Remarks by Roger Blobaum
Eco-Farm Conference, Asilomar, California
January 24, 1992
It feels great to get away from Washington, where nobody seems to be having any fun. Everybody is blaming everybody else for the deficit and the recession and the White House political staff has finally grounded the President and confiscated his passport. This follows a rash of reports from Capitol Hill of unpaid bills at the House Dining Room, bounced checks at the House Bank, fixed parking tickets, and scuttled campaign reform bills.
Except for Ralph Kader and Common Cause, most of us in Washington are political realists who try to avoid getting too worked up over a little bipartisan hanky-panky here and there. It reflects the seamy side of the political process and isn’t anything that new.
I like to illustrate that with the story about a news report Mark Twain sent to his paper in St. Louis a few weeks after he became a capitol correspondent. “Drinking, womanizing, carousing, gambling, and corruption are everywhere in Washington,” he reported. “It’s certainly no place for a Baptist … and I did not long remain one I”
One thing that has changed since Mark Twain’s time is the drive to de-regulate industry and to starve out and gut regulatory agencies. Ordinary citizens, as a result, have little confidence in the government’s willingness or ability to protect the environment or provide a safe food guarantee and the public relies increasingly on public interest groups to express their concerns and turn this situation around.
CSPI moved recently moved and during the move we came across a letter I want to share with you. It’s from USDA and starts out by saying, “The Secretary has asked me to reply to your letter of November 12 in which you suggest the Department urge farmers to grow food organically.”
The letter states that USDA is “conducting much research that may be used by those wishing to follow organic farming methods.” Then it lists several bulletin titles to support this claim: “Managing Our Environment”; “Using Sewage Sludge for Land Improvement”; “Pasture Fertilization with Chicken Litter”, and “Incorporation of Sewage Sludge in Soil to Maximize Benefits and Minimize Hazards to the Environment.” Not even close.
The letter writer clearly had scraped the bottom of the barrel. But the most interesting thing about this letter, and the reason I am sharing it with you, is the date: December 4, 1973. More than 18 years ago. That’s how long CSPI, a health and nutrition advocacy group, has been promoting organic farming.
Our approach then, as it is now, is to advocate, and mobilize public support for, any policy change that will 1) help farmers move away from chemicals and adopt organic methods, and 2) help build consumer demand for organic food. That’s why we made the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 a high priority.
I also want to mention something else that made it possible for CSPI, and all the other public interest groups that supported this legislation, to make a real difference. A quote from a recent Rational Council of State Legislatures report makes the point: “Agriculture is no longer the dominant interest group influencing farm policy… Its representatives now must vie with more powerful constituencies of consumers, environmentalists, urban interests, and others for primacy over what traditionally has been agriculture policymaking.
“In short, agricultural policy is being transformed to incorporate additional goals of resource conservation, environmental and health protection, and sustenance of family farms and rural communities as explicit social objectives.”
Chairman de la Garza and Charlie Stenholm of the House Agriculture Committee should tape that statement to their bathroom mirror and review it every morning. It helps explain why they got rolled on the House floor by more than 50 votes during the farm bill debate, on an organic farming amendment of all things, and what they will be up against politically if they stay committed to a chemically-dependent farming system.
I want to take this opportunity to call the roll of the Organic Food Act Working Group, which started working on the bill late in 1989 and provided important political clout for the coalition that pushed it through. You may not recognize all these groups. But I can assure you, based on first-hand experience, that they are friends of yours. They know the legislative process, the political personalities, and how to mobilize grassroots support and turn up the political heat.
The names on this Organic Honor Roll are Consumers Union; American Farmland Trust; Concern Inc.; World Resources Institute; Public Voice; National Center for Policy Alternatives; National Audubon Society; Consumer Federation of America; Institute for Alternative Agriculture; Bread for the World; Public Citizen; Humane Society; Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals; National Family Farm Coalition; CSPI; Sustainable Agriculture Working Group; Farmworker Justice Fund; Center for Resource Economics; National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides; Natural Resources Defense Council; Sierra Club, and National Cooperative Business Association.
A year ago, 23 of these groups reorganized into the Organic Food Production Act Implementation Working Group. Our new commitment is to gain full implementation of national organic standards and the annual struggle to get the money appropriated to complete this process.
I was upset recently when I saw a report charging that consumer groups don’t know anything about agriculture. I’m convinced that one of the important byproducts of the fight over organic standards is much-increased awareness and understanding of farm issues by consumer, environmental, and other non-farm groups.
Organizations in the working group developed this expertise while educating members of Congress about organic farming and heading off USDA’s attempt to derail the legislation.
We are pleased that OFPANA and OFAO have made a strong commitment to this participatory standard-setting process.
Our shared interests extend well beyond setting standards. It is critical to stress that all of us, you who produce and market organic food and we who support your efforts, are engaged in a global agricultural reform effort. We will not prevail if we base our strategy on mobilizing public support for the organic food industry alone. No matter how meritorious that may be, it will not take us to where we need to go.
We need to step up our effort to press the traditional, and more powerful, arguments for organic agriculture: environmental protection, enhanced soil fertility, safer food, protection of farmworkers, humane treatment of livestock, resource conservation … Our coalition will fall apart if we abandon or downplay these arguments. We must see ourselves as the advance party of an ever-expanding movement. Our shared vision must be an Earth-friendly food production system that emulates the ecology of natural systems.
I also would urge you to consider a further step that I believe will ultimately stimulate much broader demand for organic food. That is identifying in the marketplace what some in Europe refer to as “conclusive products.” These are “green” food products grown with methods that are both environmentally sound and socially beneficial.
This taps into the public’s interest in using their purchasing power to choose healthy and healthfully grown food, not only for themselves, but to influence larger environmental, family farm, and rural community goals as well. We need to do more in the marketplace to help consumers identify which food products are “environmentally friendly”, “animal friendly”,” rural community friendly” and so on.
U.S. supermarkets are responding to consumer demand for “green” products and “earth-friendly” brands. But, so far, most of the focus has been on developing biodegradable products, products easily recycled, and on source reduction. The time has come to push “green” foods that allow consumers to vote with their food dollars for the overall agricultural reform approach that we represent.
I hope you realize how important what you are doing is to the future of our country and to the earth itself. The organic methods that you practice set the standard for the kind of agriculture we need and eventually must have. We offer you encouragement, our continued support, and our thanks.
From 1989 to 1992, Mr. Roger Blobabum was the national director of Americans for Safe Food, a project of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (a 230,000-member health and nutrition advocacy organization.) His work included organizing annual national organic/sustainable agricultural conferences in Washington, organic and sustainable agricultural initiatives in 12 states, and helping shape the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act and push it thorough Congress.