The Politics of Food
Moving Beyond USDA Organic The us department of agriculture’s new federal regulations on organic food, finally released late last year (12/20/00), are basically a set of rules for what organic producers and sellers can and can’t do. These final rules, rewritten extensively after a major backlash by consumers, are certainly a vast improvement over the outrageous proposals that USDA bureaucrats put forth at the end of 1997. The USDA’s infamous (12/15/97) proposed rules, which actually gave birth to the Organic Consumers Association, suggested it was ok to use genetic engineering, irradiation, toxic sludge, intensive animal confinement, animal cannibalism, and pesticides, and still label such products as “USDA Organic.” The final rules outlaw all of these practices. But there are still major problems with Washington’s pro-industrial farming policies and their vision, or rather their lack of vision, regarding the future of organic agriculture.
While the USDA’s new organic regulations may appear on the surface to be generally acceptable, in reality they are a recipe for keeping organic foods and crops restricted to a small niche market. Currently organic foods and crops represent less than 3% of us agriculture. Genetically engineered (GE) crops, in comparison, are now being grown on approximately 20% of all American farmland. At current rates of growth (20-25% per year) organic food will expand to 10% of the total market by 2010. Unfortunately, if current trends persist, the other 90% of American farms at the end of this decade will be giant industrial farms, using genetic engineering (GE), toxic chemicals, animal drugs, and other dubious technologies to enhance their bottom line.
Last year, the federal government funneled less than $5 million into organic agriculture. At the same time, the USDA pumped $28 billion of taxpayer money to conventional agriculture, approximately $18 billion of which fattened the wallets of the largest and richest 10% of the nation’s farms and ranches. By throwing nothing more than crumbs to organic farmers and continuing to massively subsidize industrial farms and genetic engineering, the Bush administration maintains a facade of consumer choice, while propping up what is arguably the unhealthiest, most inequitable, and destructive system of food and fiber production in the world.
One of the primary goals of the Organic Consumers Association is to build a national consumers network powerful enough to reverse us government food and agriculture priorities. Instead of organics remaining nothing more than a niche market, the OCA, as well as the majority of consumers (according to a 1997 national poll) wants organic food to become the dominant mass market, with chemical intensive farming and genetic engineering pushed to the margins, or, better yet, removed from commercialization altogether.
Instead of, for example, giving $18 billion dollars to the nation’s largest and most unsustainable farms and ranches, the OCA has a better idea. Let’s put this $18 billion of our tax money to work building an organic and sustainable future.
With $18 billion in corporate subsidies transferred to the organic sector, we could help hundreds of thousands of family farmers and ranchers start to make the transition to organic farming. We could start paying these farmers, for example, a premium price for their “transition to organic” products so that they could afford to decontaminate and rebuild their farmland, institute biological pest and weed controls, change their animal husbandry practices, and pay for the increased labor costs of organic farming. Society as a whole would immediately start to reap the benefits of this organic revolution: safer food, cleaner water, reduced pesticide pollution, more humane treatment of animals, greater plant and animal biodiversity, and economically revitalized rural communities.
With $18 billion we could easily afford to stop serving junk food to students and help the nation’s 14,800 school districts start to make the transition to organic school lunches. At the same time we can start teaching young people about sustainable agriculture, humane treatment of animals, and healthy living. Instead of Channel One broadcasting mandatory junk food ads to students, and Coca Cola and McDonald’s supplying vending machines and unhealthy fast food to the nation’s increasingly overweight and unhealthy kids, let’s have student organized organic school gardens and tasty and nutritious organic school meals, with food provided as much as possible by local and regional family farms.
Instead of curriculum packets supplied by Monsanto and Kraft/Philip Morris, let’s have students learn about healthy and humane food choices and a sustainable environment.
While we use the power of our federal tax dollars to put a stop to the poisoning and brainwashing of our kids at school, we can, at the same time, stop feeding cheap and unhealthy food to patients in hospitals and to our elders in nursing homes. We can also make locally and regionally-produced food available for the economically disadvantaged, at food shelves and through church and community institutions.
Every poor person, every pregnant mother, and every schoolchild in America deserves the healthiest and most nutritious food that money can buy–organic food. We all know that the food served in most schools, hospitals and nursing homes is a national disgrace. We all know it is unjust that for many people, organic food is currently unaffordable. So now is the time to join with the OCA and do something. It is the time to move beyond the niche market of “USDA Organic.”
After three years of hard work, the OCA has 165,000 members, subscribers, and volunteers in our national OCA network. We call this growing national network Food Agenda 2000-2010.
Our goal is to have a network of one million organic consumers enrolled in the OCA by the end of next year, and two million by the end of 2003.
The only way we’re going to keep changing America’s food marketplace is by continuing to vote with our consumer dollars for organic food, giving preference to organic food produced by farmers in our local areas and regions, whenever possible. However, the only way we’re going to change public food and agricultural policy is to vote with our political power as well—exercising grassroots pressure by calls and letters, votes, and other actions. In other words, we have to move beyond our individual actions and along with others in our area who feel the same way, put on the pressure to make sure that our elected representatives do the “right thing.”
We must build up powerful grassroots networks all over the United States. We must have networks so powerful that public officials will guarantee us (under the penalty of not being reelected) that our tax money will start going toward sustainable and healthy food and agricultural practices, rather than into the already bulging pockets of the corporate agribusiness, junk food, and biotech special interests.
We can start this Food Revolution by paying special attention to building strong OCA networks in a number of the nation’s strategic congressional districts and states, where representatives and senators sit on the powerful agriculture committees. We can get thousands of environmentalists and forest activists to help us out with network-building in these districts and states as well, since these same Federal agriculture committees have primary jurisdiction over our forests and public lands, as well as our farm and food policies.
Our political goal is ambitious but practical. First and foremost, we must identify and contact 5,000 organic consumers in each of the nation’s 435 congressional districts. Then we must build a two-way communications and mobilization network with these like-minded consumers, using email, the telephone, and regular mail as our means. Finally, we must mobilize this entire network, both locally and nationally, so as to transform the consciousness of the public at large, change the dynamics of the marketplace, and reform government policies and laws.
The OCA has come a long way —with your support and participation— since 1998. But we still have a long way to go. Obviously, we need your help. If you can afford to send us money or this national recruiting, network building, and mobilization project, please do so. If you can circulate OCA petitions or otherwise help us identify others in your area that support our efforts, let us know. And if you are willing to involve yourself directly in OCA grassroots campaigns, such as the Starbucks Campaign or our school meals “Safeguard Our Students” Campaign (SOS) in your local area, please write to our office, send us an email, or go to the “Participate Locally” section of our web site.
OCA Expands Starbucks Campaign to 250 Cities
On March 20, 2001 the OCA launched a major campaign against Starbucks, the largest gourmet coffee shop chain in the world. Starbucks has 2700 cafes in the USA, 20% of all coffee shops in the nation. On March 20, we organized protests, press conferences, and leafleting in 100 cities in the US and several in Canada. On June 25-26, we leafleted Starbucks’ customers in over 200 cities, including a number of cities in Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand.
On September 17-23, we expanded the campaign to leafleting in 250 cities and 500 locations. The campaign has generated significant media coverage and has already caused Starbucks to begin making changes in their corporate practices.
Our demands to Starbucks are that the company remove recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) and other genetically engineered ingredients from its brand-name beverages, baked goods, chocolates, bottled coffee Frappuccino drinks, and ice cream; start brewing and seriously promoting Fair Trade, shade-grown, and organic coffee as its “coffee of the day’’ at least one day a week; and follow through on previous commitments to improve the wages and working conditions of farm workers on the coffee plantations of its suppliers in Guatemala, Mexico, and other nations. Starbucks’ CEO, Orin Smith, publicly admitted in April that Fair Trade coffee now constitutes only one-tenth of one percent of their total sales, and that Starbucks’ coffee wholesaler in Guatemala will not even divulge the locations of their plantations in that country, where exploited workers make $2.50 a day. The company has also admitted that _ of the 32 million gallons of milk it buys every year come from dairies which allow cows to be injected with Monsanto’s controversial Bovine Growth Hormone, which is banned in every industrialized nation except for the United States.
On 6/28/01, OCA National Director, Ronnie Cummins and OCA Campaign Manager, Rose Welch, met in Seattle at Starbucks’ headquarters with a Senior Vice-president of Starbucks, Dennis Steffanaci, as well as Sue Mecklenberg, Director of Environmental and Community Affairs. Although Starbucks refused to make a public statement that they will get rid of rBGH and other genetically engineered ingredients and meet all of our demands, it is clear that our pressure campaign has them quite worried. Since March 20, the company has made eight significant changes in its practices. They have: • stopped statements defending the safety of rBGH; • started to use terms like “rBGH-tainted” milk; • offered organic milk and soy milk as an option in their cafes; • brewed Fair Trade coffee as the “coffee of the day” on two different occasions in most of their cafes in the United States; • increased promotion of Fair Trade and organic bulk coffee beans; • stated publicly that they will brew Fair Trade coffee on an “ongoing basis” (what that means is not clear); • said they will offer Fair Trade coffee beans (in bulk form) in all their cafes overseas, as well as in the USA; and finally • stated they will never buy at least one variety of genetically engineered coffee beans (the so-called “uniform ripening” beans) currently being field-tested.
As Cummins stated to the press on June 25 “Vague promises and half-measures are not enough. Starbucks must either give in to the demands of consumers and public interest groups around the world for a non-genetically engineered product line, Fair Trade coffee, and social justice, or run the risk of further damage to their reputation and bottom line. In the meantime our global pressure campaign will continue”.
A Message from the Director
Thank you. Because of your support the Organic Consumers Association has made enormous strides in our campaign work. US consumers are turning against genetically engineered foods, with 2/3 of the public recently telling ABC news that they believe GE foods may not be safe. Factory farming and industrial agriculture are facing unprecedented scrutiny and criticism.
Even the Wall Street Journal (8/29/01) recently predicted that America cannot avoid its own Mad Cow crisis. Organic agriculture has now spread to over 130 nations, and is the fastest growing and most profitable food sector, not only in the USA, but also in Europe and many other nations as well.
Over the past year we have focused our campaign work on four major fronts— public education; grassroots network building; consumer pressure campaigns against the USDA, EPA, and FDA; and marketplace/corporate pressure campaigns such as the Starbucks Campaign. In all four areas we have made significant progress.
The OCA generated over 500 media interviews in the past year. Our web site www.organicconsumers.org receives up to six million hits per month, making it the largest and most popular web site in the USA dealing with issues of genetically engineered food, Mad Cow, industrial farming, food irradiation, globalization, Fair Trade, and organic agriculture. Our electronic newsletter, BioDemocracy News, goes out to 65,000 subscribers.
The OCA’s nationwide network (which we call Food Agenda 2000-2010) is growing steadily, with 165,000 of America’s 10 million organic consumers already enrolled, Through this email, mail, and telephone network we are able to keep our network informed on the issues and motivated for action, whether this means attending a community forum on GE foods, leafleting their local Starbucks, lobbying their local School Board, or sending a letter or fax to the FDA or Kraft.
In the past 12 months we have mobilized organic consumers to send in over 75,000 letters and faxes to the USDA, FDA and EPA—telling them to pull GE foods and crops from the market and to preserve strict organic standards.
We have also organized 60,000 people to send postcards to Kraft/Philip Morris telling them to get Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), Bt corn, and other GE food ingredients out of their products. We’ve handed out over 200,000 “Consumer Warning” leaflets to Starbucks customers and generated thousands of letters, faxes, and calls, forcing the company to sell a lot more Fair Trade and organic coffee worldwide and to offer rBGH-free and organic milk in their 2700 American cafes, at least as an option.
While continuing our public education, network building, and mobilization efforts, the OCA is excited to announce two new national campaigns. The first is called SOS-Safeguard Our Students, and its goal is to transform school curricula and lunches, to kick junk food out of schools, to stop pesticide spraying in schools, and in general to start moving the nation’s 15,000 school districts in an organic direction. The second campaign is called Clothes for a Change, and its goal is to drive genetically engineered Bt cotton off the market and to create mass public demand for non-sweatshop, organic (and transition to organic) clothing.
We are what we wear, as well as what we eat, and the time is long overdue for a serious grassroots challenge to global garment sweatshops and chemical-intensive or genetically engineered cotton production.
The road ahead is exciting, but of course we face major challenges. We welcome your advice, your financial support and, most of all, your participation in helping the OCA move forward. Join us!
Do Your Clothes Reflect Your Values
The OCA is proud to announce a new national campaign called Clothes for a Change (CFAC).The theme of the campaign will be: Do Your Clothes Reflect Your Values? The campaign will raise public awareness, mount pressure campaigns in the marketplace, and attempt to begin to alter the dynamics of the $300 billion clothing industry. CFAC will alert consumers about the health, environmental, and Fair Trade/social justice issues surrounding cotton farming and clothing production–the negative impacts of pesticide-intensive and genetically engineered cotton, as well as the sweatshop labor involved in the production of most of our clothing. Millions of acres are planted with genetically engineered and pesticide-intensive cotton in the US, while conventional (non-organic) cotton farming is the most toxic crop grown in the world.
Specifically, the campaign will encourage consumers to purchase non-sweatshop “Fair Made” and “Organic” clothing and to boycott genetically engineered or conventional, chemical-intensive cotton garments and products.
As a way to avoid buying the sweatshop clothing of the brand name bullies, the campaign will also publicize the growing trend among consumers of buying recycled or used clothing. A section of the OCA website will be devoted to the CFAC campaign. Shortly, the OCA will be sending letters out to leading clothing companies, including The Gap (which also owns Baby Gap, Old Navy, and Banana Republic), Martha Stewart, Nike, and others, asking them to make a pledge to: • stop buying genetically engineered cotton; • start blending organic or transition to organic fibers into their clothing; and to • stop using sweatshop labor.
Protests and pressure will then be applied to the companies, in a manner similar to the Starbucks campaign. The campaign will also seek to provide information to consumers about where they can buy Fair Made Organic clothing–both through the internet and at the retail level. Please contact us if you want to help leaflet or organize the Clothes for a Change Campaign in your community.
US Today Slams Organics
USA Today joined the growing chorus of agribusiness and biotech boosters on 5/19/01 when it published an article entitled “Chefs Cook up Cuisine of Gloom.” The article regurgitates a number of long-discredited allegations including: conventional produce doesn’t have pesticide residues; genetically engineered food crops use less pesticides than non-GE crops; locally produced foods are no better for the environment than foods shipped halfway around the world; and that GE “golden rice” will solve the Vitamin A deficiencies of hundreds of millions of poor people around the world.
Americans Want Organic In an ABC news poll published 6/20/01, more than 10 times as many Americans said they would be “more likely” to buy food labeled organic (52%) than foods labeled as “genetically modified” (5%).
Agribusiness Aggression Recent attacks on organic food—all the way from John Stossell’s scurrilous pieces on ABC’s 20-20 to widely published op-ed pieces by writers from the Cato Institute, the Hudson Institute (Dennis and Alex Avery), the American Council on Science and Health, Competitive Enterprise Institute and Consumer Alert—have increased in recent months. Public interest organizations like pr watch— www.prwatch.org point out that those leading the attack on organic foods are funded by corporate special interests and are using the term “junk science” to discredit the genuine health, environmental and food safety concerns of millions of American consumers.
Organic Beats Conventional A mounting body of scientific research refutes government and industry allegations that organic and chemical-intensive industrial foods are equivalent. A recent study from Denmark, for example, indicates that organic crops have a higher concentration of vitamins and nutrients than conventional crops, as well as secondary metabolites, which are thought to lower the risk of cancer and heart disease.
A 1999 report by Consumer Reports magazine found that while multiple pesticide residues were commonly found on conventional and so-called natural foods, little or no residues were found on organic foods.
Organics Booming Nando Times (1/16/01), an internet news service, reported that US organic food and fiber sales will reach $9.35 billion in 2001, according to the Organic Trade Association. In 1990 US organic sales totaled $1 billion. According to the Ecological Farming Association, organic farming is now the most rapidly growing component in the American food industry, expanding by 20-25% per year. In comparison total annual supermarket sales in the US are approximately $360 billion, while fast food sales total $115 billion. At current rates of growth organic food and fiber will comprise 10% of US agriculture by the year 2010.
But organic food sales are growing even faster in Europe, where the German agricultural ministry, for example, has set a goal of 20% organic by the end of the decade. Boca Burger Busted Boca Burger, a leading so-called “natural” food producer (now owned by Kraft/Philip Morris), announced on 1/26/01 that it was coming out with a line of certified organic vegetarian soy burgers and breakfast links. The company came under heavy pressure to go organic last year after Greenpeace reported that Boca Burgers tested positive for genetically engineered soybeans.
In a related news story early this year, Dole Food Co. announced it will soon be marketing certified organic bananas.
GMO Natural Food? The Wall Street Journal (4/5/01) reported that a number of leading natural foods brands (Yves, Health Valley, Clif Bar, Whole Foods, White Wave, and Gerber baby foods) labeled or advertised as “GMOfree” —had tested positive for containing significant quantities of genetically modified ingredients. None of the natural food brands found by the Journal to be tainted by GMOs are certified organic.
McDonald’s Going Organic? The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) reported recently that McDonald’s has bought a major share of a 100 store health-food sandwich shop chain in Britain, Pret a Manger, which specializes in using fresh organic ingredients. In recent months McDonald’s, hit hard by the Mad Cow crisis in Europe, has reported reduced profits.
Organic Apples Shine A major study, published in the prestigious scientific journal, Nature (5/19/01) found that organic apples are far more profitable and sustainable than conventional apples. According to a six year study, conducted in Washington State, America’s largest apple producing area, results “show that organic and integrated apple production systems in Washington State are not only better for soil and the environment than their conventional counterpart, but have comparable yields and, for the organic system, higher profits and greater energy efficiency.” A 1998 study carried out by the Environmental Working Group found that non-organic apples routinely contain residues of toxic pesticides that can potentially cause nervous system problems and brain damage in young children.
Fast Food Nation: The Downside of Industrial Agriculture
America leads the world in terms of producing and consuming vast quantities of cheap, unhealthy, processed foods. This system of food production and consumption can only be described as industrial. Our megafarms, corporate feedlots, hog farms, and poultry operations are unrivaled in terms of size and production —and sadly, in terms of institutionalized cruelty to animals. Our fast food chains and restaurants dish up literally 100 billion meals a year.
A full 74% of the world’s genetically engineered crops are grown in the US, with GE crops now cultivated on 20% of the nation’s farmland. We use and consume more pesticides (one billion pounds annually), chemical fertilizers (12 billion pounds annually), and animal drugs (growth hormones, steroids, and antibiotics) than any other nation on Earth.
Unfortunately, the United States also leads the world in terms of food-related cancers, heart disease, food poisoning, and obesity—not to mention agricultural- related water pollution, and hormonal, mental, and behavioral damage to our children. Seventeen percent of American youth are now diagnosed as having behavior or learning disabilities—directly attributable to hormone-disrupting diets and environmental toxins. Eight percent of children are diagnosed as having serious food allergies and 25% as having food sensitivities or intolerances. Researchers now have linked children’s food allergies and intolerances to the growing epidemic of asthma. Pediatricians have recently lowered the age they consider “normal” for American girls to go into puberty—eight years old for African- American girls, nine years old for Caucasians. Forty-eight percent of American men and 38% of women can now look forward to getting cancer.
Meanwhile, we spend $115 billion dollars a year in fast food restaurants and $350 billion more in supermarkets for sugar, salt, and fat-laden products which are tainted with chemical additives and preservatives and which routinely contain hazardous levels of pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and rendered animal protein—not to mention genetically engineered ingredients.
America’s industrial food system is devastating the environment. Not only is conventional agriculture (manure, fertilizer, and pesticide runoff) the number one source of water pollution, including municipal drinking water, but the nation’s food production and distribution system (farming, transportation, processing, packaging, disposal) is also the number one producer of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases which are rapidly disrupting the global climate. Add up the massive and unsustainable energy costs of industrial agriculture and fast food, compared to the minimal costs of locally and regionally produced organic agriculture, and what you have is a recipe for disaster. Some of these destructive and wasteful energy costs include: enormous amounts of energy and petroleum for tractors and machinery, use of energy and petroleum to produce billions of pounds of pesticides and fertilizers, energy costs for irrigating industrial-size farms, wasteful plastic packaging and processing costs, the petroleum products and highways needed to transport the average supermarket food item 1400 miles, and the methane produced by dumping food wastes into landfills, as opposed to making compost out of it.
Beyond destroying public health and the environment, the nation’s food politics are nothing less than a disaster in terms of social justice and preserving rural communities. Marginalizing organics and small farms while subsidizing corporate agribusiness, means allowing commodities, seed, and food cartels (Cargill, ADM, Kraft/Philip Morris, Con Agra, McDonald’s, Monsanto) to drive the nation’s 1.5 million remaining family farmers off the land while concentrating production on 100,000 massive industrial farms. The USDA says 70% of American family farms are too small and inefficient to survive in the new global marketplace, so small farmers and ranchers need to “get big or get out.”
At the same time, to remain “competitive”, America’s large corporate farms and slaughterhouses systematically exploit the nation’s two million farm workers and meatpackers, many of whom fear standing up for their rights because they are not US citizens. Along the same lines, the fast food giants exploit their mainly young and economically disadvantaged workers mercilessly. Fast food consumers (53% of Americans say they eat in a McDonald’s every month) enjoy the cheapest junk food in the world– in great part because the 3.5 million fast food workers in the country are not paid a living wage. And, of course, if fast food or coffee shop workers try to join a trade union to get a living wage and benefits, whether at McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, KFC, or Starbucks, they can expect their bosses to use any means necessary to stop them.
The final tally makes it clear that the Earth and its life-support systems can no longer sustain the burdens imposed by our current industrial system of food production and consumption.
Anti-GE Foods Update
The OCA has been very active over the past six months on the genetically engineered foods front. We helped pass anti-GE foods resolutions in San Francisco and Minneapolis last year. This August we helped pass an anti-GE foods City Council resolution in St. Paul, which also calls for the city to give special consideration to non-GE organic food vendors for city contracts.
The OCA is now in the process of setting up a sister organization, the Organic Consumers Fund, which will be incorporated as a lobbying organization. This will enable us to help activists pass resolutions and legislation in scores of cities across the country, as well as to lobby Congress.
Since January we’ve handed out several hundred thousand “Consumer Warning” leaflets and fact sheets in front of supermarkets, Starbucks’ cafes, and at public events. We’ve staged protests in front of company shareholder meetings and picketed a World Bank Symposium in Washington, DC. We’ve now collected over 200,000 signatures on our Food Agenda 2000-2010 petition, calling for a moratorium on all GE foods and crops.
We recently generated over 30,000 letters to the FDA calling for a GE food moratorium, and thousands more opposing the EPA’s reregistration of Bt crops.
Our plans for the rest of the year include our ongoing coalition (Genetically Engineered Food Alert) pressure campaign against Kraft Foods, our global “Frankenbucks” campaign against Starbucks, an upcoming supermarket campaign against Trader Joe’s (a leading regional chain operating in 13 states), and an anti-GE cotton and anti-sweatshop campaign called Clothes for a Change. We are also launching another national campaign, called Safeguard Our Students, to get junk foods and genetically engineered foods out of schools, and to persuade school districts to start making the transition to organic.
Besides all this we continue to receive daily calls from the press, all the way from CNN, the New York Times and USA Today to local community radio stations. Our staff has been interviewed by 500 news organizations on GE foods and organic agriculture over the past year. Our anti-GE, pro-organic newsletter BioDemocracy News now has 65,000 subscribers, while our web site www.organicconsumers.org is getting up to six million hits per month. We are translating our materials into Spanish, and initiating campaign work in Mexico and Latin America, through media work, speaking engagements, and coalition building. In conjunction with Friends of the Earth and the Pesticide Action Movement we have started distributing lab test kits to farmers and activists groups so that they can locate and expose illegal shipments of GE corn being exported to Latin America from the USA.
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