A lot of amazing things came out of Netroots Nation this year, but for me one of the best outcomes was a new friendship with someone who has devoted his entire life to the progressive movement: Ronnie Cummins. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, stick with me – I didn’t recognize his name either before a mutual friend introduced us, but I certainly recognize the various progressive gains we’ve made that have his fingerprints on them.

Ronnie heads up the enormous Organic Consumers Association. I asked if I could interview him for a diary to introduce him to my fellow foodies, but as we spoke it became clear that his interests are much broader than a single issue and his role in our movement is relevant to all progressives, whether or not you consider yourself an organic consumer.

The simplest way I can summarize Ronnie’s role in our movement – and explain why I hope everyone here will read his story and help me thank him for his work (and then learn from him and work with him as we move forward) – is because Ronnie has harnessed the progressive idealism of the 1960s and grown more sophisticated and effective in his activism in the decades that followed, using new tools like the internet as they became available in a way that has occasionally really shocked and even scared the other side.

OrangeClouds115 :: Organic Consumers Leader Ronnie Cummins Calls for a New Green Deal

I want to share Ronnie’s words with you as close to how he said them as possible, but first I want to tell you what really struck me about him as we spoke. If you’ve read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, you’ll read about several people who started out in the same movements as Ronnie back in the 1960’s. Unlike Ronnie, they lost that idealism and joined big business to make what we now see as Big Organic or Industrial Organic.

To people of my generation (whose parents lived though the 60s), this is what we see and hear all the time and it’s very discouraging. Parents and teachers our whole lives tell us they remember the 60s but back then they were too idealistic but naive and impractical. And now they live in the suburbs in a McMansion with 2.2 kids and an SUV (or two) where they basically live lives that resemble Kevin Spacey at the beginning of American Beauty. We express a desire to change the world and they tell us to grow up.

Well, if I have to grow up, I want to grow up to be like Ronnie. Otherwise life would be hard to face for those (like me) who envision a more Dennis Kucinichy world. The other day I was in a coffee shop with a copy of The Soil and Health, absolutely being blown away by the intro written by Wendell Berry, and I could hear other conversations around me. Moments like that makes you realize how much you stick out in mainstream society as a passionate progressive.

Ronnie shows that we don’t need to compromise who we are to get along in this world and he shows a fantastic path for how we can connect with the so-called mainstream and make our voices heard loud and clearly in Washington. He also shows that we can do so with joy in our lives (a word that particularly resonates with me because a point an English teacher made about it back in high school that joy is deeper than happiness, which makes me absolutely love that Ronnie choose to use the word joy when he describes his values). Heeding commands to “grow up” doesn’t have to mean living your parents’ lives in a McMansion.

One quick quote from Wendell Berry’s intro to Sir Albert Howard’s The Soil and Health: A Study of Organic Agriculture and then I’ll go back to Ronnie. I think this quote so well explains the principles behind organics and differentiates true organic from Big or Industrial Organics – a topic Ronnie and I discussed in the interview:

Meanwhile, Howard’s thought, as manifested by the “organic movement,” was seriously oversimplified. As it was understood and prescribed, organic agriculture improved the health of crops by building humus in the soil, and it abstained from the use of toxic chemicals. There is nothing objectionable about this kind of agriculture, so far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. It does not conceive of farms in terms of their biological and economic structure, because it does not connect farming with its ecological and social contexts. Under the current and now official definition of organic farming, it is possible to have a huge “organic” farm that grows only one or two crops, has no animals or pastures, is entirely dependent on industrial technology and economics, and imports all its fertility and energy. It was precisely this sort of specialization and oversimplification that Sir Albert Howard worked and wrote against all his life.

Why is this relevant? Because Wal-Mart and its Industrial Organic friends (yes, I mean you too Whole Foods!) tend to practice organic agriculture in the way that Howard thought did not go far enough. Yet the organic standards allow that. Ronnie’s hard work has made sure that the organic standards aren’t even worse than this (they nearly were), and he continues to work with hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of consumers to help them recognize true organics (not being duped by the Wal-Mart variety).

So here’s our conversation – as close to his exact words as my fingers could keep up with while going 80 words per minute. Ronnie was a great interview because (as you’ll see) he’s a natural story teller.

Q: Ronnie, what got you into organics to begin with?

A: My interest began in childhood because my grandfather and grandmother were organic farmers in east Texas. They were traditional farmers. Although they didn’t use the word organic, they had learned from their parents and grandparents how to farm without chemicals and would have been appalled by genetic engineering. I spent summers on their farm and I fell in love with farm animals and with things that grew.

In the 1960’s, I got involved in Texas with the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement and the farm worker justice movement. As the movement got stronger between 1967-1970, the government came down with more and more repression and divide and conquer tactics. So around about the fall of 1969 and the summer of 1970, literally several million of us across the county started talking about how we can’t just be against racism, against sexism, against the war, against pollution… what are we for?

We said let’s build a healthy, democratic, and alternative green economy as an example of the kind of society we think we should have.] It was a conscious tactic on the part of the people who were trying to stop the war. [We had learned Viet-Nam wasn’t just a bad or mistaken war, it was part and parcel of an entire history of empire. We had learned in the civil rights movement it wasn’t just one company that was discriminating, it was a whole system. We had read The Joy of Cooking and Diet for a Small Planet, and we realized there was a more conscious way to eat.

We came up with resurrecting the old idea of consumer co-ops which had been very powerful in the late 19th century when it was integrated into the last mass radical movement in the US, the populist movement. An integral part of this movement were farm co-ops and buyer co-ops. So we decided to form consumer food co-ops (in some places they were called food conspiracies) and because we had the alternative press going at the time (underground newspapers), the word spread quickly.

We had a news service called Liberation News Service that picked up interesting stories around the country. It was a way that local innovations like a new food co-op spread very quickly, so before we knew it, there were these food buying clubs established in every college town in the US and many larger cities.

A lot of people decided at the time that they were either going to organize a food co-op where they lived or they would move back to the land and form rural communes, combinations of radical politics and growing organic. It was pretty interesting that it was NOT entrepreneurial at all, the wave of starting these buying clubs and communes, it was completely idealistic. It was also connected to health, and as people were beginning to realize that diet had ethical considerations too, many of us had become vegetarians by the late 60’s.

So what started out in Houston, TX and Buffalo, NY, a few places where I was involved… you’d call a meeting, announce it in the local paper or radio, and talk about forming a buying club where people would pool their money and start purchasing food in bulk. Then once that got to a certain stage of development people would rent a storefront and it evolved into a regular store with a cash register. The next stage once there were enough of these, people saw the need for wholesalers to supply them and for rucks to bring in the food.

About 20 years ago, that very grassroots movement started to take off – around 1991 organic sales started growing at 20% a year, a figure which has maintained itself ever since then. We were not a bunch of health minded entrepreneurs who revived this new wave of co-ops and communes, we were young people, trying to change the world. It was a tactic – a strategy – but it was also necessary for our survival. In the late 60’s you simply could not get healthy food in the supermarkets anymore.

The business consciousness of the coop movement and the counter-culture was sort of trial and error those first 20 years. So was the farming, a lot of the back to the landers did come from farm families but most of them didn’t and they had to learn as they did it. Over time people did evolve, they got more skillful, and we reached a point in the last decade where the entire retail chain is trying to adopt green products and green marketing.

Right now in the U.S. about ten cents out of every grocery store retail dollar is being spent on products that say organic or natural. Even though “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean much, it means a lot in terms of that consumer who is trying to spend their money in a way that is healthier for them and for the environment.

There was also joy in our movement – we were determined to put joy back into every day life, including food growing, food cooking, and food selling. This alternative culture was not just about a more ethical, more sustainable, healthier lifestyle but it was also about life is meant to be enjoyed and capitalistic type commerce has just squeezed all the joy out of people.

Q: Tell me about the founding of the Organic Consumers Association. A: In my own case, I kept on like many people who helped start the new wave of co-ops in the late 60s, I kept buying organic food, kept being a vegetarian, but was more involved in other aspects of social change. I think a number of us realized in the late 80s and early 90s that food and farming was a sector where people were unorganized – there weren’t any campaigns organizing ethical and health minded consumers into a potent force, both in the marketplace and in the political arena.

A lot of people were trying to cast a vote with their dollars toward what was right but there were very few organizations helping them do that. I got involved with a Washington based foundation called the Foundation on Economic Trends, headed by Jeremy Rifkin. We organized in 1992 and 93 a very large campaign against McDonalds called Beyond Beef. Howard Lyman and myself were the directors of that campaign.

The Beyond Beef McDonald’s Campaign was an attempt to get relatively inexperienced consumers involved in a campaign. We organized protests at about 3500 McDonalds restaurants at the time. What impressed me was a lot of the picketers and protesters were junior high and high school students who had never participated in a protest before. It became clear that there were millions of people who were thinking about food and farming and our relationship with animals that had not been incorporated in any of the campaigns going on.

The Pure Food Campaign that we organized was one of the first organized efforts to protest against genetically modified food. In November 1993, the government approved the first GM product, Monsanto’s recombinant bovine growth hormone. It was to go on sale in February of 1994. We organized milk dumps where we got farmers, consumers, and chefs to stand in front of grocery stores in all of the major metropolitan areas to dump milk from the brands that were going to allow the cows to be injected with these dangerous and cruel growth hormones.

Later in that summer, the Flavr Savr tomato, the first GM vegetable, came on the market. It was put out by Calgene, and one of the Board members of Calgene was Ann Veneman who made news this week as a potential Obama VP pick. Calgene was later purchased by Monsanto. To build opposition to GMOs we went out and built mock coffins and did tomato squashings in front of supermarkets that were selling the Flavr Savr tomato in Illinois and California. We had come up with the term “frankenfood”… it got picked up on all over the place.

We saw there was tremendous concern about industrial agriculture, McDonalds, the beef industry, GM foods… We saw there was a growing multibillion dollar market for organic and natural food but there was no organization that represented these consumers.

We organized a mass campaign in 1997 called SOS – Save Organic Standards. The reason we launched SOS was that we had been given inside information that Monsanto and some of the big agribusiness corporations had prevailed on the USDA to allow genetically modified food and other industrial practices under the organic label – sewage sludge, GM, irradiation, a range of toxic ingredients and pesticides – and so on.

Six months before the federal government published these proposed rules, I was able to get a hold of documents – insider documents – that showed what they were about to do and I was able to blow the whistle before it happened. This got circulated around the country and it caused quite a stir, although many people said “Cumins, he’s a total conspiracy freak, they could never do this.”

But on December 16, 1997 the Federal Register posted the USDA’s outrageous proposed standards, and the proof was right there. We immediately printed up leaflets and petitions, sent out emails to our lists of consumers and retail stores, which then got forwarded, which in turn stimulated requests from several thousand co-ops and natural food stores for leaflets and petitions. This was just when the internet was starting to be used so we made sure we had room on our petitions for people’s email addresses and we had quite consciously been building up an email list.

Congress and the USDA had never seen so many emails before on any issue other than tobacco. Congresspeople had never seen so many emails and irate phone calls. The Organic Trad Association, which is just as its name describes, used to claim that they represented consumers as well (although they never did) but they were siding with the USDA, saying “Oh well, we’ve got some differences but we can work this out.”

Basically the public sided with us when we said there is NO compromise, you cannot have GM allowed, you cannot allow them to take sewage sludge and put it on organic farms. SOS and our allies generated 280,000 letters in this campaign and basically freaked out the government and corporate America. By April Monsanto was saying to the govenrment “We think you should pull this request to include genetically modified food in organics,” and the same thing for the irradiation and the biosolids (the sludge) front groups, because they had angered millions of Americans.

So right at this point, we decided there’s no one speaking up for these millions of people who want to preserve strict organic standards so let’s set up the Organic Consumers Association. So we started out in 1998 with an email list of 800 people but it grew over the years to a quarter of a million that we’ve got now and millions more who read our newsletter, Organic Bytes, and go to our website.

It was not entrepreneurial – my wife and myself actually quit our well-paying Washington, DC, public interest jobs to take a risk that we could create a new organization. We started out with little more than a grant of $5000 from the Consumers Union and an ever growing mailing list. We decided right away that we would never do direct mail because we didn’t want to chop down trees for a 1% return, that we would raise our money from the grassroots, and that we would raise as much of it as we could from the internet and our phone bank.

So here we are ten years later. We’ve had to fight pretty hard just to preserve organic standards, and we’ve had to break new ground for establishing organic standards for body care products, clothing, vitamins and pet food. We’ve also had to simultaneously try to bring fair trade and buy local principles into this movement because the USDA ignored what we had to say ten years ago and completely did not put anything about fair trade or buy local into the national organic standards. We’re having to build this “Buy Local, Buy Organic, Buy Fair Trade” consciousness through marketplace pressure and grassroots pressure.

Q: How do you feel about “Big Organic” and the entry of players like Wal-Mart into the organic market? A: Once an alternative movement grows in power and scope, what happens is that the powers that be try to co-opt you and take you over, so it’s a good thing that Wal-Mart and McDonalds are running scared on organics and Fair Trade, running all over to try to greenwash themselves. It’s good in some ways to introduce organic products to a new audience. You’re kind of legitimized in a way when organic products start to appear in convenience stores.

But we need to be clear on what’s greenwashing and what’s for real. Our basic message is to boycott Wal-Mart and the chains, whenever possible, and patronize coops and independently owned local businesses and services.] We need to keep pressure on companies so that they change but we need to support on a daily basis what’s real – the CSAs [community supported agriculture], farmers’ markets, co-ops – that embody the kind of green values that we’re talking about. For example, when you spend your money at a local farmers’ market, CSA, independent store, this money has a multiplier effect, it circulates 5-10 times in the community. If you spend the same money in a retail chain, the money and profits flow out of your community. Therefore our slogan is buy local, buy organic, buy fair trade.

It’s important that people not only talk about and spread our green and organic values but walk our talk as well. Think every time you pull out your wallet. Are you going to go into that Starbucks, or is there a non-chain coffee shop a few blocks away that is doing a better job stocking organic or fair trade? Are you going to take the easy way out and go into a Whole Foods or a Trader Joes or is there a co-op or an independently-owned health food store?

But even beyond supporting local retail stores, is there a farmers’ market in your community? Are you starting to learn how to grow food and herbs, including medicinal herbs, yourself, even if it’s in pots on your window sill? We’ve got to keep our core values alive in our day to day lives. It is a threat, this greenwashing – Wal-Mart is the biggest seller by volume of organics and unfortunately a lot of it that they call organic is actually coming from factory farms or from places like China where its “organic” status is doubtful.

I think the bigger threat is the fact that public policy in the US is still almost 100% geared towards subsidizing industrial agriculture, long distance food transportation and processing, GMOs, and toxic diets and lifestyles. The problem with the organic consumers movement up until now has been that people are apolitical, that they don’t understand that you can vote with your dollars for change, but what are you doing with your political voice and your electoral vote to advance organics, Fair Trade, and a peaceful and sustainable future?

Most people are shocked when I tell them that the USDA takes $90 billion (with a B) each year and then act like they are throwing us a favor giving us $10 million (not billion) for organics. Under the new Farm Bill, maybe they’ll raise it to $20 million, but this is $20 million out of a $90 billion annual budget. It’s true a lot of the USDA budget goes to WIC coupons and food stamps but these are programs to force surplus junk food and highly processed chemically tainted corporate food on poor people. Food stamps and government nutrition programs are not designed to benefit the public or small farmers, they are benefiting large corporations like Kraft, McDonalds, Kellogg’s, and Monsanto –  to the detriment of poor people and children who are in these programs.

We need even MORE money going into WIC and food stamps and so on so that organic is available to everyone but let’s not kid ourselves why the USDA has these programs in the first place. They are just to fatten the big corporations, that’s why it’s illegal in many places for people to use WIC coupon to buy organic. The bottom line is if we don’t take back control over our tax dollars going into food and farming programs, organic is going to die on the vine.

There are already some danger signs out there, so it’s very important that we start to quiz politicians on their positions on food and farming. If we’re going to solve the climate crisis, 30% of all greenhouse gasses are coming from industrial farms and long distance transportation for food. We cannot stabilize the climate without going back to an organic locally and regionally based food system nor can we get the energy situation under control. And there won’t be money for organics and a clean energy, green economy if we keep spending trillions waging wars for oil in the Middle East.

Organic farms sequester carbon and don’t give off an even nastier gas, nitrous oxide [296 times worse than CO2], which comes from chemical fertilizers. On the other hand unless we grow organics, we’re not going to have an adequate supply of food with the climate crisis. For example organic crops perform 70% better under adverse weather conditions – that means if it rains a lot organic soils can absorb more moisture and plants can survive. And if it’s dry organic crops outperform conventional again by 70%.

Our ultimate advantage is that we don’t have to lie, while they-the big corporations and the greedy elite – do, we just have to get the truth out there. [But we must start thinking and organizing so that green-minded, ethical consumers begin take political involvement more seriously. And this is difficult when the two parties are indistinguishable on many issues and when people are discouraged… it’s much easier to buy organic foods than to get politicians’ attention.

But people are starting to connect the dots all over the country-between the food crisis, global warming, the energy crisis, the health crisis, and the bloody 3-5 trillion dollar wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so let’s get ready for this next populist, green wave. We have to change public policy and laws to facilitate a rapid transformation to an organic and green economy. [We need a New Green Deal. And we need it now!

To get help move towards the green economy Ronnie is calling for, you can sign up for his newsletter, Organic Bytes, and you can also sign up and participate in the forum on the Organic Consumers site. There’s also a new “50 state strategy” (my name for it) Ronnie is organizing, getting bloggers involved with Organic Consumers in every state. Speak up in the comments or drop me an email if you want details.

Ronnie has offered to be available to answer questions and respond to comments this morning, so comment away!!

(one of the comments posted thus far on La Vida Locavore blog):

1) I support these goals, but in practice, I know I’m far too lazy to make much of an active effort.  Depending on how one looks at it, this makes me either the ideal target for Cummins’s argument or the worst sort of impediment.

Given his clear disdain for the greenwashing efforts by big corporations, I would ask whether he feels we are helping or hurting things by making purchases of marginally organic or natural products at “regular” stores.  Is this helping the movement by convincing more businesses — either at the production or the retail end — that there continues to be a growing consumer desire for “better” items and nominally higher standards?  Or do we weaken matters by enriching those to whom “organic” is little more than a marketing ploy?

I guess to some degree, it comes down to the question of whether trying to achieve lasting change is more likely going to come from the application of significant external pressure (the outgrowth of 1960s idealism, perhaps) or from increased internal pressure for incremental change.  The former may be more likely to create major change in fewer steps, but also would seem more easily blocked and/or prone to a backlash, whereas working from within is open to the criticism that each incremental change gained tends to be minimal and is subject to being manipulated in a way to warp the intended goal.

by: The Maven @ Thu Jul 31, 2008 at 09:20:00 AM PDT

by: OrangeClouds115 @ Thu Jul 31, 2008 at 09:57:06 AM PDT

I think he said – and I agree – that the benefit of the greenwashers is that they legitimize organic as a mainstream idea and they introduce more consumers to the concept of caring about the way their food was produced.

That said, is it actually that good for the environment, humanity, our economy, etc, if Whole Foods buys up a bunch of cheap so-called organic ginger from China (that is actually contaminated with a pesticide), probably grown under questionable if not downright awful labor standards, and then flies it over here to sell it? Or if Wal-mart buys “organic” milk from a factory farm dairy with 4500 cows? That can’t even be compared with the basket of food I got last week from a farm 20 min from my apartment that was grown by a woman I personally know who works under very comfortable working conditions and makes a living wage in return for what she grows (and the eggs from her, produced by chickens that I am personally acquainted with, who are allowed to live out their entire natural lives in fantastic conditions).


Ronnie Cummins–Continuing the Discussion
Dear Locavore Brothers & Sisters,

First of all thanks to OrangeClouds115 for interviewing me on this new great blog site: http://www.lavidalocavore.org.
In answer to Maven’s question I think it’s important that we remain open to a dual inside/outside strategy for marketplace and political change, both in our personal lives and in the political arena. We need “moderate” pressure from the inside by customers and constituents on corporations and politicians, while more radical pressure is applied by activists on the outside. Both are valid perspectives or tactics which compliment one another. For example I’d say by all means choose and buy organic, Fair Trade, and local sustainably produced products in mainstream supermarkets and convenience stores and wherever you find them. On the other hand we can often put maximum pressure on these large corporations when we buy from their greener competitors–farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture programs (direct buying from farmers), consumer coops, independently owned natural food stores and other truly green vendors.

Join the Organic Consumers Association email list at: http://organicconsumers.org/organicbytes.cfm