I got an article this week. It appeared in Civil Eats, and it had quotations from Linley Dixon, Kathleen Merrigan, and others about COVID, farm scale, and feeding people. It raised very important questions.
This is important, coming from a major player in the American organic trade. Kathleen Merrigan helped to write the Organic Food Production Act, the 1990 law that gave the USDA the responsibility of managing the organic seal. Kathleen served as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture for four years. In 2010 she was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. There is a reasonable chance she would have been appointed Secretary of Agriculture by Hillary Clinton. Kathleen is a serious player in the world of organic. Her words are not casual and they have a big impact. I am bothered by what she said.
First of all, most of the world IS fed by small farms. Yes, five acres and smaller. According to the FAO (where Kathleen has served in a leadership role), over 70% of the people in the world are fed by such farms. So her statement that small farms won’t feed many people is simply incorrect. And those farms mostly aren't "idyllic." They are places where people work remarkably hard to make a living feeding others.
Michael Pollan appeared on stage with Kathleen Merrigan in 2013 at UC Berkley. He said the following:
“We are addicted to cheap food.And the pressures to make food as cheap as possible are just fierce in this country. And that is the reason that we exploit farmworkers and that is the reason that meat animals are treated the way they are treated, and down the line. And we have done an amazing job in this country since the 70’s of driving down the cost of food, to the point where our economy depends on it. It’s really baked in. And it makes it very hard to advance a reform agenda that would inevitably, as it should, raise the price of food.Food is not cheap. It’s dishonestly priced because it assumes undocumented workers being exploited, and it assumes animal abuse. I mean down the line.”
Secondly, Kathleen's question,“Shouldn’t organic be something people of all incomes can avail themselves of?”
This is a huge question, but it can be so misleading. It is like saying, “Shouldn’t all people be free?” The answer is always yes.
People of all incomes SHOULD be able to eat organic food.
But higher-priced organic food isn’t the cause of poverty.
As Michael Pollan said at that same Berkley event with Kathleen:
“So how do we move toward the true cost of food without disadvantaging the poor and destabilizing the economy?I think all these moves have to be coupled with efforts to make it easier for people to afford food. So you improve the minimum wage on farms. You have a minimum wage on farms. And you, at the same time, increase the minimum wage across the country.We have to give people the money to pay the true cost of food.”
Kathleen’s words disturbingly echo the motto of the hydroponic lobbying group calling themselves the Coalition For Sustainable Organic. They are not about sustainable organic. They were created to get hydroponics accepted by the National Organic Program. Their name, like their motto, like their mission, is meant to mislead. The first motto on their website was “Everyone Deserves Organic.” Lovely. Who can possibly disagree with that? But the implication is that if you disagree with certifying hydroponic as organic (because, after all, hydro costs less), then you must favor limiting organic food to only the wealthy elite. Raising livestock in confinement also costs less. So by implication, pasture-raised meat, milk, and eggs are also only for the wealthy elite. Never mind that some 40 million Americans buy at least some organic food. Are they all "elites"? I am sure that many of those people have enough money that they don't need to be worried about how to pay the food bill. I am sure some of them are on a tight budget. I am also sure there are millions more who would like to buy organic food, but can’t afford it. I know many people in that situation.
The biggest flaw in this logic is the belief that certifying hydro berries or CAFO animals as organic somehow makes them organic. Or that certifying a boatload of chemical grain from Uzbekistan or Bolivia somehow makes it organic. These are examples of labeling fraud, and should not be confused with changing the reality of what people eat. Indeed, that fraud is undermining the organic label, making real organic less available to everyone. As the Real Organic Symposium speaker Vandana Shiva said in our interview: ”Industrially, globally traded food and hyper-processed food is VERY costly in terms of the burden on the earth. It’s very costly in terms of the social burden of displacing farmers and exploiting workers. And it’s very very costly in terms of the harm to our health. So if you take all those costs together, it is definitely not cheap. And cheap food in a costly system is a lie. That's why, for me, true organic, real organic, is truthful agriculture.”
The core issue we have always fought is around fraud, not scale. There are large farms that are honest and that do a good job of organic farming. And there are large farms that are not honest and that do not do a good job of organic farming.The problem is that the large fraudsters run the town. The sheriff works for them. The mayor works for them. Where are the Magnificent Seven when we need them?
This campaign of “Everyone Deserves Organic” was particularly frustrating because it was designed to make a small group of business owners even richer than they already were.It was designed for maximum profit, not for maximum high-quality food availability to low-income people.
Jesse Buie said in our symposium interview, “The profit motive won out.These decisions (in the USDA) were strictly based on the profit motive, not on quality of the product...It was strictly profit. It was all about money. The interesting thing is organic production in the grocery store costs more than conventional. And the consumer is willing to pay that because they understand that organic is different from conventional, and therefore there is a price to go with that.I think that part of the market is working fine. It is the political part of the market that is not. That’s where the problem is.”
Another person interviewed for the upcoming symposium is Dartmouth history professor Annelise Orleck. Annelise explained to me that the large berry companies like Driscoll’s that have led the charge for “hydroponic-called-organic” have been the focus of major strikes by their own workers. In the US, berry pickers are now getting $8 to $9 an hour, and at some US farms (after a bitter battle) they have gotten the right to unionize.In Mexico, the berry pickers get $11 a DAY. And that is AFTER the successful strike that lifted their wages up from $6 a day.
Does that make you hungry for those berries on your breakfast? Who will protect those workers if we don’t?
Have any of you done much hard labor for $11 a day lately?
And so those large “efficient” farms are providing us with “affordable certified organic” hydroponic berries. While their workers can barely afford food, let alone certified organic food. One of their demands in Mexico is for free water to drink. And according to Dr. Orleck, 25% of the food sold in America is sold at Walmart, a chain famous for paying it’s employees so poorly they need to be on food stamps.
So the workers who grow the food can’t afford it, and the workers who sell the food can’t afford it.
Somehow large-scale efficiency hasn't helped these people.
Oh yes, and the many small farmers who are offering a real alternative to all that large-scale aren’t exactly raking it in either.
Are we are seriously having a conversation about organic food being for the elites?
There are two huge problems we face.
First, food is underpriced. That is because we don’t pay the REAL costs in terms of poor health (caused by poor food), underpaid workers, poorly treated and abused animals, environmental degradation, and climate change. That is not even counting the costs of climate refugees and political unrest that we must ALL pay for in the future, thanks in part to those big “efficient” farms.
Secondly, the poverty in our world is caused by the unequal and unjust distribution of wealth rather than by inefficient or greedy farmers. The astonishing inequity in our economic system is the reason that people can’t afford good food.
Kathleen Merrigan is quoted at the end of the article saying,“I believe the vast majority of organic producers are following the rules and want stricter rules because that gives them the market differentiation, which gives them the higher premiums.”
That is spot on. In our symposium interview with Kate Mendenhall, Executive Director of the Organic Farmers Association, she said that America’s organic farmers agree on the problems they face.
Kathleen is right that the “vast majority of organic producers are following the rules.” So please, please, help us! Fight for real integrity and transparency in the label. That means facing the failures, not hiding them. We will be facing these failures and finding solutions in the upcoming Real Organic Symposium. Please join us in January!
Dave P.S. Please forward this email to your friends.
Dave Chapman runs Long Wind Farm in Vermont and is the co-founder and Executive Director of the Real Organic Project.