by Bob Scowcroft
There are many tag lines that start with a relatively short media blitz but emerge generation after generation as meaning something entirely different. Better Living through Chemistry comes to mind. (Kicking off the green revolution it meant something quite different to those hipsters dropping out in the 60s and 70s) You’ve come a long way, baby is another. Yes encouraging women to liberate themselves – by smoking cigarettes morphed into a positive acknowledgment of speed of light progress. I heard it used often in the dot-com boom a decade or two ago. There are many more to choose from.
Now, OK quick – what tag line comes to mind promoting organic food and associated products? Ah, well, it’s good for you? Wait, it’s better for the environment. The other stuff is really bad for you! Really cool young people eat fantastic fresh, local, ecological, home-prepared, worker-approved organic food. You can be young too and…Stop. Really, what’s our tag line?
In the coming months I will be retiring from the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) after 20 years at the helm. I want to step back from almost 32 years of organic advocacy to recalibrate my personal and family responsibilities before I look ahead and decide what comes next. I’m looking at it as a period of regeneration with a healthy dose of fun too. Recently I’ve been able to set aside some time to reflect upon what I have learned over the last three decades and, thanks to an invitation from GreenMoney Journal, I’m going to share with you those thoughts on our organic future.
Regeneration: Robert Rodale preferred to use the word regenerative agriculture when describing organic farming. He (at least during the many times I heard him speak or visited with him) talked about taking time to build the soil – sometimes via cover crop, sometimes focusing on such approaches as no-till farming. The focus was (is) always on the soil. How about replacing the word soil with soul? That term resonates well with me and should for others. Yet, how few actually practice it? Who among us has taken long sabbaticals from the day job? Once I was able to take nine weeks off and travel overseas. That was in 1982. What can possibly be lost by missing a quarter or more of work while enabling associates to manage your program – maybe even take some risks of their own? Can a renewal of passion for the day job come from taking some time off to read and have fun? If one really were an organic advocate then integrating, on a personal level, a scheme of rest and regeneration would seem to pay tangible benefits for all over a long career.
Youth shall be served: Most of my peers have been calling for and/or celebrating the arrival of a new fresh wave of youthful organic farming advocates over the last few winter conference seasons. Yet very few of my peers have intentional strategies on how to hand over the mantle of leadership to this group of highly capable emerging leaders. Too many see the generations coming up the ladder as competitors rather than vanguards of change. In the context of OFRF, I gave a great deal of thought on when and, more importantly, how I would step down from the Executive Director position. I gave notice (in confidence) over three years ago. Together we determined we would need a strategic plan in place, a transition committee of the Board to oversee it, and a reserve fund in the bank if we were to be successful in attracting new leadership to OFRF. I believe that this intentionality can be a model for other organizations. I believe we’re in a “moment in time” when we (my generation) should consider moving into more mentor/collaborative relationships with those twenty or thirty years our junior. We have the wisdom of experience and peer relationships but (with few exceptions) haven’t “grown up” with 3.0 communication devices ready and waiting to share breaking new information. “We” read newspapers; “they” tweet. The goal is to combine all of our resources really, to radically transform agriculture. We must merge the enthusiasm of risk with the wisdom of experience.
Raising the Bar
Here’s how high I would suggest we raise the bar: Have Organically Labeled Products represent 50 percent of the food economy within ten years. Now that’s transforming agriculture. In 1980 organic sales were counted in the tens of millions at best. Last year we reached about 4 percent of the food economy or $27 million give or take a dollar.
At some risk of “sound bite” solutions, let me list a series of strategic initiatives that if engaged via multiple stakeholder collaborations could see us meet this lofty goal:
- Organize the resistance: Why are we so tentative when it comes to sharing the horrible medical or environmental results of mainstream peer-reviewed academic reports. The President’s Commission on Cancer (appointed by George W. Bush, no less) wrote about “PRE-POLLUTED Babies” being born with as many as 300 plus man-made chemicals in their umbilical cords. They recommended eating food grown without pesticides…and on and on. They just couldn’t say the word organic. We must. Every day, on every channel, in every blog. On September 21 NBC’s Today Show featured a piece on GMO salmon. Dr. Nancy Snyderman, when asked if she would eat one for dinner, looked the reporter in the eye and said “NO.” She was so concerned about the extra hormones produced by this fish that she would only eat Wild Alaska salmon. “Look for the label” said she. I saw it on live TV; the kids probably on YouTube. Next up GMO wheat. Yes, our “Daily Bread.” Calling all activists. Work together to stop this now.
- Collaborate for Solutions: Too often our environmental and consumer brethren while calling for sustainability (darn I didn’t really want to use that word in this article – do you REALLY know what it means??) see organic through their own NGO prism. Maybe it’s via water policy; rural vitality; labor activism or pesticide contamination. Their (and yes our) planks are too important to fight over individually and must be shaped into a tight fitting foundation of action. Compromise, collaboration, cooperation – are we really engaged in that conversation? There were some successful examples of cooperation during the last Farm Bill debate and passage, but there, too, we still fell short of what we could be capable of. Let’s promote what we really want at the White House and in the halls of Congress, not what we think they will give us. We must be FOR something and think big while we organize grassroots resistance to what we are so clearly against.
- Call out the Bullies: the unproven fact, shouted repeatedly above the conversation has infected our organic community too. Personal insults, ¬– the almost manic “I” over “we,” – have too often diverted attention from the many difficult tasks at hand. Integrity must win out over noise. People of good conscience can and should challenge the organic status quo using established collaborations backed up with research whenever possible. Most all should agree that continuous improvement using sound tools must win out over shrill press releases, name-calling or angry letters.
- Intentional Investments and Strategic Philanthropy: I actually think they go hand in hand. It will take patient capital to invest in land and young people on the way towards organic certification. There’s a gaggle of small business entrepreneurs eagerly promoting their own food, body care (and who knows what else) organic product. There’s software for organic farmers to use for CSA recruitment, farmer’s markets are expanding, and new chef/grower alliances are developing. Innovative loan programs are emerging from companies and funders alike. Relatively normal contractual rules largely still apply but multiple benefits for both parties should be included in final agreements. At the same time, the NGO community invests a phenomenal amount of time raising funds. Time that could be better invested in projects like emerging leader retreats, organic civics 301 or new consumer outreach programs. Companies with $100 million or more in sales could allocate a percentage of their gross sales to fund both sides of the above equation. Contributions to leading organic research, trade, and advocacy organizations go a long way to both defend and promote organic expansion. They can also leverage collaboration and identify future leaders. Witness Clif Bar’s unique Seed Matters project with the Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance and OFRF. They pledged $500,000 over five years to three organizations whose work complements each other’s. Certainly there are ten other companies who see the possibilities of similar cooperative agreements relative to their own public/private objectives. But that’s not enough. Remarkably there are over 60 family foundations that support one component or another of organic food advocacy. They have organized themselves into a network of funders (Sustainable Agriculture Food Systems Funders – SAFSF) and are in the early stages of exploring a more formal conversation with corporate philanthropists. NOW we’re talking investors and philanthropists informing each other for the greater goal of transformative food systems and yes, collective profitability too. Remember Foundations can’t make grant awards unless their portfolios are profitable too! How much are they investing in organic businesses?
- Media Savvy: The world just isn’t about press releases any more (but they help). We need our own organic YouTube “station,” with a virtual resource library and a 24/7 speaker’s bureau including farmers, business people, scientists and NGOs. We need an elder’s resource network, organic music of all shapes and forms, and juried organic art festivals. We need to post, blog and most importantly gather together and break good organic bread. People and food equal community. Let’s celebrate all the different cultures, food, and customs together.
Some days I fear the food system is one oil crisis, water drought, weed explosion, food borne disease, or gene contamination away from collapse. I feel urgency. I fear failure, but I know all of the parts needed to radically transform agriculture, yes to even feed organically all who are hungry in the United States, are now available. Do we have the will, passion and resources to fit them all together? To really transform agriculture? Yes; see invest in youth above.
Article by Bob Scowcroft, Executive Director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation
Note to Reader: The views expressed in this article are entirely my own. They may not express the viewpoint of my fellow staff or the OFRF Board of Directors.