Is Organic Liberal or Conservative? — Yes!

October 15th, 2013

Although some of the conservative think tanks and their agribusiness patrons might want to paint organic food as “elitist” — and even a “socialist” plot — the facts tell a different story. The organic movement is truly non-partisan.

By Mark A. Kastel

Kastel_tractor.squareThe organic farming movement was initially fueled by a loving collaboration between family farmers dedicated to producing food in consort with nature, shunning toxic agrichemicals and genetic engineering, and a growing subset of committed consumers who want the very best nutrition and safest possible food for their families.

As the organic “community” blossomed and grew into the $30+ billion industry that it is today, a number of conservative think tanks, many with direct funding from Monsanto, DuPont and other interests in agrichemicals and biotechnology, challenged the propriety, and even the safety, of organic food.

For over a decade, the Hudson Institute’s father-and-son team of Dennis and Alex Avery kept up a constant barrage. Hudson listed many agribusiness funders as their donors during these attacks.

Last year some researchers at Stanford University published a study suggesting that organic wasn’t worth the premium price. Their findings contradicted studies by the USDA, Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports magazine), and countless university researchers, internationally, who have found measurable benefits from eating organic rather than conventional foods.

At the time, Stanford (the home of the Hoover Institution, also with a history of attacking organics) firmly stated that the study was funded “internally” rather than by agricultural or biotechnology interests. What they didn’t tell the world was that their internal funders included — you guessed it — agricultural and biotechnology interests.

When it comes to length and overall quality of life, infant mortality, and chronic disease, U.S. statistics pale in comparison to those of other affluent, industrialized countries. Many families, municipalities, and governments are going broke due to out-of-control healthcare spending. We can’t afford not to eat organic food.

The latest industry attack dog challenging organics is Mischa Popoff, a self-published author claiming to be an organic advocate and former independent certification inspector.

Mr. Popoff, who was recently booted off the conservative party ballot in British Columbia, suggests that organics is riddled with fraud, and is derived from 80% imported ingredients (there is no independent research to support either of these specious claims). He is now affiliated with Illinois’ Heartland Institute, another conservative group with a history of denigrating organics.

So if you’re keeping score it would appear that since the most prominent organizations challenging the legitimacy of the organic food and farming movement come from the conservative camp, that must mean that organics is a “liberal” movement. But I’d like to illustrate how inaccurate that conclusion would be.

Organic food cuts across all party and ideological lines. We are genetically predisposed, as a species, to care for our families by procuring the very best food.

Organic consumers are just as likely to be a loving Republican soccer mom from Westchester County as a caring Democratic parent in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Although The Cornucopia Institute’s prime constituency is family-scale organic farmers, at least 30% of our members are urban-allies. When you examine the zip codes across urban and suburban America it is clear that they represent a highly diverse cross-section of the citizenry.

Another healthy subset of Cornucopia’s members come from Amish and Mennonite communities. These folks are anything but wild-eyed radicals. And I can tell you from talking with many of our farmer-members that they hold a diverse set of political opinions from all persuasions, including a strong faction of libertarians supporting access to fresh, raw (unpasteurized) milk.

Furthermore, although the modern American organic farming movement was founded by a mix of career agriculturalists and educated back to the land hippies, the growth of the industry has changed that demographic mix. Today, most of the commercial-scale farms are run by multi-generation owners who switched to organics to protect their land and families from exposure to toxic and carcinogenic chemicals and because it afforded a better quality of life.

Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz popularized the Nixon era’s message to farmers: “Get big or get out.” For over two decades organics has offered a third option for operating a family farm. It’s been good for families and rural communities.

So, although some of the conservative think tanks and their agribusiness patrons might want to paint organic food as “elitist” and even a “socialist” plot, the facts belie this representation.

In our capital, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy might be the most prominent organic advocate in Congress. More recently he has been joined by certified organic farmer/ranchers Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME). I was delighted by the bipartisan support for organics when I recently testified before a House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee regarding Chinese imports. Subcommittee member Steve Stockman, the self-proclaimed “most conservative congressman in Texas,” underscored his support noting that he and his family eat organic food.

Everyone deserves safe and healthy food. In the United States, we have the cheapest food in the world. We also have, by multiples, the most expensive health care.

And how are we faring through this dynamic? When it comes to length of life, infant mortality, chronic disease, and overall quality of life, U.S. statistics pale in comparison to those of other affluent, industrialized countries. Many families, municipalities, states and the federal government are quickly going broke due to out-of-control healthcare spending. We can’t afford not to eat organic food.

It is not elitist, nor is it partisan or ideological, to want the very best food for your family. Whether it’s from their local farmers market, CSA delivery, member-owned co-op grocer, supermarket, or Walmart, consumers are voting in the marketplace in favor of organics.

A version of this commentary appeared earlier in Cornucopia’s Fall newsletter.

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