By Dennis Hughes and Janice Hughes,
Share Guide Publishers
Robbins is the founder of EarthSave, an organization dedicated to the
transition to more healthful and environmentally sound food choices.
Share Guide: Are you yourself a vegetarian, or do you eat all natural
foods? And do you really try hard to eat only organic foods?
John: I'm actually vegan. I don't eat any animal fat, and we grow a lot of our own food on our land. The food that we buy, we try to get it as organic as we can. We do a pretty good job of it We're fortunate because we live in the Santa Cruz area, which is a part of the country where there's a great deal of organic agriculture. I travel a lot throughout the U.S. and the world--and interestingly, in most parts of the United States it's much harder to find organic food.
The Share Guide: We are blessed in California.
John: Right, but for many people Organics is just something that is an outgrowth of the hippie movement. It's something that's fringe or marginal. This is the kind of the attitude you get in some parts of the country. But interestingly, from a global perspective, the organic explosion is extraordinary. The European Union probably leads the global organic explosion with a 35 fold expansion in organic area since 1985;with an average annual growth rate of 30%. Organic agriculture now accounts for 3% of the total European Union agricultural area. There are other areas that are even higher. In Austria for example, 13% of the farmland is now organic. There are other European nations, such as Sweden, Finland, Switzerland and Italy that are also leaders. In those countries 5-10% of the total agricultural area is now organic. It's really sweeping the world. It is truly an organic explosion.
The Share Guide: What percentage would it be in America?
John: Only .2%. In fact, only in the U.S. and Canada has it lagged behind. Although even here, the organic area has grown 15-20% a year throughout the 1990's.
The Share Guide: So you're saying that throughout the 1990's it caught on?
John: Yes. What's happened is retail sales of organic produce and products in North America have been growing 20% annually. They are now at about $10 billion a year. Let me remind you that it's driven by market forces. It's consumer demand. But in Europe you have two forces driving it. You have consumer demand&emdash;people who are not willing to expose their bodies to pesticide residues and not wanting to contribute to poisons in the food chain and the water and soil and farm worker exposure and so forth&emdash;but also, in Europe there is substantial preference and support. The growth in organics in the United States has come in spite of virtually no government support.
The Share Guide: I thought a lot of that was agricultural lobbying. Don't they have that problem in Europe also?
John: Not nearly to the same extent. In the U.S. the Agrichemical conglomerates have far too much pull in Washington. It's just not comparable in other countries. There's chemical industries in these countries, and surely they're big and powerful, but they're bound in those other countries by the elected officials. They are not so much being bought and sold by Industry. The U.S. is uniquely corporatized in that sense. Our public policies are uniquely tailored to fit the corporate agenda. In the other countries the public policies represent a balance between the corporate agenda and the public interest. It's not automatically assumed elsewhere that what's good for Industry is good for the economy. In this country it's often assumed by elected officials, that what's good for General Motors is good for the public. Yet we see time and time again that's not true.
Organics is growing rapidly in the U.S., but not nearly as rapidly as in Europe. This is very important thing to realize. Europe has witnessed the Mad Cow Disease (in the United Kingdom), and therefore people are much more conscious and much more concerned about food safety and whole foods than they are here. They don't want to buy foods that are genetically modified and are not labeled, that have been irradiated and are not labeled, that have been filled with poisons and are not labeled. In Europe the genetically modified foods have to be labeled. In Japan the same applies. Actually, in most of the industrialized world that's the case, but in this country the biotech industries have fought that successfully.
The Share Guide: Another comment about pesticides before we go into biotech issues. I know that tons of pesticides are shipped abroad and come back in our imported goods.
John: This is called the "Circle of Poison." Some of the worse pesticides, particularly the chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides (the DDT family) are extremely long living in the soil. They don't break down, they don't biodegrade. They accumulate and concentrate in the food chain. They go up the food chain, and are very toxic, very dangerous substances. As such they have been largely banned for use in food production in the United States.
The Share Guide: But they're still manufactured?
John: Yes. There's been no decline in production. Now they are shipped to other countries, particularly Latin America, where they are used and then exported back to the U.S., which is why we call it the Circle of Poison. We export the poison, they export back to us the food grown with that poison, carrying all that toxic residue. Commercially grown bananas, coffee, tropical fruits&emdash;produce in general for that matter&emdash;grown in Mexico and Latin America are likely to carry extremely high concentrations of the most poisonous of the pesticides. Therefore, people who are trying to reduce their exposure need to be aware of this. You should really think twice about consuming commercially grown produce.
The Share Guide: Even though it looks beautiful.
John: That's right. It'll look beautiful, but looks are deceiving. This is one of the things about the commercialization of our food supply--there's this huge emphasis on cosmetics, on making it look good--there's tremendous lack of concern about the nutritional quality, and about the presence of poisonous residues.
The Share Guide: I was just in Mexico recently on holiday. Do you think that the Latin American people are probably eating produce with pesticides, primarily because we're exporting it down there? In other words, are they getting poisoned too?
John: Yes, they are. Not only are they getting it in their food, they're getting it in their air and in their water.
The Share Guide: So by and large the developing nations are stuck in our wake, and Europe is the most aggressive toward change&emdash;but the rest of the world is where we were a generation ago?
John: Exactly. Although there are some exceptions and they're nice to note. In Cuba partially as a result of the boycott, there's been a nationwide shift to organic markets. There's over 30,000 urban gardens which produce vegetables for city dwellers. It can be done even in countries which are not the most industrialized. In Uganda, oddly, there has been a doubling of organic agricultural area in the last 5 years. Actually Uganda, which is a small backward country, now produces 10% of the organic cotton on the world market. Believe it or not, Uganda is producing more organic cotton than the United States!
The Share Guide: It's good to see some of the smaller countries jumping past some of the problems, because by and large in my travels to the Third World, I've seen them a few decades behind us going down the same nasty paths.
John:: That's more typical, but I point out the exceptions because they're so important, and they show that it can be done. Argentina is another example. Ten years ago there was no organic agriculture in Argentina. It was simply following the lead of the United States. But in the past five years organic production in Argentina has jumped 7000%. Argentina will be exporting more than $100 million in organic products this year. In Africa there is an organization called the Export Production of Organic Products Association started in Mozambique and Tanzania, now also in Uganda and Zimbabwe. It's funny, but everywhere else in the world, there is a tremendous recognition about the value of organic farming. There is amongst the U.S. population as well, but the United States Department of Agriculture does not deem developing organic agriculture relevant.
The Share Guide: Organics are in demand by the public, but there's a vested interest in the methods which are being used now, which leads me to ask this: For countries with huge populations, is it really possible to get the yields that we need by farming organically?
For example, in the San Joaquin Valley, where you'd have to replant everything and do away with monoculture (because the bugs love that one giant crop).
John: Well, this is a key question. Monoculture, being a very large area growing only one crop, is not a natural way of growing things.For example, if you have thousands of acres of only cabbage, the cabbage moth can wreck havoc. It does take some shifting of land, but there's no law that says you have to plant thousands of acres of cabbage with nothing else interspersed.
The Share Guide: There's no law, but they do it for efficiency?
John: Yes. But recent studies have shown that yields from organic production are comparable to conventional methods, especially over the long term. When you combine that with the high prices organic produce often fetches, and the money that the farmers are saving from not having to pay for the pesticides, organic systems are becoming generally more profitable. There was one recent study regarding organic grain and soybean production in the midwest which found that organic systems were often more profitable even without the price premiums--because of the low input costs, the greater diversity of products being sold than available under monoculture and a greater yield stability.
The Share Guide: Without monoculture you avoid that problem of maintaining insects and parasites that resist the pesticides.
John: Exactly; it's a huge problem. We are actually losing a greater percentage of our crop to pests (the very pests our pesticides target).than we did before we ever used pesticides, because bugs have mutated and developed resistance. Their lifespans are very short compared to humans. They go through many generations very rapidly, and that gives them the opportunity to develop resistance and mutate, and they've done it&emdash;just as surely as the micro-organisms have developed resistance to antibiotics. Then they develop second and third generation pesticides that are more toxic, and create more problems. All of this, by the way, is poisoning our farming communities and causing a great deal of health problems amongst the farm workers. This is something that is sometimes hidden from consumers because they only see the product in the supermarkets and in the restaurants.
The Share Guide: And the groundwater and the downwind crops are also affected.
John: Yes, and eventually everyone is affected. When pesticide-based agriculture was first developed, they hybridized what they called the Green Revolution. It seemed like a miracle, because we were suddenly doubling the crop yield. It's actually similar to injecting some amphetamine into a human being. They are going to suddenly feel a tremendous rush of energy. If they don't have some sanity and common sense they may think, "Oh this is incredible! I'll just plug into the energy of the universe." But a drug induced addiction is not stable and it's not sustainable, and it's not healthy. In agriculture we have become addicted to chemicals in the form of chemical-based fertilizers and pesticides.
The Share Guide: Seems like the same thing on a larger scale. So it's an unnatural forcing of things which yields to crashing?
John: Exactly. I think that we're eating foods that are laden with chemicals but lack nutritional value. For example, the synthetic fertilizers replace the nitrogen and phosphorous and potassium which are the three primary mineral requirements of the plants, but they don't replace the boron, the molybdinum, the great plethora of micro nutrients and trace minerals. It looks good, it's big, but it's not nutritionally balanced. I'm wondering if some of the bizarre emotional and physical problems that people are experiencing are a consequence of those imbalances.
The Share Guide: And other changes. I've been reading about things like early puberty in girls.
John: Right. Eighty years ago (and still in traditional indigenous cultures today) women had their first menstrual cycle at the age of 17, sometimes 16, sometimes 18. This is traditional. This is how the human being seems to have been designed to develop. But in Western cultures today we have a large number of girls 8, 9 and 10 beginning their menstrual cycles. The average in this country is 11 1/2 right now. This has been directly traced to three things: the increasing fat level in our diets; the use of hormones in animal production (particularly in beef production); and thirdly, to the presence in the environment of certain estrogen mimicking chemicals.
The Share Guide: Do you know what the status is of organic certification? What concerns me is the idea of someone having an organic farm and being next door to one that is not.
John: This problem you mention is a real one and is particularly daunting And if the neighbor next door is growing genetically engineered foods there is a threat due to pollen drift. It's a real issue that has not been dealt with at all adequately. Unless the organic grower's fields are huge, vast acreages, that's going to be a problem. The wind is going to carry some of spray over into the organic fields. We're all interconnected, we're inseparable. What we do to ourselves we do to our neighbors. What our neighbors do they do to us. We are part of each other and this is one of the great revolutionary realizations of our time--just how interconnected we all are. Our ecologists for years have been telling us that. What we do to each other, we do to ourselves. What we do to the natural world comes back to us.
The Share Guide: Yes, we are all One People.
John: I think it's not just a New Age cliche but a fundamental biological law. We're learning the consequences of ignoring that we are all one.
The Share Guide: Getting back to my last question. Are you pretty comfortable at the state of the art now in organic certification? I know we have to worry about that trend problem, but aside from that.
John: Even including that, I'm basically comfortable. I think that there will be small infractions here and there, but by and large the Organic industry is a lot more credible than sometimes recognized.
The Share Guide: Well, I feel more comfortable with it myself. It's an intuition with me though. I don't have hard facts behind it. I feel like there's much more going on in the movement and it's much more controlled.
John: That's true. There are people who try to exploit the organic movement and use it as a marketing scam, but the backlash against those who try to exploit the turf deceitfully has been very severe. People have known that the integrity of the word "Organic" is critical. If that's lost then everyone loses.
Interestingly enough, a few years ago the FDA recognized that every state had its own version of organic standards, and that most companies operate along the same line, saw the problem there. The Organics Standards Board was set up to arrive at a definition of Organic that would allow for a true national base and standard. But then the USDA proceeded to totally ignore them and come forward with another idea which would have included sewage sludge, and genetically modified stuff, and irradiated food as "organic." This would have diluted the term, and totally pulled the rug out from under the Organic Industry. I think it was the Chemical Manufacturers Association essentially behind that.
However, what happened was extraordinary. The Secretary of Agriculture received over 280,000 communications, an all-time record for a Federal official on a given subject. They were all essentially saying the same thing: "This is not organic; you're screwing us! Don't do it!" He recognized it and this is one of the great examples of citizen power, the citizenry opposing a corporate agenda. Although we don't have it finalized yet, it's very clear that the National Organic Standards will not allow the inclusion of sewage sludge, will not allow the inclusion of genetically engineered material and will not allow for the inclusion of irradiated products.
The Share Guide: At first I had problems spending more money on an organic banana than on a commercial banana. It really bothered me sometimes, there was a high price difference. But now I'm starting to feel like you vote with your dollars and every extra bit that I'm giving supports the movement.
John: Yes, you do vote with your dollars, but also with everything you put in your mouth, you create your future.
The Share Guide: It's "digging our graves with our teeth" as Dr. Andrew Wiel says.
John: Think about medical costs. . . think of the extra costs of organic produce as true health insurance. Bananas are a great example. They cost more, and they don't look as pretty usually. I don't know if they taste better either, but the bananas, being tropical fruits, are grown commercially in Central or South America, where toxics sprays are allowed. They are extremely toxic. Sure, you can peel the banana, but some of the toxics are absorbed through the skin. Furthermore, a lot of these poisons are systemic. They're taken up by the plant into every cell of the plant, which you then incorporate into your body.
In the long run the advantages to your physical experience in terms of suffering and in terms of medical problems are probably vastly greater than what it's going to cost you in terms of higher prices at the cash register.
The Share Guide: I totally agree. But sometimes, when you're thinking about your wallet, you might say, "Well, that's a long term benefit, and right now it's a bit expensive." What pushes me over the edge all the time now is realizing the importance of supporting the farmers in the movement, as well as my own guts.
John: That's a wonderful thing. The more people feel that way and see what you're seeing, the more you'll feel included in a movement to create a better world. Some of the loneliness and alienation that's found around living in a culture that doesn't reflect that compassion and highest values and our desires for a better world starts to ease. A lot of us feel is that alienation from the greater society, and it just seems so trivial, and so consumption-based, and so materialistic, and so exploitive. When you start voting your life choices at the ballot box, what happens is you start to be a part a very great movement that's occuring in our times.
The Share Guide: It's a beautiful thing.
John: It's a very beautiful thing. By being part of it you make it bigger.
The Share Guide: You contribute to the rebirthing of a more conscious way of living.