LIANA HOODS HAS BEEN DEFINING the integrity of organic food and agriculture in the national arena since 1994. The former vice president of Middletown-based Orange Environment, she became “frustrated at always fighting development after development,” shifted her attention to what truly inspired her and hasn’t looked back. She worked as a grassroots organizer and policy advocate for the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, and in 2006 became the executive director of the National Organic Coalition (NOC), which she was instrumental in starting. The coalition, comprising representatives from farming, consumer and environmental organizations and a few businesses (including Equal Exchange and the National Cooperative Grocers Association), serves as a watchdog for the organic label, and now has taken on the bigger goal of advancing “organic” as the food and agriculture system of the United States.
In January, Hoodes received the Golden Carrot award from the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY) for her behind-the-scenes contributions as co-chair of the management committee of NOFA-NY’s organic certification program and for her effective, “low-ego approach” that has enabled NOC to become “the most highly respected think tank on organic integrity” in this country.
Though her work often requires travel to Washington, DC, and to conferences and meetings throughout the country, Hoodes has kept her home base in Pine Bush (where she founded the town’s local farmers market 13 years ago). Growing organic food has been a central part of her life since the mid-1970s, and though she no longer keeps a flock of sheep, she remains devoted to her large organic garden. Over a delicious simple winter lunch that she assembled from foods she had grown, foraged or purchased from friends, she explained the importance of organic farming from environmental, social and political perspectives.
Liana Hoodes: [Organic] is the method of agriculture that is based truly on nature—on the life of the soil right up to the life of the people involved in it. Organic also includes a very specific set of standards that are transparent and that follow the principles of environmental sustainability.
Organic soils not only can withstand drought better, they can also withstand flood much better. While it takes years to build true organic soils, the effects of reducing toxic load are immediately measurable. For instance, after ten years, organic soils are so well developed that the yields are comparable to “conventional.”
All those naysayers who claim that organic couldn’t feed the world are now being disproven. (We knew they were wrong!) The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) came out with a couple of reports about organic being “how to feed the world.” We also now have 20- and 30-year studies side-by-side, where the data show actual [organic] yields are comparable or better [than conventional yields]. An organic farmer in Iowa named Ron Roseman has had some annual corn yields surpassing his conventional neighbors’.
In Europe, basically because of pollution issues, they’ve been pushing organic structurally throughout their food system for a long time, and they have incentives for growing organically—you get assistance if you are transitioning or if you are an organic farmer. If you have habitat for specific birds, for example, you can get a payment. That’s how they do their green payments. So, they have encouraged organic to grow, and the incentive programs are based on supply management.
In many countries, they’re talking about moving their whole food supply to be organic. Great Britain found that they were growing 30 percent of the organic food being purchased. In 10 years they wanted to reverse that so 70 percent would be grown there—they did it within five or six years! We love this. It could work in New York State—evaluate who’s buying what and look at the existing farmland. Encourage us to grow and manufacture what consumers want.
Until recently, organic and other non-industrial agriculture proponents got little support or federal dollars, largely due to big business influence in Washington, DC, and a federal program skewed heavily in favor of big agriculture. The First Lady’s White House garden gave some hope that the tide might turn with the Obama administration.
LH: The problem with the entire staff in the previous administration was that none of them knew organic at all. [Now] we have lots of good people who understand organic in the USDA. The deputy secretary [Kathleen Merrigan] wrote the Organic Food Production Act in 1990, when she was working for Senator [Patrick] Leahy [D-VT], and she worked with us on fighting the bad rule. The new head of the National Organic Program ran the Washington State organic program for years—he understands organic really well. And there’s an assistant to the Secretary, Mark Lipson, from the Organic Farming Research Foundation.
So, [the Obama administration] is a huge boost for the integrity of organic—I don’t know how we could have done better in a lot of ways—but, policy-wise, we’re still seriously marginalized. I don’t think our federal government has committed to moving our food supply to organic, and none of the incentive programs they’re looking at address supply management. There has been a conscious policy decision on the part of our government to NOT invest in organic and agro-ecology in a manner that could transform our food and agriculture system. The programs we get are so miniscule and we’re fighting for them constantly, just to stay afloat.
Political influence is really hard for us to deal with. We just can’t be all the places that people with lots of lobbyists can. Michael Taylor [Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the FDA] started with Monsanto and he’s been back and forth between Monsanto and the FDA and Monsanto and the USDA for the past 15 years or more, at least starting with the Clinton administration. He’s now working on the Food Safety Modernization Act. Monsanto is a huge contributor to both Democratic and Republican campaigns—there’s no way that Obama isn’t beholden to them.
We desperately need to search for solutions for some of the very serious health and environmental issues, including climate change and the toxic load on our children. Organic food and agriculture can help us get there.
There’s organic, there’s local, there’s sustainable and a half-dozen other catchwords being batted around these days to describe alternatives to factory farmed food. It’s hard to know who’s on first sometimes.
LH: We have to be very careful of what we ask for in our food. I have gone out of my way for 30 years to buy local, so I am a true believer in local. But do not mistake the agricultural practices or the health of the food for how close it’s grown to you. The basis of “organic” is a set of codified standards that is transparent; with “local,” we don’t know—people may forget to ask how [the product] is grown.
What organic offers is a precautionary approach to food and agriculture: Organic seeks to prevent toxic exposure by evaluating each synthetic substance used for its effect on the environment. Jay Feldman, executive director and co-founder of Beyond Pesticides, has noted that organic is the only federal law, regulation or standard that is precautionary—it basically states that if you do not know what the effects of something are, or if it could have negative effects in the environment or to health, then you use precaution and do not allow its use. That is the principle behind reviewing everything that goes into organic. In North Carolina, Tyson and Perdue are local, but their method of production of chickens is not in any way environmentally sustainable, and in many ways it’s not healthy. It’s just an abomination.
Let’s look at local onions in the black dirt [Orange County]. These are some of our most important local farmers, and we need to support them. We must have that black dirt in agricultural production, but there has been very little technical assistance for those farmers to try anything else. We know the toxins that they’re using on the black dirt—they are going all the way into New York harbor—[the black dirt region] is the only place they could be coming from. It is not entirely their fault that they aren’t trying less chemicals—we cannot expect them to take all the risk—many are already on the economic brink. Are we out of minds that we wouldn’t put 50 percent of research dollars into alternative systems for these farmers? That is a crying shame.
Establishing federal organic standards was supposed to be a step toward defining exactly what “organic” meant and making sure it meant the same thing to everybody. Well, almost everybody.
LH: It takes all manner of activism to make sure we keep the organic whose two goals are about the health and environment of the entire society. In this economic environment, if it turns out that a business person might think a regulation would impact his or her business negatively, they can slow it down. It’s all about whether business is getting a fair shake, not whether it abides by the standards or the rules.
Every time the National Organic Standards Board has a meeting, they come up with a list of decisions and that all needs to be turned into regulation. The national organic law was passed in 1990—it took 12 years to write the standards—but its regulations were only implemented in 2002, so we’re only ten years into it. We need to give it more time to work the kinks out.
The board endlessly reviews synthetic materials—that’s their job. When Joan Gussow was on the board years ago, she asked, “Is organic about approving every processing aid so that we can eventually have an organic Twinkie?” (Personally, I would love to say no synthetics, but baking powder is a synthetic—it was reviewed by the NOSB, which determined that it followed the criteria for organic, so it would be OK to use this particular synthetic.)
There’s a true story of a proposed material that I love to use as an example. All synthetic materials have to be ‘petitioned.’ A petitioner [usually the manufacturer of a product] came to the NOSB and showed a PowerPoint presentation of two packages of English muffins over time, day upon day. After five or six days, the organic one is moldy and the other one isn’t. He says mold is not healthy and organic is based on principles of health, and he has this product we could spray on English muffins. Luckily, one of the NOSB members said, “That’s an antibiotic, isn’t it? It has exactly the same name as what I put in my kids’ ears when they have an infection.” [The petitioner] admitted it’s derived from the same thing; the board rejected it out of hand.
It’s pretty hard for farmers to be fraudulent because they have so much oversight these days. Where I see fraud existing is outside of agriculture—we just don’t have a good knowledge of all it takes to make a synthetic or a processing aid. When Kraft sends in someone to sit on the NOSB, they’re food scientists, but they don’t understand organic one bit. We constantly try to bring in our own experts to do battle with the industry experts. That’s very, very frustrating.
When this administration came in, they took international fraud seriously and sent a delegation to China to make sure that certifiers that carried the USDA [organic] label on products were certifying to USDA standards. (The USDA had someone on staff that spoke Chinese and they also had an official interpreter—often the official translation was not the same as what their staffer found.) They spent quite a bit of time there, [and] they did clear up a lot of stuff.
The whole purpose of the [certified organic] label is that one should be able to trust that everyone plays by the same rules. I believe that the USDA is working really hard at making sure that is happening—without that complete trust of consistency, the label is worth nothing. I think the point that USDA spent time in China really investigating where food labeled “USDA organic” comes from speaks to a governmental process that is working.
As an advocacy community we actually have made sure that organic does have its integrity. Despite the huge money from those who would like to have more organic acres by changing the standards, the consumer doesn’t want that. And when consumers start marrying their needs with the farmers, suddenly you get some really powerful stuff. We’re having an effect on the government that way.
What it all boils down to is that organic agriculture is not some fringe-element fad that’s getting a lot of temporary attention—it may, in fact, be one of the keys to the sustained health of the planet and everything on it.
LH: There are some studies about kids eating conventional produce and finding toxins in them from the chemicals used in the food. Take the kids off and give them all organic and there are no residues in their body; then put them back on and you get the residues again. It is really interesting—that’s why I am such an adamant fan of organic. Just because a crop doesn’t have a residue doesn’t mean really bad chemicals weren’t used to grow it. Grapefruits are low on the list of crops with residues in part because they have a skin, but they’re high on the list of crops that chemicals are used on.
When we move to organic and beyond organic, it’s called continuous improvement. Unfortunately, continuous improvement is a hard concept for bureaucracy to deal with. The way we will clean up our waterways and clean up our air and bring health to children is by getting better and better at organic.
When my motivation wanes, I look to farmers for inspiration. Despite the fact that farmers are not making tons of money, they keep working harder and harder, and doing a better job of making farming and organic work. They’re increasingly creative and that’s pretty inspiring. It proves that despite government inaction, our local family farmers are re-creating the food system and our health and environment.
Organizations Mentioned In Liana Hoodes’ Interview:
Formerly the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, Beyond Pesticides is a nonprofit membership organization working with allies to identify the risks of conventional pest management practices and promotes non-chemical and least-hazardous alternatives. Established in 1981, the organization’s primary goal is to effect change through local action, assisting individuals and community based organizations while providing information on safer alternatives. The website includes charts, graphs and interactive tools to help identify and define hundreds of pesticides used on fruits and vegetables.
Based in Middletown, Orange Environment is a nonprofit membership organization committed to environmental activism, research, education and advocacy. Members meet to address, connect and share information on local problems affecting their lives. The group sponsors projects and facilitates land and farmland protection through grants and purchases of development rights.
Under the umbrella and sanction of the United Nations, the Food and Agriculture Organization’s primary goals are to raise levels of nutrition, improve agricultural productivity, better the lives of rural populations and contribute to the growth of the world economy. Ultimately, the organization’s mandate is to make sure people worldwide have regular access to enough high-quality food to lead active, healthy lives. Major FAO departments include agriculture and consumer protection, economic and social development, fisheries and aquaculture, forestry, natural resources management, environment and technical cooperation.
Formed in the aftermath of the mid-1980s farm crisis, the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition grew out of grassroots efforts to organize farmers and to command attention to its policy positions linking farming, rural communities and the environment. In 2003, the coalition became a national membership organization based in Washington, DC. Over its 20-year history, the SAC successfully developed many important federal programs focusing on sustainable agriculture research, education, conservation stewardship, beginning farmers and ranchers, and farmers’ market promotion. The Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture merged in 2009 to form The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), an alliance of grassroots organizations that advocates for federal policy reform to advance the sustainability of agriculture, food systems, natural resources and rural communities.
The National Organic Coalition (NOC) is an alliance of organizations working to provide a “Washington voice” for farmers, ranchers, environmentalists, consumers and progressive industry members involved in organic agriculture. The coalition operates under the central principle that protecting the integrity of the national organic standards is necessary. Further, the coalition believes that organic agricultural policy must encourage continuous quality improvements, sound stewardship and humane practices. The coalition is focused on federal organic agricultural policies that promote this mission.
Founded in 1983, NOFA-NY is a nonprofit, membership-based coalition of consumers, gardeners and farmers working to create an ecologically sound and economically viable sustainable regional food system. The group promotes land stewardship, organic food production and local marketing, and is accredited by the USDA to provide organic certification for farmers and processors. NOFA-NY is one of seven northeastern state organizations working cooperatively as the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA). The group publishes The Natural Farmer, a quarterly publication featuring technical articles on organic farming, profiles and state chapter news.
The mission of the Organic Trade Association, a membership-based business association promoting the organic industry in North America, is to promote and protect organic trade to benefit the environment, farmers, the public and the economy. Formerly the Organic Foods Production Association of North America (OFPANA), the OTA represents businesses across the organic supply chain, including food, fiber/textiles, personal care products, and new sectors as they develop. Over 60 percent of OTA trade members are small businesses.