The organic food and farming movement began in earnest in the U.S. as part of the cultural revolution during the 1960s that included back-to-the-land migrations and attempts at self-sustaining communes. Later, organic food and other products became a niche market for upper-middle class consumers who could afford the 10 to 40 percent higher prices for organic produce and meat.
More recently, organic activists have begun to recognize the key role that sustainable pesticide-free agriculture plays in the fight against climate change and for environmental justice.
Between The Lines’ Richard Hill spoke with Ronnie Cummins, co-founder and international director of the Organic Consumers Association, about the intersection of organic and sustainable farming with movements for racial and economic justice. Here, he talks about the need for these movements to come together after the 2020 election to push the incoming Biden administration toward a Green New Deal and a macro approach to healthy food production and distribution.
RONNIE CUMMINS: We’re facing a realization that institutional racism and climate injustice, environmental injustice are still with us stronger than ever. And that we’ve got to deal with this simultaneously. It’s not enough for the organic community to congratulate ourselves that people are becoming more health conscious and that we’ve got $50 billion to a $100 billion industry that we’ve helped develop, because economic injustice is still there. And the reason why people of color and low-income people are dying at much higher rates and getting seriously ill at much higher rates — not only from COVID-19, but from chronic disease in general in the United States — is partly because they do not have access nor the economic means to afford this organic food and grass-fed meat and animal products that people understand now are healthier. So we’ve got to deal with our public health crisis. We’ve got to deal with the institutional racism and economic injustice or endemic.
And then we’ve got on top of all this, a political crisis. When are we going to have someone running for president who actually talks about the need for organic and regenerative agriculture? You know, when are we going to see someone discussed in the mass media for future U.S. secretary of agriculture who isn’t just one more of the same? One case in point recently, has been the media buzz about Biden is looking at potential secretary of agriculture appointees and (former Sen.) Heidi Heitkamp from North Dakota pops up. And I mean, didn’t I remember Trump, you know, wanting to choose her as secretary of agriculture when he first got in there? Well, yes, it’s true. And haven’t I noticed that Heidi Heitkamp gets more money from corporate agribusiness and biotechnology companies than any other member of Congress? Haven’t I noticed that Heidi Heitkamp led the charge to not have labels on GMO food and so on.
I’m very confident that we’re going to raise hell and we’re going to have a bigger impact on public policy than we’ve ever seen. And I don’t think people are going to go back to the “normal, you know, 60 percent of Americans having chronic disease and 40 percent of Americans having multiple chronic diseases.” I think people are starting to realize we’ve got to get back control of our diets, our health and that means our food and farming system. And that doesn’t just mean your consumer choices in the marketplace. We’ve got to change policies, we’ve got to change investment. We’ve got to change the outlook of people throughout the society.
RICHARD HILL: What kind of intersection or communication has there been between Black Lives Matter, the advocates for the Green New Deal and the organic community in terms of parlaying these different advocates and very powerful activism and activists — rolling them into one movement that could actually may be on the streets if necessary, but definitely lobbying for the kinds of changes you’re talking about?
RONNIE CUMMINS: Well, I think one exciting thing is that the climate emergency has gotten people to really think now. And Black Lives Matter has reminded us that the climate crisis comes down hardest on some communities of color and low-income people all over the world, the frontline people. But I also see an understanding that I’ve never seen before at this level. The climate community is starting to recognize that food and farming are a major part of us solving the climate crisis. We not only have to move to alternative energy and radical energy conservation in a just, equitable manner, but we have to sequester enormous amounts of carbon from the atmosphere to regenerative food and farm. And I think we’re seeing that.
I think that the COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, the climate crisis are converging together and that our various movements — which operated up until this year too much in isolation from one another, food and farming, justice and public health and climate — were going to start to work together more closely. And I think Biden and Harris are — even though they’re talking vacuous talk, they sound exactly like other mainstream politicians — I do think they can be moved. We need to force these people in Washington to listen to the people, rural America people and urban America people and get things right, because we’re running out of time.
For more information, visit the Organic Consumers Association at organicconsumers.org.