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The organic foods movement - Led by Heinz Corporation or we the people? Time to choose is now

(Monday, May 31, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Paul Cienfuegos, Prosperity Center: 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 was 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 ( http://www.DUHC.org ), 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: . 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 ( http://www.prosperitycenter.org ) in Minnesota. More info:
cienfuegos@igc.org .