Ronnie Cummins is founder and director of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), a non-profit network of consumers promoting a healthy, just, and regenerative system of food, farming, and trade. His recent book Grassroots Rising, is a call for action to build a strong global Regeneration Movement around education and awareness, consumer activism and farmer innovation that can also inspire to political change. In our conversation, we discuss how such grassroots alliances around regenerative farming can inspire citizens worldwide to become active participants in preventing ecological collapse and helping regenerative farmer to sequester large amounts of carbon in the soil.
Building a Mass Movement to Reverse Global Warming, Restore the Environment, and Eliminate Rural Poverty
Welcome to Worlds in Transition, a podcast about the people who have taken matters into their own hands, seeking to build more sustainable and regenerative ways of living in different parts of the world. Ronnie Cummins is founder and director of the Organic Consumers Association, a non-profit network of consumers promoting a healthy, just, and regenerative system of food, farming, and trade. His recent book, Grassroots Rising, (Chelsea Green Publishers 2020) is a call for action to build a strong global regeneration movement around education and awareness, consumer activism, and farmer innovation that can also inspire political change. In our conversation we discuss how such grassroots alliances around regenerative farming can inspire citizens worldwide to become active participants in preventing ecological collapse, and helping regenerative farmers to sequester large amounts of carbon in the soil.
Ronnie: I've been a grassroots activist for 50 years in the United States – ever since the 1960's –working on [national and international] campaigns in the last 20 or 30 years, a lot of campaigns on food and farming and land use. Things like expanding [organics, fighting GMOs and factory farms] deforestation, saving wetlands and so on. The organization that I'm the Director of is the Organic Consumers Association in the US. We're a sizable network of a couple of million organic consumers. I'm also on the steering committee of a group called Regeneration International, which is a group of activists worldwide in 30 countries. And we're trying to explore how — in addition to moving as quickly as possible to alternative energy and energy conservation — how if we change our food and farming systems and the way we use land, that we can actually reach zero net emissions in 10 years. That's just what the U.S. Green New Deal Calls for, and after 2030 we hope to reach what we call negative-net emissions.
I lay out in my book how it's quite plausible that within 10 years in the US — assuming we start to get political change this year — that we're going to move to 50% less fossil fuel emissions in 2030 than what we have now. This is because alternative energy is growing really fast, and energy conservation is a no-brainer. Even the investor class is starting to realize in the US — just like worldwide — that you can make more money on green energy than you can on continuing to invest in fossil fuels. And you're liable to lose a lot of money down the road when these fossil fuel resources are not utilized.
The point I'm trying to make in this book and the point that is 'the best kept secret in the world' is that our natural systems already sequester and store a considerable amount of greenhouse gases. We would be much worse off if we didn't have the world's forests, if we didn't have some intact wetlands, marine ecosystems. And some holistic grazing or organic farming. In the United States we're actually sequestering 11% of all of our gross emissions right now in our forests and wetlands and the parts of our soils that are still intact — filled with carbon and able to maintain biodiversity. So basically, in the year 2030 we don't have to draw down and put into our soils and trees and plants everything [in terms of greenhouse gas emissions] that we're putting up now. By then we'll have to be capable of drawing down about half of it, which comes to a couple billion tons of CO2 equivalent per year.
Now, that sounds like a lot, but when you think about it — as I point out in the book — we used to have a balance in the United States and worldwide between the amount of carbon in the soil, in the trees and grasses, [and the amount of CO2] in the sky and in the ocean. Well what happened? Well, destructive land use. We plowed up a good part of the world, we started throwing chemicals out like there's no tomorrow, destroying the soil and plants' natural ability to carry out photosynthesis and sequester carbon. And we burned a heck of a lot of fossil fuels. So 'we've got to do both' is the thesis of my book and it's the philosophy behind the new movement in the United States for not only a Green New Deal, but a Regenerative Green New Deal. And it actually makes our demand — which youth are making clearly in the streets every day, every week, every month — that we've got to avoid climate catastrophe. But what a lot of people are just starting to understand is that what we eat, what we buy, what we cook, what farmers and ranchers, do what foresters do, how we conduct our international affairs —all these things have to change. They're only going to change — as we point out in Grassroots Rising — if we educate the public on a mass scale in the United States.
Thank goodness the public is finally awakening to the fact that the climate emergency we're in is very serious. It's the mostimportant issue that we're addressing. But the public doesn't have a clear idea of how we're actually going to accomplish this. Well, when the Green New Deal first came out in the Fall of 2018 and February 2019, the media reported this plan as being a far-reaching transformation of the economy comparable to the mobilization in World War II and the Marshall Plan after World War II. We're going to eliminate emissions by 2030! Well people started thinking... Does that mean we're all going to be driving electric cars by 2030 or we're not going to have cars? Does that mean that our homes are going to be so well insulated that we don't have to use fossil fuels to heat or cool? Does that mean that everything we're currently throwing into landfills is going to get recycled? Does it mean that our carbon, nitrous oxide, and methane-belching system of industrial agriculture and factory farms is going to be 100% organic and regenerative? Well, the answer is no, not in 10 years. But that's not grounds to despair because it only has to do half the job in 10 years. Because there's no stopping alternative energy, there's no stopping energy conservation. This is going go forward because the capitalist class has decided that it's a better investment. But what we have to understand is that we got transform the way we eat, the way we cook, the way we farm, the way we treat farm animals, the way we relate to our forests and wetlands and we'd better start now. And this is not a matter of educating farm by farm to change, or educating consumer by consumer to change, or politely having discussions with our city council and state representatives. This is an upheaval that is required, a system change.
Maria: You say that the capitalist have class have caught on — have they also caught on to the farming realities?
Ronnie: They're starting to use the rhetoric of regeneration and greening up supply lines but there's no serious evidence of that yet. Take General Mills for example, one of the largest foodcompanies in the United States. They're starting to use the terminology of organic and regenerative, and they have bought up some organic companies like Annie's. But if you look at their portfolio of products, 90% of them are still degenerative. They're still based on fossil fuel intensive energy, intensive commodities production. Junk food. Basically what big corporations in the United States do is they buy inputs and they put out the cheapest food in the world. And this is how they have made so much money, this has got to change.
There are good signs in the US — the organic certified organic industry is 50 billion dollars. That's 5.5% of all grocery store sales and it's 10% of all our fruits and vegetables sales in grocery stores. We've got thousands of ranchers in the country that are going back to more traditional ways of raising livestock, whereby cows and other herbivores actually eat grass instead of genetically engineered grains. But still, the overwhelming majority of our meat and animal products come from a factory farm type setting where industrial production of grains are a major part of what the animals are fed in feedlots and concentrated animal factories. And they're drugged up with antibiotics and hormones, you know?
And the public still buys this cheap food, partly because when they pull out their wallet at the grocery store, the farmers market, the natural food store — they don't have that much money in their wallet. So they tend to be cutting corners. According to polls, most people in the United States understand that organic food is far superior to cheap junk food. They know this. We spend less money on food than any industrialized country in the world. 11% of the average household income in America is spent on food, and half of that is spent on eating out. Usually eating low-grade food in restaurants or fast food restaurants because it's cheap. But if you're working two jobs — or you've forgotten how to cook, you know? There's a reason why these things are happening. But as we point out, we have got to take political power back out of the hands of the politicians who get donations from corporate agribusiness. We need to divest from corporate agribusiness and industrial farming and GMOs, just as much as we need to divest from fossil fuels.
How will that be possible? I myself have gotten involved in [building up] alternative food networks. I know the difficulties. I know — even although organic consumers in the US and Europe and are not as meshed up in this network with big agriculture — our societies still very dependent on the inputs that come from these companies. The whole structure of the supply chain is created by this volume pricing, the practices — everything is geared against us. How do you get the consumers involved, and can they, even if they don't have enough money?
Yeah, the brilliance of the the Green New Deal in the United States is that it's not just a platform to solve the climate emergency. The Green New Deal is about economic justice, just as much as it is about climate. Now, why is that? Well, for example, if the public understands that eating healthy food (which costs more) is what they should be doing, why don't we put more money in their pockets? I mean the minimum wage structure in the United States is absurd. So the Green New Deal calls for a $15 minimum wage. Economic Justice and the growth of organic and regenerative and eco-friendly food go hand-in-hand. You know the United States spends 3.5 trillion dollars a year on health care and still we have the most unhealthypopulation in the industrialized world. Well yeah, we've got a trillion dollar food system, but it's also the most unhealthy food system in the industrialized world. There's a connection between those two and when you have enlightened public officials instead of people who are on the take from Big Fossil Fuels or Big Food, we're going to be able to pass [alternative legislation.]
But one big first step is that the climate movement needs to articulate the fact that we need not just a Green New Deal — but they need to do that, and we need to get behind politicians who can make this happen — but we need a Regenerative Green New Deal. In other words, the climate movement needs to be able to explain how this drawdown of carbon through regenerative food, farming, and land use is just as important as alternative energy.
Maria: Do you see that at all in the climate movement at the moment?
Ronnie: Well, yeah, it's starting. For example in the Sunrise Movement, which is the cutting edge in the US of the climate movement. They're the ones — along with Alexandria Ocasio Cortez — that brought the Green New Deal on the scene. Well, who are these people? Well they're quite young, a lot of high school / junior high / early college. And what they have seen is that there is no future with the way business as usual is going. So they're out there [protesting] and they understand that we've got to get off fossil fuels as quickly as possible. They think — most activists, just an everyday Sunrise activist — they think it means that if we have drastic enough pressure put on the fossil fuel industry and governments, we can achieve this by 2030. Just through converting to nearly a hundred percent alternative energy.
Well, I like that determination, but what I've seen when I give talks to young people is that [many have] never heard about regeneration or haven't fully understood the relationship between soil, plant, animal and human health, and the health of the carbon and water cycles. [But] they're wide open to this when they hear it. A lot of the activists are trying to make the connection between food, farming, and climate by becoming vegans. What they've read and they know is that factory farms are horrendous, and they don't want anything to do with factory farms. But what they don't understand is there's a nuance, there's something more important. That with animal husbandry, proper raising of animals, holistic management, herbivores eating grass instead of grain, all animals having access to the outdoors and healthy light — this is actually carbon sequestering, it's good for the climate.
Now, Americans eat an average of 222 pounds of meat a year. This is insane from any perspective. People are eating three times as much of meat and animal products as they should be, according to science, nutrition, common sense. There needs to be a drastic reduction. What they don't understand though, is that none of that should be from factory farms. Because that stuff is loaded with drugs and pesticides and it's the dominant negative factor on our climate situation in the food sector. In other words, we can have factory farms and cheap meat and animal products, or else we can have a livable climate. We can't have both. So I'm happy when I see young people refusing to buy factory farm meat and animal products. But I'm not happy about — and that we're trying to correct in our movement — is they don't understand that animals are going to help us re-stabilize the climate.
Without animals we can't do it in time. And [vegans] typically don’t understand that there's a billion people on the Earth who depend on raising animals because most of the land on the planet is not suitable for growing crops, it's too poor. Most rural people in the world don't have access to wells and irrigation, and the rich in their countries have typically monopolized the good land and water. So unless you want to condemn a billion people to starvation and forced migration, you need to realize that it's not the people of rural Africa who are eating fast food from factory farms. We need a system whereby they are helped to raise their livestock in a manner where they can survive and that enhances the environment instead of destroying it. What happens when animals graze naturally — and you see this with wilderbeests in Africa and you see in in the Arctic and the far northern areas — when you have large herbivorous mammals grazing in their natural habitat in herds, there's a lot of them. It's not that we have too many cows and sheep right now, it's that they're not out on the land the way the bison or the buffalo were. The caribou, the deer, the bears used to be out there in significant numbers. Because what happens in nature is that grasslands have co-evolved with herbivore animals over millions of years. And the natural grasses that used to grow in the West and Midwest of the US have very deep roots. And when animals come along and eat off the top third of the plant — which is the part the animals like the best — and then move on but only after they peed and pooped and fertilized the area. The plants, in an evolutionary force, they send a message down to their roots to discard the roots in the soil and to concentrate the plant's energy on rebuilding the top part of the plant that the animal just chomped off. They're like premier sequesterers of carbon, and all this carbon left in the soil through these natural processes is what feeds the the internet below the soil, these microorganisms who are all important.
I mean, we didn't understand until the last few decades really what was going on underneath the soil, because it's darn complicated. I mean when you've got a trillion microorganisms in a small area representing a million different species, it's taken us a while to understand it. But now that we understand it, we realize those Buffalo contributed to that amazing amount of topsoil that we have in the mid-west. I mean we've exhausted about half of it them in the space of a hundred fifty years, but those animals did it. By grazing in an organized mob fashion, moving over large expanses of land, coming back to the same spot to eat only when the plants have had time to regrow. Every time a buffalo or large mammal takes a step they're crushing seeds into the ground. They're crushing mulch into the ground. They're creating little cavities that pools for water when the rains come. This is what the great 'chain of being' — as our ancestors described it — is all about.
Native American people didn't have PhDs in soil science, but they did have a worldview and a spirituality where they understood that these [grazing animals] are living beings. That they're our friends, not our enemies, and that the act of sacrificing an animal so that you can live as a human is a serious act. Modern agriculture has gotten away from that. We don't ever see the processes. We're so disconnected from our hamburger or from our fish fillet that we've forgotten what native people knew. Native communities are quite interested in some of the innovations that organic farmers have made, and in holistic management, and they want to get back their lands that they've [lost or] leased out to white ranchers in the Midwest for so long. There's a strong movement to get the Buffalo back. We went from only perhaps a thousand or two thousand left in the 1890s after having 40-50 million, but they're coming back. I think there are around half a million now, but the bottom line is that without the grazing animals we are not going to get enough carbon back into the soil. We're not going to get these lands back to full vitality soon enough to hit the goals the climate scientists tell us, without holistic management again.
Maria: Do you think that this will be a grassroots effort? Or can big corporations actually do this job?
Ronnie: I think we're going to have to force corporations to do the right thing. Even if they do it for the wrong reasons, we still have to force them. What ranchers will tell you in the United States is that almost all the beef starts out with grazing for about a year or a year and a half. The animals are grazing. Ranchers don't feed grain to the to the animals in their first year and a half of life. You got grass out there. But they do conscientiously take care of these animals. They do have a sense that these are living beings, these aren't animal units as Cargill and Archer Daniels and JBS call them. Unless you have grasslands that are tremendously regenerated, you can't "finish cattle off" or fatten them up economically on grass. So typically ranchers have to sell the animals at the auction barn at about a year, year and a half. What they tell me is that when you get to the auction barn, there's only four three or four people bidding on your cows. It's Cargill, JBS, National Beef, Archer Daniels, [Tyson] — and the price they offer is a low price.
Now these ranchers, they're not diabolical people who are happy about the fact that their animals are now going to go from grazing to the prison feedlot, to be stuffed with grain and drugs. You don't really want to eat that [kind of meat] if you're a rancher and you know [what’s going on], but what other choice do they have?
We need a system that first of all pays ranchers to do holistic management and provides the training. We've got a huge amount of public lands in the United States, I think it's around a hundred and seventy-five million acres. And yes, we let ranchers graze their animals on public lands for a small fee, but it's like the results of what you see out there are not good. The animals are not being properly grazed, and the ranchers don't have the time, expertise, or labor power to do it right. But what if we pay them to do it right? What if we stop charging ranchers to graze on public lands and instead we pay them to regenerate these public lands to a higher level of health? If you pay them enough, I guarantee you they'll do the right thing. And they'll be happy to do the right thing. They don't want to be part of a system where you can't be proud anymore being a conventional rancher or farmer in America. I mean, environmentalists basically look down you, and your kids don't want to do the work in most cases.
[Farmers and ranchers] would like to do the right thing, but especially in the United States, doing the right thing costs a lot of money. And we're subsidizing through USDA subsidies – the European Union through the CAP program – they have even more subsidies than we have in the US. We're putting out like 20 billion dollars a year the US paying farmers to do the wrong thing. Say you're growing grain in the mid-west; you've got to get a loan plant your crops, right? You go to the bank. But if you're not going to be growing genetically engineered Roundup-Ready soybeans and corn, you're not going to get the bank loan. If you're worried about poor weather and crop insurance, well you can't get crop insurance for doing things the right way — organically, biodiverse planting, crop rotation. But this is insane. It's insane in Europe, it's insane in North America.
If we want a livable climate, we have to stop paying farmers and ranchers to farm in a way that's contributing to the problem. If your beef burger in Germany or France did not come from a grass-fed animal — I mean you could get that from Ireland, or parts of the British Isles, or parts of Central and Eastern Europe, there still is some grazing land — but if you're just eating your normal burger, where did that come from? Genetically engineered soy beans from Latin America. This is what the animals eat, this is what's on your plate. Part of the problem is the campaigners in Europe around climate are not talking about this. It's either veganism or business as usual. And really what Europe needs to do is to take a stand for regenerative livestock management in South America, responsible regenerative forest management in Asia. We all have to do this and I think we can do it.
But people say, 'oh well, if the Europeans don't buy from the US all the genetically engineered soy and corn to feed animals and factory farm, the Chinese will do it. Well, the huge block of middle-class Chinese consumers who are interested in organic and healthy food, they don't want to poison their kids either. So I do believe that consumers all over the world are ready to listen to this, they're ready to change. But unless the campaigners are telling them [about organic and regenerative livestock management] , unless we have a more nuanced conversation about veganism versus responsible consumption of meat and animal products, it's going to take us longer.
Eventually we will do the right thing, the problem is we've only got about 10 years left to really change things. Because it's not just the climate movement with their illiteracy about food and farming and landscape management. The food and farming movement is typically apolitical, so that's part of why my book is out there. I'm known over the last three decades for leading all these campaigns against GMOs and pesticides, and factory farms, and trying to promote an organic and regenerative food system. With everyone having access to it; our kids, poor people. But we cannot just spend all our time talking about the threat of gene edited crops which are coming down the road. Yes, that's very important, but we need to point out that Monsanto and Bayer are talking about gene edited crops solving the climate crisis, okay? We need to especially hit on that — that these offer no solution at all. Unless we dump the synthetic pesticides and the factory farms and GMO animal feed — unless we get serious about the fact that we've got 570 million farmers in the world.
We've got about three billion people living in rural communities. These are the people that are going to get the job done if it gets done. The farmers we need to start worrying about and helping are in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. If we will help them — which costs pennies on the dollar compared to the exorbitant cost of changing our own system — we're going to see a big bang for the buck. Because the great thing about the tropics and the semi-tropics is that plants and trees grow really fast. And yes, there's been considerable damage done, but you can get things back on track pretty darn quickly. And the other thing we need to look at are the degraded semi-arid and arid lands of the world, which are 40% of all the lands. These are the lands where it's nearly impossible to grow crops at all, these are where the poorest of the poor live. Well, there are techniques of ecosystem restoration and regenerative grazing and land management where you can quickly start to restore these decarbonized, de-vegetated, dehydrated lands. And as you do so you're helping the poorest of the poor.
And as we help the poorest of the poor, we're going to realize that issues like forced migration —which has totally distorted the politics in Europe and in the United States — most of the people trying to leave Central America and the United States are rural people. And the reason they're trying to leave is because it's life or death. This is not a small decision to make leaving your family, your community, risk your life. People are leaving because you can't make a living in your rural community or because of the gang violence that is tolerated by the governments in Central America. I mean, you've got a bunch of dictators collaborating with organized crime.
So, we can solve this immigration problem. People will not leave their home community if they're happy, if they can make a living, if the ecosystem is not so damaged that it's impossible to survive, if they don't have cutthroat gangsters threatening to kill your kid if they don't join the local gang. But we also need to look at the root of the problem, and the root of the problem is really degenerated soils, forests and ecosystems.
I've been active in Latin America and I know about the extractive policies related to mining and logging. So how do you look at that conflict that actually exists there? That if you're transforming the energy sector into solar energy and renewable energy then that will also have consequences on the soil.
If we have a totally recycled circular economy, we're not going to need to extract at the level we are. But no matter at what level we're extracting, it has to be a cooperative venture with the people who live in that area making the decisions.
I mean, I personally think that if there are ways to extract lithium for example — which is so important to solar energy and batteries — people should understand in a local community that there's a way to do this it isn't as as devastating as some of the methods that they're using in Chile, in the Atacama Desert area. Provided you're willing to pay or work with the local community a fair price, You know, indigenous people can understand the global crisis we're in. I mean if it's a question of 'well, should we just have fossil fuels and nuclear power' because you don't want lithium extracted in your area? But you can get through if you're being fair and you're being honest, there's a way to get around this. But the bigger issue is the way the global economy is set up right now. It's very, very difficult for any rural or indigenous community to survive at all. And that's why I like working in Mexico. There's still someone in touch with their traditional values and traditional ways, where organic is not a foreign concept. Treating animals with respect and being holistic in your thinking.
But once you get people in power who are actually trying to make things better, then you've got the possibility to do these things. You've had a string of corporate criminals and people who don't care the least bit about poor people, running the show. The only people I would trust in the US — I mean, it's different in Europe where you can't take the money as easily from the special interests — but in the US we now have a growing number of politicians who don't take any money from corporations or (labor unions either). They take small donations. And I think the rest of the world is ripe for change. The problem in a place like Russia, China, Iran, or Saudi Arabia — I mean, if you do what I'm doing, in those countries you're dead. You're literally dead. So it takes a hell of a lot more courage to write a book like mine or to work our kinds of campaigns. So we can't lay it on the people in those countries. I mean, even India is scary now.
We in Europe, North America, Australia and Japan — the areas where we've got relative freedom to organize — we're going to have to do it. And the thing is, once we rise up it's going to make it a lot easier for them. And talk about national security and the Cold War. I mean just think how insane it is that the corporate liberals in the United States are still talking about Russia as a threat, you know. So I make a big point in this book, that we are not going to avoid climate catastrophe without a redefinition of what constitutes national security. The threat in the US, it's not Iran, Russia and China. And in those countries, the real threat is not the US, CIA and the FBI, you know. The real threat is the climate emergency that we cannot solve unless we work together on a global scale.
And it's just all so simple, I mean I came out of the hippie movement in the US. When the Beatles sang 'All You Need Is Love' and all the young people in the whole world were singing that, it was like, this wasn't just a song. This was like an unbelievable feeling of solidarity and positive belief. And we're there again, and we've got to work together. And this is like the Amazon, like the remaining tropical forests of Asia, like the vast areas in Africa that haven't been destroyed yet. We've got a good point to start from and I'm very confident that we are going to change things. But it takes the grassroots, takes the political change, it takes the money.
I've got a whole chapter in the book about regenerative finances. People ask, 'well, can we afford a Global Green New Deal or US Green New Deal?'. Well, we definitely can't afford not to. Human extinction, you know, the stranded assets in this book the Case for a Green New Deal, they talk about how the annual social costs of inaction on the climate. According to the international monetary fund that's 22 trillion dollars. That's the damage we're doing now every year by not reversing climate change. Well, I'd say spending ten trillion or so a year or even half of that? A pretty darn good investment. That's our money, by the way, if we put a certain proportion of that into saving the planet, saving ourselves, that's important.
But everyday Americans, we have 25 trillion dollars in our pension funds, savings, and in our retirement funds. Well, where is it? It's all invested in the Fortune 500 Corporations. Well, why is that? Why don't we have a say over that? I mean, why are we letting these people invest [our money and our savings] in degeneration? No, we've got to get back control over our money.
Maria: What's your own story, how did you first get involved?
Ronnie: I got involved in the Viet-Nam Anti-War Movement and the Civil Rights Movement and youth culture rebellion of the 1960s.
Maria: And do you think now that there is more hope?
Ronnie: Yes, there's starting to be. This is happening. Even the military, the Pentagon — they are aware of the climate emergency and that we're heading into a period where battleships and missiles aren't going to save us. So I think we need to change the armed forces of the world into forces for regeneration and disaster control. We've got all these people in the armies, well, they can plant trees, they can help terrace eroded lands, they can help the desperately poor people around the world. We'd better do it and we'd better act soon, but I'm very confident.
Maria: Thank you, Ronnie.
You have listened to Worlds in Transition — a podcast series about the people who have taken matters into their own hands and started to build sustainable lifeforms in different parts of the world. Thank you for taking the time to listen.