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The Organic Foods Movement - Led by Heinz Corporation or We the People?

By Paul Cienfuegos
CommonDreams.org
March 19, 2009


The Time to Choose is Now

In the past few weeks, the USDA has once again attempted to
weaken the federal organics standards that so many Americans
have worked hard to enshrine into federal law. These changes
would have allowed food labeled as "USDA Organic" to contain
hormones and antibiotics in dairy cattle, pesticides on
produce and potentially contaminated fishmeal as feed for
livestock. As happened with a number of other outrageous
recent USDA actions, citizens groups and the organic food
industry rallied in opposition, and were successful in
reversing the proposed changes.

The newest round of protests against such changes reminds us
of the more than 200,000 letters Americans sent to the USDA
back in 1997/98 pleading with the agency to not allow toxic
sludge, irradiated food, and GMOs to be included in a list of
allowable food growing practices for the then-new federal
organic food regulations. The USDA backed down then as well,
in the face of the outpouring of public opinion. It seems we
have won again. Or have we?

Could it be that handing regulatory authority over to the USDA
regarding organic foods creates a larger problem than it
solves? And is it conceivable that this problem could have
been averted entirely if we the people had thought more
critically about our safe food movement's own decision-making processes?

Let's review the history.

In the 1970s, the owners of many small local farms and food
production companies realized that they needed a new standard
of food production that would prohibit a wide variety of toxic
processes from ever coming in contact with their foods. These
local free-thinking individuals got together and drafted a set
of proposed organic food standards designed to become law at
the state level. No big food companies came out to oppose or
weaken the legislation, because at the time, these companies
hadn't yet envisioned the tremendous profitability of what has
since become one of the fastest growing sectors of the entire
American economy - organic food products.

State standards worked well in every state in which they were
established. There was only one real problem with this new
system. Because organic certification rules were slightly
different from state to state, organic food growers and
producers had to be aware of these variations in order to be
able to market their products in every state. In states
without their own standards, an organic product could be sold
as such as long as it was certified by one of the other
states' certifiers. But in spite of this difficulty, the
organic industry grew rapidly; product choice kept expanding.
The system worked.

If everything was humming along so smoothly, then why did more
than 200,000 Americans write letters to the USDA in 1997/98
begging them to not allow GMOs, irradiation and toxic sludge
as fertilizer on organic farms? As with so many other tragic
stories we could be telling, this one also involves we the
people handing our sovereignty over to a bunch of corporations
- only this time they were organic food corporations with
names like Cascadian Farm, Santa Cruz Organics, Hain, Muir
Glen, Little Bear, and many others. And their owners had a
similar goal to those of Monsanto's owners - ever increasing
sales and profits.

State-based organic food certification might have worked just
fine for an organics movement whose goals centered around
public health and a sustainable economy, and whose leadership
continued to be small-scale farmers and producers, and safe
food advocates.

But unfortunately, the safe food movement's numerous and
diverse farmer-led and other organizations of the 1970s and
80s gradually ceded organic food policy decision-making
authority to a small number of much more centralized
organizations whose leaders (and/or funders) now included or
were entirely comprised of organic food corporation
representatives. And these corporate leaders had a different
set of goals.

So the sad reality is that we no longer have a strong and
united movement of grassroots citizens organizations working
together to create an organic food system for this country.
Instead, we primarily have a "national consumer watchdog
group" (the Organic Consumers Association, OCA) which defines
its constituents as mere consumers who yearn only for safe
foods to vote for with their dollars, and a business
organization (the Organic Trade Association, OTA) whose
members include "growers, shippers, processors, certifiers,
farmer associations, brokers, manufacturers, consultants,
distributors and retailers" - in the US, Canada, and Mexico -
working primarily to protect and expand its profitability in
the global marketplace. And for this, we do need federal
organic standards.

Notice, by the way, the lack of attention to the concerns of
farm workers by either organization. They are invisible,
though there are hundreds of thousands of them.

To fully realize the danger of our current situation, you
merely have to view a list of the giant agribusiness
corporations that are clamoring to get in on the organic foods
market action, which at the current growth rate will
constitute 10 percent of American agriculture by the year
2010. These huge companies now own most of the organic
industry's leading brands.

* General Mills owns Muir Glen and Cascadian Farm
* Heinz owns Hain, Breadshop, Arrowhead Mills, Garden of
Eatin', Farm Foods, Imagine Rice (and Soy) Dream, Casbah,
Health Valley, DeBoles, Nile Spice, Celestial Seasonings,
Westbrae, Westsoy, Little Bear, Walnut Acres, Shari Ann's,
Mountain Sun, and Millina's Finest
* M&M-Mars owns Seeds of Change
* Coca-Cola owns Odwalla
* Kellogg owns Kashi, Morningstar Farms, and Sunrise Organic
* Philip Morris/Kraft owns Boca Foods and Back to Nature
* Tyson owns Nature's Farm Organic
* ConAgra owns LightLife
* Danone owns Stonyfield Farm
* Dean owns White Wave Silk, Alta Dena, Horizon, and The
Organic Cow of Vermont
* Unilever owns Ben and Jerry's

And the list goes on and on and on.

And who (or what) leads the Organic Trade Association, which
continues to play a leading role in the development of organic
food legislation and policy-making? The board of directors
includes employees of Whole Foods Market, Weetabix Canada,
Stonyfield Farm, and Horizon companies. And the primary
funding for the OTA's public policy and media advocacy work
comes from Hain Celestial Group (i.e. Heinz Corp), Horizon
Organic (i.e. Dean Corp), Cascadia Farm (i.e. General Mills
Corp), Stonyfield Farm (i.e. Danone Corp), Tyson Foods, and many others.

Is the corporate leadership and funding of the OTA having an
impact on its ability to maintain organizational integrity?
You bet! At its annual convention in Texas, it hosted a panel
discussion about whether organic and biotech agriculture can
co-exist. Perhaps a better use of member time would have been
a panel on the need for a ban on genetically modified
organisms in the food supply, and how to achieve it. The fact
that General Mills Corporation is a major donor may have had
something to do with this. And last July, the OTA's Personal
Care Task Force decided not to reappoint member company Dr.
Bronner's Magic Soaps, the largest seller of natural soap in
the U.S. According to several members, the company is being
removed for speaking out against watering down standards for
body care products.

Has anyone asked those small-scale food producers who launched
this extraordinary organic foods movement back in the 1970's
what they think about their movement (if you can even honestly
still call it a movement) now being funded and led by a long
list of giant corporations? The very nature of the modern
corporate capitalist economy necessitates companies growing
larger and larger in order to compete. Is this really the
business model that the organic foods movement supports? In
this democratic society, is this really the best we can do?

At this point, one has to ask a number of perhaps
not-so-obvious questions: If we the people had never allowed
our organic food corporations to take control of our safe food
movement's policy-making processes (via such groups as the OTA
and the National Organic Standards Board), would we have
lobbied to replace state-based certification with federal USDA
certification? And if we had not turned this decision-making
authority over to our corporations, would more than 200,000
concerned citizens have had to write letters to the USDA?
Would we now be in the unenviable situation where we are
continually on the defensive against the USDA's ongoing
attempts to drive a tank through our new federal organics
standards? Can social movement processes survive when
corporations (including ally corporations) are given a
political voice? Did it not occur to the safe food movement's
leadership that our corporations might one day end up being
owned by much larger agribusiness corporations that still
wanted a seat at our policy-making tables?

When citizens unconsciously delegate their rightful
decision-making authority to the corporate form of doing
business, and when corporations wield Bill of Rights
protections as "corporate persons," how can we possibly
maintain any semblance of control over the key societal
decisions which affect us all? How can we even honestly claim
that the U.S. is a democratic society when we the people
struggle to differentiate between a citizens' organization
responsive to its members and committed to a specific set of
goals relating to justice, fairness, or ecological sanity; and
a trade association whose primary goal is maximizing market
share? What is it going to take for the organic foods
"movement" in this country - what's left of it - to recognize
the threat posed by turning its decision-making authority over
to organic foods corporations which are themselves owned by
much larger corporations?

The situation in other countries is less serious, since their
safe food advocacy groups are still led by citizens, not
corporations. For example, the International Federation of
Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) represents 570 member
organizations in more than 100 countries. Its mission is
"Leading, uniting and assisting the organic movement in its
full diversity." IFOAM is "a democratic federation with all
fundamental decisions taken at its general assemblies, where
its World Board is also elected. It encourages farm workers to
play an active role, which you'll never hear from the OTA or OCA.

The US does still have hundreds of grassroots citizen groups
working on safe food issues. They are networked together
through the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture
(NCSA) which "is dedicated to educating the public on the
importance of a sustainable food and agriculture system that
is economically viable, environmentally sound, socially just,
and humane." Constituencies represented include "family farms,
rural and urban communities, environmental and wildlife
advocates, faith-based institutions, minority farmers,
farmworker and social justice groups, community food security
activists, and advocates for the humane treatment of animals."

Notice that this is not a consumer alliance. These hundreds of
member organizations are made up of people who define
themselves as citizens using democratic processes to further
their goals. Some of these groups include: Baton Rouge
Economic and Agricultural Development Alliance, Comte de Apoyo
a los Trabajadores Agricolas--Farmworker Support Committee,
Community Nutrition Institute, Family Farm Defenders, Georgia
Poultry Justice Alliance, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners
Association, Missouri Farmers Union, National Catholic Rural
Life Conference, Oregon Tilth, Texas Organic Cotton Marketing
Cooperative, United Methodist General Board of Church and
Society, Western Organization of Resource Councils, and Women,
Food and Agriculture. The OCA and OTA are also members of this network.

Wouldn't you prefer your organic food legislation to be
enshrined by state legislatures, and safeguarded by hundreds
of thousands of real flesh-and-blood human beings who make up
a strong interwoven national network of grassroots
organizations and small farms like the ones mentioned above,
rather than placing your trust in the hands (!?) of corporate
"persons" which have been empowered to lead an international
trade association, plus a federal agency corrupted by
agribusiness? It's a no-brainer!

Perhaps the time has come for organic food advocates to admit
that a huge strategic mistake has been made due to the fact
that we have wandered so far from our literal roots. And that
the best solution to this growing crisis is for thousands of
us to stand together as citizens (rather than isolated as
consumers) and insist that our organic food promoting
organizations' leaders work with us to regain control of our
movement from corporations of all kinds from this day forward by:

* Acknowledging our enormous mistake.

* Empowering only flesh-and-blood persons - not corporate
persons - to participate in our movement's own policy decision
making groups. (Let's show the nation how democratic decision
making should be done by disempowering the supposed "right" to
free-speech that corporate personhood has established under
law, and which has so effectively devastated we the people's
ability to take charge.)

* Withdrawing our support for USDA-defined and regulated
organics standards, and returning to the old state standards.
(If it ain't broke, don't fix it!)

* Insisting that the US pull out of all global trade treaties
and processes which are not entirely transparent and
democratic in their decision making structures.

* Working diligently to see ourselves again primarily as
citizens who all have an inherent right to a safe food supply,
rather than as mere consumers who vote with our dollars.
(Imagine organic food advocates beginning to question the
acceptability of a two-tier food supply in this country, where
those of us who can afford to do so buy organic, and the rest
of us eat irradiated and genetically modified food dosed with
toxic chemicals. Imagine hundreds of grassroots groups working
together to end this travesty.)

We have reached a critical moment in our nation's history. Are
we up to the task?

Paul Cienfuegos co-founded Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt
County, and currently chairs the City of Arcata Committee on
Democracy and Corporations. He first chimed in on this topic
in 1997 with his published essay, "The USDA Organics Standards
as a Symptom of Corporate Rule". Paul also owns an unusual
online bookstore: www.100fires.com . This essay will appear in
an upcoming book on dismantling corporate rule, which he is
co-authoring with Betsy Barnum, fellow of the Center for
Prosperity in Minnesota.

 

 

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