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Joe Pedretti

MOSA Outreach Manager

​The Good Fight - Absolutes, and Common Ground

The Good Fight - Absolutes, and Common Ground

By Stephen Walker, MOSA Operations Manager

Now we’ve fairly well gotten recharged by winter, and it’s time to grow. At MOSA, these early months are all about preparation for the new growing season, as annual certification update info arrives in force. We look ahead. In our wider organic community, late winter also means conference season, time to share and learn more about our work, and maybe more importantly, time to get a head and heart full of inspiration to keep up the good fight.

Recently, I was among seven MOSA staff attending annual organic certifier training and the fifth Organicology conference in Portland, OR. I got a head full. In three days of training presented by National Organic Program staff and certifiers, for certifiers, we talked about diverse, detailed issues like organic seed supply, animal welfare, inspection management, FDA regulations, international agreements, and transitional certification. And, as with so much discussion in recent months, running in the background was uncertainty about our future as we move into 2017 and beyond. We’ve all heard our fair share about division, fear, and things needing improvement. For many, we find our values are threatened, so we’re looking for action.

With this context, the next couple of days in Portland found us more freely choosing our work, and some play. Organicology 2017 well served its purpose of providing an inclusive forum for organic community discussion, debate, and development. I participated in a couple inspiring sessions: Challenging the Empire: Forming a Rebel Alliance, and You Say You Want A (Food System) Revolution. Keynote addresses echoed similar tensions. Ongoing national discussion and things unspoken had me primed to fight, and well, the “rebel alliance” and “revolution” seemed to all about that.

Debate focused on food system challenges with concentration of corporate power and economies of scale. Panelists discussed how we can maintain our integrity and remain economically viable and fair, and how we must promote our values with the new administration. At one point, panelist Theresa Marquez, Chief Marketing Executive at Organic Valley, suggested the “11th commandment” should be “Thou Shalt Meet.” I got to thinking about what, then, in the context of organic economic tensions, would be be first ten commandments?  And I recognized my strong first-approach tendency to want to sit down and break bread with folks, to seek common ground, and how this counters my more recent perception that sometimes there simply is no reasoning with some “others.” So, I wondered, what’s a justified course of action when our strongest values are threatened? What does “the good fight” look like? I felt conflicted between a pull to fight, and recognizing that since each of “us” have a different life experience, we might differently define a “them.” And, at some level, every them IS us. How should we act in these times?  In the hopeful panel discussions, the leaning in the room was away from anarchy and toward unity and care.

Many in Portland were very moved by the heart and ideas of Nikki Silvestri. Nikki is the co-founder/CEO of Silvestri Strategies, which works to support thriving communities, economies, and natural environments. She was a panelist at the “(Food System) Revolution” session, and presented a keynote address - Development and Climate-Beneficial Agriculture: How to Make it Work for All People. She had a lot to say about working through our own shadows, integrating our conflict and then standing up to work for the greater good, and how recognizing that organizing against economic interests requires an identity stronger than economics. She also talked about the power of words and how she’s working with these:  “Resist. Insist. Love.” As I continued to ponder organic socio economic musts in a $43 billion organic industry that continually struggles with the pros and cons of scale, when the mic went out to the audience for questions following Nikki’s keynote, I asked about what she would identify as absolutes. She paused, then noted that human activity unavoidably causes destruction (even as we create). Any lines we draw are arbitrary, and our challenge is how we reconcile our differing boundaries of destruction. She came around to a few principles: 1- If we recognize our differences, we can enter with curiosity. 2- Where we draw our lines impacts people. And, 3- Organizing.   

I heard strong themes of responsibility and alliance, and I heard an absolute: we value “otherness.” For a long time I’ve been carrying around Parker J. Palmer’s book, “Healing the Heart of Democracy; the Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit” (2011, Jossey-Bass). Palmer shares some good perspective on “otherness.” “In the end, the challenge faced by adherents of every tradition of faith or reason is the same one we face in our public lives; to let the stranger - and things we find strange - be who and what they are, allowing them to open us to the vexing and enlivening mysteries we find within and around us. Whether our Ultimate Reality is God or Reason, fear constantly tempts us to try to tame it and contain it within the boundaries of our own comfort zones. Doing so dishonors the Ultimate, diminishes the scope of our lives, and keeps us from  developing a key habit of the heart that democracy requires.

I see a paradox. Naming absolutes implies drawing boundaries, and that’s divisive. Yet, we seek harmony and recognize the value of otherness. Nevertheless, if we truly want a food system where there’s justice, empowerment, that’s restorative, and biologically sound, then we need to further define our values, name some deeper absolutes. These are tough considerations, and they’re pertinent to ongoing strategic work at MOSA that aims to determine our organizational values.

Though we organic certifiers are used to drawing boundaries and considering penalties, these values go beyond our standards. In our movement’s earlier days, we had a holistic approach to land and economics. We understood that fair trade, and welfare of workers, animals and our planet all went together. We agreed that organic prices must cover true production costs. But, as the US standards were written, pricing and labor issues were left out. Organic as defined by the NOP is a sound beginning. But, our movement still demands more naming of absolutes.

So, “we value otherness” (AKA “love thy neighbor”) might be one. Organic folks know that diversity breeds life. And here’s another one, “We are all in this together.”  So, we must act like it. MOSA participates a lot in discussion with other certifiers through the Accredited Certifiers Association (ACA). In a recent ACA email thread with a sobering subject line -  “Let’s sharpen our knives on organic” - we talked about potential congressional challenges to organic, threats of standards dilution, and perhaps, how to prepare for a knife fight. We noted the importance of alliance and not turning on ourselves. We’ve struggled with that in this organic community.

In that ACA discussion, I asked about values, boundaries and common ground as related to our standards, economic systems, scale, social justice, and food system revolution. One colleague responded that the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) Principles of organic agriculture might be a good start.  Adopted in 2005 in light of opportunities and challenges created by organic growth, the IFOAM Principles are intended to “apply to agriculture in the broadest sense, including the way people tend soils, water, plants and animals in order to produce, prepare and distribute goods. They concern the way people interact with living landscapes, relate to one another and shape the legacy of future generations." These are:

  • The Principle of Health - Organic agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of soil, plant, animal and human as one and indivisible.

  • The Principle of Ecology - Organic agriculture should be based on living ecological systems and cycles, work with them, emulate them and help sustain them.

  • The Principle of Fairness - Organic agriculture should build on relationships that ensure fairness with regard to the common environment and life opportunities.

  • The Principle of Care - Organic agriculture should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect the health and well being of current and future generations and the environment.

The Principle of Fairness speaks to the challenge of balancing transparency with entrepreneurial rights to hold proprietary information. For this dilemma, Organicology discussion suggested Certified B Corporations as a sound model. B Corps meet rigorous standards for social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. Regarding transparency, MOSA has testified on the moral imperative for companies and individuals who possess expert knowledge to be responsible to all life, and be transparent. We’ve quoted the groundbreaking 2015 environmental encyclical, where Pope Francis discussed transparency and biotechnology development. “A broad, responsible scientific and social debate needs to take place, one capable of considering all the available information and of calling things by their name. It sometimes happens that complete information is not put on the table; a selection is made on the basis of particular interests, be they politico-economic or ideological. This makes it difficult to reach a balanced and prudent judgement on different questions, one which takes into account all the pertinent variables. Discussions are needed in which all those directly or indirectly affected (farmers, consumers, civil authorities, scientists, seed producers, people living near fumigated fields, and others) can make known their problems and concerns, and have access to adequate and reliable information in order to make decisions for the common good, present and future.”

Organic socio economic values discussion also noted how the Seven International Cooperative Principles create a fair food system:

  • Voluntary and Open Membership - Cooperatives are voluntary organizations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political, or religious discrimination.

  • Democratic Member Control - Cooperatives are democratic organizations controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting their policies and making decisions. Men and women serving as elected representatives are accountable to the membership.

  • Members’ Economic Participation  - Members contribute equitably to, and democratically control, the capital of the cooperative. The economic benefits of a cooperative operation are returned to the members, reinvested in the co-op, or used to provide member services.

  • Autonomy and Independence  - Cooperatives are autonomous, self-help organizations controlled by their members. If they enter into agreements with other organizations, including governments, or raise capital from external sources, they do so on terms that ensure democratic control by their members and maintain their cooperative autonomy.

  • Education, Training and Information - Cooperatives provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their cooperatives. They inform the general public about the nature and benefits of cooperation.

  • Cooperation Among Cooperatives - Cooperatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the cooperative movement by working together through local, national, regional and international structures.

  • Concern for Community - While focusing on member needs, cooperatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies approved by their members.

Our community has some socio economic boundaries. We need to bring these to the table.

At the “revolution” session, farmer and author Mas Masumoto (who also was a keynote speaker at the recent MOSES Organic Farming Conference in La Crosse) facilitated a group exercise where we stood near different sides of the room to illustrate when we thought the revolution would start. (I kind of thought it’s already started). We also divided up by whether we thought it would start with regulations, economics, anarchy, etc. I stood in the economic corner, thinking mostly about current social justice crises related to economic policies.

We must change our perspective. I’ve quoted the late Grace Lee Boggs a couple times in this publication. Her wisdom in “The Next American Revolution” (2011, University of California Press) now rings prophetic. “We must have the courage to challenge ourselves to engage in activities that build a new and better world by improving the physical, psychological, political and spiritual health of ourselves, our families, our communities, our cities, our world, and our planet… We have to help the American people grow their souls enough to recognize that because we have been consuming 25 percent of the planet’s fossil fuels even though we are less than 5 percent of the world’s population, we are the ones who must take the first big steps to reduce greenhouse emissions. We are the ones who must begin to live more simply so that others can more simply live. Moreover, we urgently need to begin creating ways to live more frugally and more cooperatively NOW because with times getting harder, we can easily slip into scapegoating the ‘other’ and goose-stepping behind a nationalist leader, as the good Germans did in the 1930’s.”

So, coming back from Portland, I am inspired for action, and that leads back to the question, how do we act, especially when our individual spheres of influence may seem small? I’m seeing how revolution - or, a better word: reformation - begins small. We do our reformation work at home, within our hearts first, and within our daily sphere. In my day-to-day, as I work with the standards, my sphere crosses with yours. We break bread and find common ground and compare our boundaries. Nikki Silvestri said, “the root and core of conflict resolution is sitting down over food.”

Speed is not meant to be the focus when sitting at the table with our neighbor. In working with and watching development of these organic standards for many years, I have learned some patience with the slowness of change. Our regulatory process sometimes moves way too slowly when we think we know what must change. Reformation also moves slowly.  

In Portland, I picked up an inspiring excerpt of The Weinstein Manifesto, by David Weinstein, Head Buyer for Heath & LeJeune. This was coupled with the Middle Path Manifesto, which states that the means for transforming our food system “is continual and incremental use of alliances and resources that are practical for implementation at each particular point in time. Despite our urgent concerns about the need to move quickly to make organic the dominant paradigm in agriculture, we understand that at times, “slower is faster”. That is, sometimes we need to accept that progress on an issue cannot proceed at our ideal pace without putting at risk elements of organic infrastructure that that are very difficult to recoup if lost. In such cases, rather than charting a path that may damage existing organic systems or unduly risk precious resources and relationships, taking the ‘Middle Path’ means strategizing across organic stakeholders on incremental steps as our immediate goal while simultaneously and purposefully laying the foundation for the next progressive action toward reaching our larger end goal. This will necessitate trust, transparency, systems thinking and resolve amongst all of us—to focus our battle outward, rather than inward.

As questions about organic’s future bubbled under much conference season discussion, we find our common ground with some economic values popular in Washington. Organic is a strong economic engine, still the fastest growing sector of the U.S. food system. A recent study on organic hotspots, prepared for the Organic Trade Association (OTA) by Penn State Agricultural Economist Dr. Edward Jaenicke, conclusively links key county-level economic health indicators to organic agriculture. Organic hotspots boost median household incomes by over $2,000 and reduce poverty levels even more than major anti-poverty programs.


Further, our organic standards arose from a public, self-regulating process, seen by some in power as a model for how government should work. Ahead of his keynote address at the recent 38th OEFFA annual conference in Ohio, Jim Riddle - organic farmer, inspector, educator, activist, former National Organic Standards Board Chair, and current chair of the Minnesota Organic Advisory Task Force - spoke with Debbi Snook, reporter for Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer. Riddle suggests more common ground. "I want to talk about how organic values are conservative values," he said. "At its core, organic farming is pro-life. From the ground up, it's about keeping things alive... And I also want to say that organic farming is really free-market farming. It's farming the land in response to consumer demand. The demand for organic products is skyrocketing by double-digits each year. But, because organic crop rotations are more complex methods, there typically aren't government subsidies. That matches really well with the conservative agenda.”

There’s hope. There’s common ground. And, there’s absolutely work to be done. As the conversation continues, I hope to meet you at the table.