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Ronnie Cummins: Organics and America's Future--Will We Take the High Road?

ORGANIC VIEW: A publication of the Organic Consumers Association
by Ronnie Cummins
Thanks to green-minded consumers such as yourself, the sixty-year reign of chemical and energy-intensive industrial agriculture in the United States appears to be drawing to a close.

Demand for natural and organic foods is booming‹23% of US consumers are now buying organic products every week. In a recent poll conducted by the Hartman Group, 75% of Americans say they have begun shopping for healthier foods. Ten cents of every grocery store dollar are currently being spent on products labeled as natural or organic.

The nation's industrial, export-driven model of food and farming has proven to be a disaster - for small farmers, the environment, farm animals, and public health. This toxic system has polluted our air and water, depleted aquifers, destroyed topsoil, released enormous amounts of climate-destabilizing greenhouse gases, driven four million family farmers off the land, and ruined the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of farmers overseas. It has engendered an epidemic of obesity, heart disease, food poisoning, and cancer, as well as a wide variety of reproductive, behavioral, and hormone disorders.

Strong consumer demand has created a shortage of many organic foods and ingredients in the marketplace, including dairy, citrus, and meat. The "high road" approach to meeting this enormous demand would be to change public policy so as to help North American family farmers and ranchers make the transition to organic, with an emphasis on local and regional production for local and regional markets, and fair prices and wages for farmers, farm laborers, and food and retail workers.

But food giants, such as Wal-Mart, Safeway, Kellogg's, General Mills, Pepsi, Kraft, and Dean Foods, seem to think they have a better idea. Business as usual for them means maximizing profits by lowering organic standards, industrializing production, and outsourcing cheap foods and ingredients from overseas producers. Since country of origin labels are not required on organic (or conventional) foods in the US, consumers are left in the dark about whether or not the organic soymilk they just purchased came from US organic soybeans, produced under strict standards, or whether it came from a plantation in China, where organic standards are dubious and working conditions are abysmal.

The most glaring example of the corporate assault on organic standards is in the dairy sector, where surging consumer demand exceeds supply by 10-25%. Presently, 65% of organic milk is controlled by Horizon Organic (Dean Foods) and Aurora Organic, companies that are blatantly violating traditional organic standards by purchasing milk from large dairy feedlots where cows are kept in intensive confinement, with little or no access to pasture. These same dairy feedlots are also regularly bringing in calves from industrial farms, where the animals have been weaned on blood, injected with antibiotics, and fed slaughterhouse waste and genetically engineered grains. So what can we do? Besides voting with our consumer dollars, continuing to educate the public, and pressuring companies and the USDA not to lower organic standards, we must build a much larger and better organized network of organic consumers. Over the past eight years we have learned that organic standards can be preserved and organic acreage can be expanded, but only if we are vigilant and make our voices heard, from our local districts and grocery stores to the halls of Congress. This is why OCA has opened a Washington, DC office and stepped up our lobbying activities. We now have 400,000 subscribers on our email list, and up to 30,000 visitors to our web site every day, but in order to keep Wal-Mart and the other food giants in line, we will need to become far more powerful.

As we safeguard and expand organics, we must also deal with the larger structural problems of American society. Greenhouse gas pollution, global warming, and climate chaos, left unchecked, will destroy the ability of organic farmers, or any farmers, to grow our food and fiber. The end of cheap oil means the end of affordable food as well, unless we step up our efforts to rebuild sustainable local and regional food systems. As petroleum-based farm inputs and transportation costs increase, we will no longer be able to afford energy-intensive conventional farms or billions of dollars of imported food. Ten trillion dollars in Federal debt, yearly military budgets of $550 billion, and an endless series of wars will dry up the funds we need to convert our food and farming system to organic and make our energy, manufacturing, and transportation systems sustainable.

Out-of-control technology and corporations, aided and abetted by indentured politicians, pose a clear and present danger to our health and well-being. Increased market share for organic and Fair Trade products will provide little consolation in an era of climate crisis, scarce oil, and permanent war. In response, OCA is reaching out to other public interest movements, demonstrating that we are willing to work in a holistic manner to raise consciousness over a full range of issues. No matter how you look at it, we've got a rough road ahead. Please join and support us in this monumental effort.