure us that “oh yeah there’s not going to be any more nuclear meltdowns”, “oh yeah these antibiotics resist the diseases like MRSA that come out of these factory farms”, “we’ll develop new antibiotics”, “we’ll figure out how to make the sewage sludge safer”, and so on and so forth. Don’t believe a word of it, it’s up to us and the rest of the people in the world, we got to move, we don’t want to panic, but we got to move quickly and we got to build a new economy inside the infrastructure of the economy that is rapidly sagging. What we want to make sure is that the collapse that is coming is not like going over a cliff, it’s more like a descending stairway where we learn to live with less fossil fuel, where we learn to relocalize our lives and our economies again, where we learn how to frankly enjoy nature and our friends and our family, our lives, our communities, instead of rapidly trying to consume everything in sight.
Caryn Hartglass: I have to believe we’d be a lot happier that way, there’s a lot of depressed people right now taking a lot of pharmaceuticals for depression, and a lot of it has to do with, we’re not connecting, we’re not doing what’s really in our DNA that we enjoy, being with our family, and preparing our food, and celebrating the simple things, and being out in nature, and connecting with other animal species, we need to get back to who we are. We just have a couple minutes left and I just wanted to touch lightly on, I heard that Congress is actually considering looking at food subsidies because they’re trying to chop away at our budget and are starting to realize that the corporate subsidies are taking up a lot of the budget. Are there any subsidies or anything that you know of in the works that you know of that will support the organic food system and not the conventional system?
Ronnie Cummins: Well when you look at the situation right now, basically the USDA takes about 100 billion dollars of our tax money every year and they give it to large corporations, they subsidize large corporations. That’s basically what they do, they’re robbing us, on the one hand, and handing it out to the rich and the powerful on the other. In order to keep us under control, they have to give a few nickels and dimes to organic, and transition to organic farming programs, but it literally doesn’t amount to, it’s less than 100 million out of 100 billion a year has been going in the right direction, in terms of the subsidies for organic and transition to organic versus subsidies for chemical agriculture. On the other hand a huge part of the USDA budget is food stamps, and programs for women and infants, food supplementary programs, and these are pretty darn important, so we got to be careful here, that on the one hand, I’m not going to shed any tears for chemical farmers who get their subsidies cut off, but we got to make sure that we don’t let them cut food stamps and the wheat program at the same time.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s a really good point and I appreciate you bringing that up because I wasn’t considering that, but we’ve come to the end of the hour, Ronnie you’ve been so informative and I really can’t believe all the wonderful things you’ve been doing for over the last decade and more, we need more of you, I wish the organic consumers association a lot of great success, we need you, we can’t live without you, so thank you so much and thank you for your time.
Ronnie Cummins: And thank you, and we need alternative radio too, so keep up the good work.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, get back to work now.
Ronnie Cummins: Bye bye
Caryn Hartglass: Bye bye. You’ve been listening to me, I’m Caryn Hartglass, and this is It’s All About Food, thank you for joining me today.
Transcribed 7/14/2013 by Marie and Brandon Chung