Why the Organic Movement Is NOT "Losing Its Soul"
Bob Scowcroft is an organic pioneer—a storied leader in the organic movement. For nearly 20 years he served as Executive Director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation(OFRF), an organization that he co-founded with two certified-organic farmers in 1990. With Bob at its helm, OFRF awarded over $2.4 million in support of over 320 organic research and education projects, the results of which were shared with more than 15,000 organic farmers and ranchers throughout North America. Today, Bob serves on the board of directors of the Nell Newman Foundation and sits on four non-profit advisory boards. He prefers to keep his “retirement” busy and interesting by working as a consultant, volunteering and participating in all sorts of advocacy-oriented activities.
Bob quickly discovered that policy changes were made most effectively when legislators could put a face with the contents of an agricultural bill. “My mantra is ‘out of the office and into the fields.’ Everywhere there’s an organic farmer, they should be organized and trained and facilitated to get their Rep. out onto their farm every August recess. Why the heck are they flying to Washington when these guys should come to their districts and see their own place and see that it works?” he wonders.
Like Bob’s fellow organic pioneer (and recent Rootstock Radio interviewee!) Sue Kesey, Bob’s lengthy history in organic foods is highlighted by a few celebrity endorsements and appearances. The Grateful Dead, who were mentioned in Sue’s episode, also helped Bob and his colleagues at California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF)—the organization he was with before OFRF. “Yes, it’s true, the Grateful Dead made a $10,000 gift to CCOF for ‘educational activities’ through the Ecological Farming Association, and that gift paid for everything,” says Bob.
Then there was the time actress Meryl Streep declared her preference for certified organic food on national TV. Bob vividly remembers the response when that segment aired: “It took only 20 minutes for our phones to break, for call-waiting to break down, and CCOF grew from 180 growers to 700 growers in the next 14 months.”
Bob also addresses the question being raised within the organic movement regarding whether the once-grassroots, community-centered movement has “lost it’s soul” now that organic food is part of mainstream consciousness. (Hint: He says it hasn’t.)
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and it is so much fun to think that I’m going to be interviewing an old friend and, I don’t know, compadre, Bob Scowcroft, who is truly an organic pioneer; has been a leader in the organic movement; and is the former executive director and cofounder of the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF). Bob, welcome!
BOB SCOWCROFT: Good afternoon, Theresa.
TM: You know, I had so much fun reading about you and reading about your past. And I had forgotten that, one, that you graduated from college in 1973, but one of your first jobs out was working for the Friends of the Earth, which we all fondly call FOE. And what really was surprising to me, that one of your first projects was trying to stop Agent Orange. I guess I’d love to have you talk a little bit about those early days working for FOE, and how surprising was it that you learned about Agent Orange? I mean, that was being sprayed in Vietnam, but here you were trying to stop it being sprayed right here in the United States, and it was drifting. And I wondered if you could say a little about that.
BS: Sure. I came to that work, really, as a direct link to the gentlemen who sat next to me the year before that. I was a traveler and had come out of an amazing experience in the bush in Alaska, camping for two months, out eight days, back one; and came to Washington D.C. and volunteered at the Alaska Coalition office to work on the Alaska Land Act, and the old recycled door on sawhorses. Saw a gentleman named Eric sitting next to me, working for FOE to ban Agent Orange and to stop spray drift onto other farms. And I was working on Alaska issues, and I was really a secretary volunteer, organizing the 3×5 cards. And over that period of time I got more responsibilities, and we shared with each other at the end of a long day what we were working on. And unbeknownst to me, he was philanthropically inclined and made a grant to David Brower to hire me as the first national organizer for Friends of the Earth when I moved back to San Francisco.
So when I got out here, I started my idea—the catalyst to all of this was to organize small businesses to speak on behalf of environmental issues. And somewhat arbitrarily I picked outfitters to continue to speak on Alaska legislation, bike shops to speak on transportation issues—more bike lanes, bike lockers—and natural food stores to speak on banning Agent Orange. And I was successful in getting 40 or 50 stores to work on bike shops and 40 or 50 stores to work on Alaska issues. And within the first year I had over 1,000 natural food stores that were clamoring for information to put up posters and hand out brochures on why spray drift was bad, and Agent Orange was bad, for a consuming public.
TM: Were you able to ban Agent Orange then?
BS: I don’t think Friends of the Earth could claim a success for that. Basically what they determined was that there were 60-some-odd derivatives of dioxin, and they banned the worst of those derivatives, and in doing so removed 2,4,5-T from the marketplace and reduced the label, or the usage, of 2,4-D to almost nothing. And it was really through—I just can’t remember the other environmental groups—it was coalition work, and dioxin was the magic, horrific key to getting those off the market. And of course it was dioxin that was later determined to be the horrific contaminant that is still a poison in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos to this day.
TM: I’m very interested in your idea that business was important. Did you at the time think to yourself, “You know, causes might be good for business”?
BS: You know, I probably had about five good ideas over the last 35 years that have underwritten the career and the salary and the so-called retirement. But the first one was that light bulb—no other way to put it—that, my goodness, senate offices were saying that they were getting all this mail from businesses saying that oil drilling in Alaska is bad for their business and we’ve really got to pay attention to them. And it caught my attention that whether we like it or not, the voice on a business letterhead that said, “I have six employees in your town” really made a difference in a congressperson or a senator’s office.
And the light bulb was, well, let’s go organize them then. Let’s have events in their stores. Let’s get them to invite the representatives to their store. And let them speak in their own words. Actually that’s probably another really important line is that there’s nothing more authentic than a businessperson telling an elected official how a development or legislation impacts them. And it’s, of course, by far the most successful—the success I think we’ve all had has been let the farmers speak for themselves.
More recently I know farmer fly-ins are really big in D.C. and we support them and people go on them. But my mantra is, “Out of the office and into the fields”: that everywhere there’s an organic farmer, they should be organized and trained and facilitated to get their rep out onto their farm every August recess. Why the heck are they flying to Washington when these guys should come to their districts and see their own place, and see that it works?
TM: Well, that’s some excellent advice, I think, for all of those of us who are activists, and definitely in the food and farm sector. There’s nothing like being on a farm to help really open up your eyes to what happens there. And so few of the public now really know what happens on a farm, and that’s scary.
You know, I didn’t mean to start our interview on such a negative topic like Agent Orange. It’s interesting that you started your career out fighting pesticides, and then I love the idea that you then moved into really standing for something, which was organic agriculture. So tell us about how the Sustainable Ag Research and Education Program (SARE) was born, because I know you had something to do with that.
BS: Well, others certainly picked up where we left off, but the founding moment—I don’t know about you, but I avoid breakout groups at all costs, at all conferences. There’s nothing I like less than to come back and report what my breakout group talked about. However, there were five of us in this breakout group at the Rodale Cornucopia Conference in 1982, and we came back and said—because Dr. Garth Youngberg was in our group, had written the organic taskforce report and recommendations—we said we should take those recommendations and write them up as the Organic Research Act and Legislation.
And we had some, you know, five of us that, we’d never done this before—we had an attitude. So I said, “I’ve got 1,000 now—I have almost 1,000 natural food stores on my 3×5 card.” And Garth was in D.C., Sarah Ebenreck was in D.C. working for Rodale, and we had an aide from the local office in Eugene, Oregon, a guy named Peter Defazio there, saying that he would get his boss to introduce it. So we wrote the bill in a couple of months, we put it in the hopper, and we started organizing for organic research.
While that failed, we generated tens of thousands of letters, and those that followed came back and said, “It’s the word organic that’s not going to fly, but the concept of sustainable ag research has got some real roots growing here.” So there were two more attempts, and different names. One of the acronyms was actually LISA—Low Input Sustainable Ag. Another one was BUBBA, but I can’t remember what that stands for and I probably don’t want to. And the last one was called SARE, and SARE took root and it actually was passed in the Farm Bill a couple years later.
TM: And it still exists today, for those of you out there, and it’s just been very, very valuable.
BS: It’s one of the great grassroots research and education programs funded where small dollars make big difference. And in a way, the experience of writing that and promoting that stayed with me all the way to my application to work for CCOF in 1987. I had met the director and the farmers at Eco Farms. I knew Barney Bricmont—it was all volunteer. I had met Warren Weber. I had met Mark Lipson when he was a student at UCSC and I was a speaker in his class. That’s when we first connected, if you can believe that.
TM: That is very fun to hear.
BS: I never forgot him; he asked the most insightful questions—put me on notice to get my act together actually. I had tough situation at home, had a job, a secretarial job, to cover my insurance needs, and I saw an ad in the local paper: “CCOF Hiring Its First Executive Director.” And I called down there and said, “I’m thinking of doing this,” and Mark had the other half-time person bicycled with the application.
TM: That is a wonderful and an amazing story. And once again, CCOF stands for California Certified Organic Farmers. And for our listeners, I know that there’s a lot of names here that you’re not familiar with. Certainly Peter Defazio now is from Eugene and is in the—isn’t he in the House of Representatives in Congress for Oregon?
TM: Jim Weber also was a terrific person that was very instrumental in helping organic. And then our friend Mark Lipson was a very, very important aid to Kathleen Merrigan under Clinton and she, let’s see, she was the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture.
BS: Under Obama.
TM: Under Obama, that’s right—excuse me. So it’s been these kind of old friends still out there doing some great work, including Mark. What a fantastic experience that must’ve been for you. And then you were, in 1987 then, is that when the first year of CCOF was?
BS: Well, CCOF was founded in 1973. In 1985 they chose to “get real” and hired two half-time employees, and Mark was one of two, and Mark actually filed state tax returns. So from ’73 to ’85 they never filed a tax return nor were identified on any governmental screen. By ’87 they were just starting to grow and decided to hire an executive director, with some conflict among some of the volunteers, actually—they wanted it to stay all volunteer. But I was hired.
And one of those stories… I was so excited. I had worked on organic for seven years. I’d never farmed, but I could certainly speak the language, and if I didn’t know the answer I knew who did. I had run campaigns, and I got into the office, and really happy to be there. And Mark pulled me aside, in the first day, I think, saying “This is great you’re here. I have to tell you that we haven’t been paid in a month or two. The rent is due; there’s no money in the account. And we filed tax returns in ’85, but we didn’t file any federal since then, and the three-year time period within which it turns into a felony for avoiding taxes is up next January. What are you going to do about it?”
TM: What an orientation!
BS: So I wasn’t quite expecting to be the accountant/fundraiser/administrator. I thought I was the executive director of a 180-farmer certification group. But between the network I already had in place, I knew other donors; of course I had all these store connections. I started asking for some funds, and I asked Mark to ask his friends. And I knew accountants in town and we started preparing our paperwork to file. And then, yes, it’s true, the Grateful Dead made a $10,000 gift to CCOF for “educational activities” through the Ecological Farming Association, and that gift paid for everything.
TM: You know, those Grateful Dead, they’ve done such great work for the organic industry.
BS: Well, this is, I won’t use his last name, but in the small world of things one of the connections was the road manager at the time was Mark’s college roommate.
BS: As a matter of fact, I think among many of us, the back door on many of the issues, once we realized they existed and that we had the guts to try to open them, have really advanced our movement accordingly. Later on, for example, through some old friends on the Agent Orange issues and pesticides at NRDC, Natural Resource Defense Council, came up with a campaign and let me know that they were going to—had a campaign to ban some pesticides and that they really hadn’t thought about the solution. And they were going on 60 Minutes and they had this report they were releasing on 20 chemicals. And what I helped them think about what they should advocate for. I asked them to advocate for organic, but they thought that was too controversial, and they just wanted to talk about sustainable agriculture. But lo and behold, these 20 chemicals became just one, and it was called Alar. And suffice it to say, all hell broke loose.
And the side group that was working with them was something called Mothers and Others for a Livable Planet. And those folks came to me and said, “We’d like an organic reaping packet, and we have a spokesperson that we’d like to you to meet, if not now sometime in the future, because we think, and she thinks in particular, that the answer is certified organic food.” I put together a briefing packet with a few other groups—it wasn’t me or us alone—but we got it off to an actress you might know called Meryl Streep. And Meryl got it and said she wasn’t really necessarily restrained by other NGOs. She ate organic, she believed in organic. And about 10 days after 60 Minutes broke the Alar story and all hell was broke loose in the organic industry, and food in general, Meryl went on the Donahue Show, and Donahue looked at her and said, “Well I’m hearing about this, what about that?” And she answered, “The national environmental groups appropriately need to be a little more conservative and have a much wider campaign and umbrella, but for me the only answer is to eat certified organic food.” And it took only 20 minutes for our phone to break, and for call waiting to break down, and CCOF grew from 180 growers to 700 growers in the next 14 months.
TM: Wow, Bob, I’m so glad that you reminded us of that 1991 Alar scare.
BS: Well, yes to reminding you about Alar; no to the word scare. You know, language is important, and most people from, even from our community, talk about the “Alar scare” as one word. And the fact of the matter is Alar was a suspected carcinogen. It was banned. It was found in the soil, it was a problematic chemical tool, and it never should have been allowed or used in the first place. We, the environmentalists—in this case, the environmentalists that brought forward the toxicological data and the request to ban it—were right, and eventually they won and Alar is no longer allowed to be used in the marketplace.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio, and I’m Theresa Marquez. And I’m here today with organic pioneer—and Bob, I’m also going to have to call you fundraiser—Bob Scowcroft, the former executive director and cofounder of the Organic Farming Research Foundation. You know, once again, I was thinking about you being a highly intuitive person. And what made you and the board members of CCOF feel passionate about why we needed a research foundation for farmers and on-farm research?
BS: It was generally common knowledge that we knew how to grow food organically. There’s a lot of fine print we had to debate about, but we knew and were successful at organic farming and ranching. But we didn’t know the science behind it. We didn’t know the spacing between a soybean row; we didn’t know the biological activity surrounding a strawberry plant. We had stumbled across the fact that growing broccoli or a cole crop before or after strawberries seemed to increase your yield of strawberries, but we didn’t know why that happened and how much broccoli we should grow.
And the idea was that it was the farmers who had the best questions about their own farm, and that our job was to raise the money and give it to the farmers to do the research, and/or scientists that worked with them. And our ironclad commitment was to make the results available to any farmer, of any stripe, of any definition, free of charge. This was our public service.
TM: And that’s so exciting, because I was just thinking that, and looking at the numbers here: In 1988, while you were with CCOF and we hadn’t birthed OFRF yet, organic sales were something like $90 million. And today, or as of 2016—what are we at, $38 billion?
BS: Yeah, I don’t follow, I don’t know the exact numbers of today. But I certainly remember it being in certain environs where people just, you know, “It’s never gonna be in a supermarket, it’s never gonna be this, it’s never gonna… You can’t grow an organic cow, you can’t grow organic strawberry, you have to have methyl bromide.” And I was inspired by the farmers that I got to know and visit in my travels around the country, that I’d hear the voice that would say, “You can’t grow an organic cow,” and I’d be in Denise and Larry O’Brien’s [correction: Denise O’Brien and Larry Harris’s] small organic dairy, [in Atlantic,] Iowa, and they explained and showed me and walked the fields on exactly how they were [an] organic dairy family.
So it seemed to me that the missing link here was the grants and the ability then to take the results and share them. One of Mark Neilson’s passions from day one was that OFRF was going to fund information, not products.
TM: You know, Bob, I was reading an interview and I had this wonderful quote that you said. But, you know, someone was interviewing you and saying, “Oh, has organic lost its soul? And is big corporations taking over organic?” And would you, for just a minute or two, talk a little bit about your feelings about those kinds of accusations that big corporations are taking over and that organic has lost its soul?
BS: I come close to the word rage when I hear that, because I know how the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) works and came about. I know how difficult it is to sit on it; I know the fine print and the challenges associated with it. But the fact of that matter is any company, individual, co-op, that uses the word organic has to meet the law, and that those that violate it quite often get caught and quite often, upon being caught, pay five- and sometimes six-figure fines. And at 5 percent of the food economy, I don’t know how anyone, of all shapes and stripes and sizes, how anyone can say that organic has somehow lost a soul. That is rather offensive to me.
What I would say, the flip side of that, is that how inconceivable, from the ’80s and ’90s, that a multinational corporation would initiate a division of their business that would embrace, if not worship, the soil that would treat their animals equal to or above any animal welfare standard that organic community has developed; who will manage their water, manage their wildlife in a full organic farming system. And it’s my opinion that what that division of that company would learn by embracing the term organic will spread through other parts of the company that haven’t quite discovered the magic and wonderful nature of an organic production.
TM: Thoughts of your grassroots tools and things that maybe work for you that you might give to we activists here who are living and breathing here in the Corn Belt states?
BS: I think there’s never been a better opportunity to organize constituencies that have not been open to conversation before. I think the circuit riders should be going to Farm Bureau chapter meetings and saying, “I want to listen first on why you think doubling these, or tripling and extending, are so important to both your business today. Because we have to have you in business so that you can transition to organic someday. We don’t want to pave over your farm or have you abandon your farm. We want to know why it’s so important that you continue to use these incredibly toxic, and potentially damaging to your next-door neighbors, chemical. Upon listening to you, we hope you will listen to us and look at a different way. Understand the prices, the system, the crop rotations, and the economic viability of what we have so successfully proved.”
TM: Beautiful. The grassroots way to do it, and certainly the neighborly way to do it—go and listen.
BS: It’s the coffee shop organizing project.
TM: Bob, what a pleasure and an honor to be talking with you today. And that was so well said. And just congratulations for all the wonderful work that you’ve done growing the organic sector. And I’m with you, I get a little angry and annoyed when I hear people say that we’ve lost our soul. We’re an industry, we’re still a movement, I think we’re a lifestyle. But I think, more than that, we do have such a heart and soul and passion, so many of us, in what we’re doing, and I see that in the youth, too, as they embrace it. So I want to thank you so much for all the great work you’ve done.
BS: Well, you’re welcome. And I guess I’ll close with, it’s never finished. And relative to organic, many of us made the decision either directly or intuitively that the so-called “secondary issues,” at least of the ’90s—the honor and respect of labor, the role of water, the chains of the food system from the farm to the table—now need some additional investment of time and energy. And it could be through the NOSB, it could be through other labels attached to this. But at least for me, I ain’t done yet. And my activities these days are really still an organizer and organizing philanthropists now to devote a greater amount of their philanthropic funds to organic advocacy and education and related issues.
TM: So, Bob, thank you so much for joining us, and I’m going to look forward to interviewing you again, I hope, sometime this year so we can learn more about some of the other things that you’re involved in.
BS: Well, thank you, Theresa, and I miss you. We’ll touch base hopefully soon.