The Path to Activism and Good Food
This week on Rootstock Radio we speak to Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Sustainable Food Trade Association. Katherine has been a warrior for the organic food movement since the 1990s, and previously served as executive director of the Organic Trade Association where she was instrumental in shaping the outcome of the U.S. National Organic Program standards and the U.N. Codex guidelines for organically produced foods. She has served on boards ranging from the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements to The Organic Center Board of Directors.
Katherine’s impressive experience in the organic sector stems from what she describes as a “compulsive need to work in nonprofits.” She has been involved not only in the food movement, but in issues of peace, social justice, and alternative energy too. Today, she describes the Sustainable Food Trade Association as “a learning community of businesses who are sharing their best practices, their challenges, their initiatives and innovations to help each other really become sustainable business models.” In this, they are doing crucial and amazing work.
Although the battles of the good food movement are hardly over, Katherine shares that years of patient dedication to this cause have started to yield results: “We’re seeing the things that are incorporated in our organic system beginning to filter into the larger food and farming system. And that is something I think we all had in mind,” she emphasizes.
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 I’m here with one of my dearest and oldest friends, Katherine DiMatteo, who is currently serving as the executive director of the Sustainable Food Trade Association. She was the executive director of the Organic Trade Association. Katherine is a tireless warrior in the Good Food movement, the organic movement, and so it’s really, really a privilege and an honor to be talking with you today, Katherine.
KATHERINE DIMATTEO: Thank you, Theresa. It’s always a pleasure to speak with you, and it’s a privilege to be asked to speak on this, Rootstock.
TM: For our listeners, Katherine is probably one of the most un-, probably behind-the-scenes kind of person in the Good Food movement and the organic movement. For example, Katherine, help me out: remember when OTA was OFPANA, the Organic Food Production… What was OFPANA? Tell me.
KD: It was—it was the Organic Foods Production Association of North America—quite a mouthful. And that got started in 1985, and I came on with it towards the end of the ’80s. And Theresa, you were on the board when we went on our retreat to the coast of Maryland and came up with the new name, the Organic Trade Association.
TM: That was the original idea. And Katherine, before doing the OTA work, Katherine, weren’t you involved in alternative energy?
KD: Yes. Yes, I have this kind of compulsive need to work in nonprofits. I first started off in food co-ops, way back in the 1970s, so I was involved in buying clubs, retail food cooperatives, and then a wholesale food cooperative, which was both employee[s] and the retail co-op members owned it jointly. So that was an interesting experience in the late ’70s, early ’80s. And then I went on to work at the Peace Development Fund, where we worked on, well, peace and social justice issues for raising money for community groups around the United States to really bring awareness and provide an avenue for action for their communities to address what was happening locally so that we can change things that were happening globally. And then I was the executive director of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association. Then on to OFPANA, which became OTA, and most recently now the Sustainable Food Trade Association.
TM: Listeners, we are listening to a true activist here who has actually crossed almost every important nonprofit kind of issues, from peace and social justice and energy and now in the food movement. And you know, Katherine was also the executive director of the Organic Trade Association when the Organic Foods Production Act was passed in Congress in 1990, and then actually was a part of writing the organic standard and instrumental in it. So to say that Katherine is a pioneer and leader in the Good Food movement is just saying it mildly.
But you know, Katherine, it really strikes me, as you list all these things and how your activism evolved, do you see a link between all these issues and action-oriented projects that you have been involved in?
KD: Oh yes, absolutely. I mean, as you know, Theresa, and we talk about often in organic, that it’s a holistic system, and then now you hear that more often today when people talk about sustainability, that it’s a system of how you approach things. So, I mean, really everyone in the world is connected, and now you can’t have a Good Food movement if there isn’t peace and social justice. You know, you can’t work on energy issues if you’re not thinking about long-term impacts and about how farm and farm issues also relate to the power grid. So this is, it’s all connected. It’s having a view of the world that’s different, that’s supportive and…oh, I don’t want to use the word sustainable, but supportive and resilient, and considerate of both what’s happening in the short term and what’s going to be happening in the long term.
So for me that’s the connection. It sort of was my…you know, it’s linked to my vision of how I would like to see the world be and how I would like to see the society and culture. And not that I have the perfect vision or that everyone would agree exactly with my own personal vision. But I think that collectively, if we begin to see things differently, we can move along together to have a more respectful society.
TM: Certainly, when we look at alternative energy and resource protection, we can’t not think of food, since food does use 70 percent of our fresh water and uses up so much of our resources and has a big, big chunk of releasing carbon into the air. But you know, Katherine, just to back up a little bit, I am so interested in understanding what makes a person an activist in this world, and how can we get more of them. And I’m just wondering, how is it that you started this life of being an activist?
KD: Oh, well… It shouldn’t be a hard question, but in a way it is. I happen to be one of those people who doesn’t set goals and then work towards them. And sort of, I’ve taken things as they’ve come. And I think, for myself and probably for everyone else, the way you become an activist is that something really personal happens, and the lightbulb goes off and you say, oh my gosh, this is how I’m feeling about it, or this is how it’s affecting me in a negative way or an uncomfortable way. Then there must be others that are having the same reaction, and maybe there’s something wrong, and maybe there’s something we can do about it. So all those things the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement that was going in the ’60s into the ’70s, those kinds of things, you know, empowered me to then be able to move on in my life and say, okay, I can now, when I see something that I feel is wrong or needs work and that I have the ability to contribute, I’m going to jump in.
And a friend of mine actually turned me on to this concept of farming and food and gardening. She’s still a dear friend, but she was the one who said, “Hey, have you read Rachel Carson?” And I said, “No, it sounds…” And I had no idea about it. So she contributed in that way, sharing what she had read and had moved her. And then we put in our first garden together, and the concept of organic was introduced to me at that time, and also food co-ops. So that all of those things together made me take action.
TM: Well, you know, now the kinds of things that we were so new at that time, when we were so young and so full of “We can change the world” kind of energy. And one of the things I admire so much about you is you still have that energy. You know, you always are standing up and just telling it like it is and not being afraid to take people on, and not being afraid to speak the truth. And certainly during the whole years of the rule writing of the, and even before 1990, there was just an awful lot of struggle in the organic industry on whether or not to allow this, and whether we should do that, and so on. Can you, you know, just a little bit of insights on what that was like? And what were some of the big controversies that you were able to work through with the organic industry and to come to an agreement?
KD: Well, first of all, I want to give a lot of credit to the folks who started before I did, that started the conversation about having a national law, and the people who met together at some of those initial meetings in the late 1980s. And I wasn’t at those. Some of the issues that happened there were the same issues that ended up carrying forward, I think, till today. And at different points in time during this progression, people were able to come to compromise. And there would be enough diplomacy or people with negotiation skills to really get us over several humps at different times.
But I think some of the issues initially were, well, what is this law, what would this law be about? Would it be a consumer protection law? Or would it be a farm protection law? Or would it be a farm support law, you know, to support alternative farming systems, organic farming systems? Would it be a law to support small and midsize farmers versus what at the time was probably considered traditional agriculture and maybe… Not that there weren’t family farmers, but the idea was that most farms were larger corporate or larger family type farms with lots of acreage that were producing commodities. And Theresa, you know, we have farms of all sizes involved in all types of agriculture.
But I think those were some of the key issues that were originally discussed, and they kept coming up as we worked on different things. Are we a pure food act, a pure food regulation system? Is it for consumer labeling and product labeling, or is it actually the production system itself and what’s happening at the farm level? And is it to protect the environment primarily or is it to have a premium product that can be sold to give you a niche in the marketplace?
And I think that, regardless if we were talking about livestock standards in the mid-’90s and then it’s later and again in the mid-2000s, those issues came up. We were talking about whether processed products would be included in the original act. That came up again in the mid-’90s and then again in the mid-2000s, and up then even to today. New technologies—where does technology fit into all of this? That’s been one of those hot spots as well during the years of the discussions about the Organic Foods Production [Act] and the national organic program. And is it that all synthetics are bad, or is it that synthetics and technology should be looked at in the framework of the outcomes, the impacts they have, and the principles of organic that we’re trying to regulate into a system? So I haven’t given you specific examples because as I look back at it, there seem to be the same core issues that come up.
TM: Yeah, those are some very, for our listeners, some really, I think, good insights in just how difficult it is to try and come up with a new whole production and/or consumer labeling act—all these conflicts. And really the OFPA, we called the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which was an act of Congress then, didn’t even get, become, I think, active and implemented until 2001. It took almost eleven years of debating to actually get this act, the Organic Foods Production Act, off the ground. And that probably might have been wise because, well, there definitely is this tension, and it still exists today, I believe, between those who want the OFPA or the organic label to stand for pure food, and some of us say let’s not sacrifice the good for the perfect. And I have to say I’m on the compromise side of probably nothing is pure anymore, and even our bodies are contaminated. So to be thinking about pure food is probably unrealistic today. And I think that was a hard pill to swallow; it still is for some people.
So what do you think? What did we come up with? We definitely have a production system, but we also have a label, so somehow we managed to come out of it with both things.
KD: Yeah, we did. And as I mentioned before, I think it’s because there was, I would say, almost everyone involved in the discussions and the debates were willing to respect each other even if we had a different opinion about what we wanted, and did have a larger goal that we were serving. You know, that we really needed to codify an alternative system of agriculture, and by codifying that and creating a label and having it in the marketplace, and its promises, its requirements guaranteed by that label, we would be able to increase the interest on the farm level, on the processing level, on the consumer level, to support this type of alternative production system.
And I feel—and I have no justification for this except that I think what I’d seen over the years is that that discussion and the debate and that striving that we did to get the Organic Foods Production Act and the national organic program off the ground really stimulated the localfood movement I see growing out of some of the discussions of the organic food movement. I see the interest today by corporations because of consumer pressure and the polling that’s been done that people don’t want artificial flavors, artificial colors, and unnecessary ingredients that maybe they can’t pronounce, in their foods, and we’re seeing the things that are incorporated in our organic system beginning to filter into the larger food and farming system. And that is something I think we all had in mind when we started out, and which allowed us to say okay, let’s see where we can compromise.
TM: For our listeners, if you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m talking with Katherine DiMatteo, who is the executive director of the Sustainable Food Trade Association, which is a nonprofit organization and it’s totally focused on encouraging and supporting sustainable business models within the organic industry.
You know, Katherine, I’m not sure anyone has ever said this, but I want to make sure to. And that is I want to thank you for just the way you hung in there, year after year after year, with so much patience and so much ability to bring clarity to the discussion. And I’m not sure, without you, and you were instrumental and I know other people were too, but I’m very proud of the work that we did because I think that we laid down something that is incredibly needed right now. And I think you just nailed it when you said, gee, the whole world now is saying, do we really need all these artificial flavors and so on? Can’t we find a better way to do things? And then looking at the organic model for ways to do it. And we’re actually proving that organic works.
And so, if you don’t mind, we can fast-forward now… Well, first I want to also thank you for your work in IFOAM. For our listeners, there is an International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, which we call IFOAM, that Katherine was the president of for many years. Katherine, how many years was that?
KD: I was the president for three and on the board for five.
TM: And I know you did some excellent work on the international organic issues then as well. But maybe we can fast-forward now and talk about the Sustainable Food Trade Association that you’re the executive director of. Tell us a little bit about the Sustainable Food Trade Association.
KD: Sure. And I have been at the Sustainable Food Trade Association for, since, well, the last three years. And it was started in 2008 by a group of organic companies and leaders who worked together in business—you know, whether they sold to each other or distributed organic products or were retailers. So it’s a broad-based group, from farm to retail, with a commitment to organic agriculture as a sustainable farming system. And so that became the key reason to come together, because all these businesses were in organic products in some way, in organic agriculture.
But they also were beginning to talk about, well, what else can we do? There’s more to having a strong, long-term healthy planet than just organic agriculture. So what are we doing in the other parts of our business? And so they came together as a group and began to talk about what other areas, metrics, what other parts of our business operations should we be looking at? And they did the Declaration of Sustainability, which was an aspirational declaration for each of the companies to pursue as best they can, in eleven areas, different aspects of their business that would improve overall sustainability, from social and environmental, and as a result their own economic, so that three-legged stool of sustainability would be addressed.
So organic, again, is the core; then also distribution, energy, climate change, water, waste, packaging, labor, animal care, consumer education, employee education, and governance. Those are the eleven areas, and they built a set of metrics. And they voluntarily report to each other about how they’re doing and learn from each other. So it’s a learning community of businesses who are sharing their best practices, their challenges, their initiatives and innovations to help each other really become sustainable business models. And I’m proud to have been asked three years ago to come in and help shepherd the organization as it continues to grow.
TM: Well, you know, they couldn’t have picked anyone better, because when we were totally involved over ten, fifteen, twenty years, trying to really develop the Organic Foods Production Act, all of these eleven areas that you mentioned were talked about. And there were some of us, some of the group that really wanted organic to stand for all of those things. And we finally got down to, goodness no, we have to just stick on these production practices and what this label means. And we can’t be everything, because if we do we’ll never get it passed, because those eleven other areas were just so full and fraught with different opinions of how to approach them. The Organic Foods Production Act is about the production practices, and yet it doesn’t take up social justice, humane animal treatment, and some of the things that you mentioned.
Katherine, what is it—you know, I’ve heard about the new joint effort called the Climate Collaborative. Is that one of the new initiatives that the Sustainable Food Trade Association is involved in?
KD: It is. And it’s in its infancy stage—it’s in that, you know, kind of planning stage. But it was initiated by one of our sister organizations called the OSC2, One Step Closer To. And there are also companies in the organic sector that are looking at sustainability, and they work on the collaborative model of the companies coming together and picking an issue or topic and working on a common solution. So one of their most successful efforts was a packaging, you know, to come up with a compostable, biodegradable packaging for food products. And a number of the companies got together and pooled their need, which allowed them to be big enough to pressure the food packaging companies to actually work with them to come up with something that would be more sustainable.
They initiated this idea of, well, we should do this with climate. How many of the companies in the natural and organic sector are doing something about climate change? Are they thinking about it in their decision making, in their business operations? And so OSC2approached the SFTA because we are also complementary, and this is… We feel that our companies have been leaders in this effort of sustainability, and we’re the most likely to be doing anything about climate change, but we realized it wasn’t enough. It’s not enough—the need is great.
So this Climate Collaborative, what we’re going to try to do, we’re going to launch this effort to get as many companies as possible in the natural and organic sector to be aware that as businesses they can make a difference, and then get them to make a commitment, an aspirational commitment to one of ten areas where they can take action. And then the Collaborative will work to show them the way: Here are resources that you can use; here are models that have been done; here are other companies that have the same challenge. Let’s get you guys together so that you can talk about solutions and, like the packaging collaborative, perhaps be able to do purchasing alternative energy as a group for enough impact, enough power, as companies together, to be able to go into a purchasing agreement.
TM: Well, it definitely, the Sustainable Food Trade Association is showing that it’s better together, because when we put our energies together plus our purchasing power together, it sounds to me like you can leverage so much more. And to realize that we are better together is, to me, the heart of cooperation.
Can you give our listeners maybe a website that they can take a look at if they want more information about what’s going on with the Sustainable Food Trade Association?
KD: Mm-hmm, certainly. It’s sustainablefoodtrade.org.
TM: Thank you so much, Katherine. Have a lovely rest of your day and week, and thank you so much for being on Rootstock Radio.
KD: Thank you.