Why the organic industry needs to get political

Why the organic industry needs to get political

It’s time to get political with organic, and I’m not talking about signing a petition or attending a rally. I mean putting money in the pockets of politicians who will further the organic cause.

Consider this: The Organic Trade Association (OTA) is the membership-based business association for the organic industry in North America. Its mission is to “promote and protect organic trade to benefit the environment, farmers, the public and the economy.” Representing businesses across the organic supply chain, “OTA envisions organic products becoming a significant part of everyday life, enhancing people’s lives and the environment.”

Representation is necessary; advocating for organic standards crucial; public outreach and market growth are important. But compare OTA’s mission to the messaging listed on the bi-partisan non-profit Ocean Champion’s website: “We help elect members of Congress who will fight to protect our oceans, and, we defeat candidates and members who don’t. That, in essence, is what Ocean Champions is all about.”

The Organic Center’s mission is to “conduct credible, evidence-based science on the health and environmental benefits of organic food and farming and communicate them to the public.” Likewise, the Organic Farming Research Foundation’s mission is “to foster the improvement and widespread adoption of organic farming systems.” They do this by sponsoring research, and education; disseminating information; and educating the public and decision-makers about organic farming issues.

Who is truly getting organic on the ballot?

The OTA does host its Policy Conference & Hill Visit each fall, wherein during the conference representatives speak to OTA members on issues related to farming and agriculture (not always speaking in support of organic). OTA members have the opportunity to meet with their state representatives on Capitol Hill to address the needs of organic farming. But there is no money transferring into pockets, and organic becomes just another interest group knocking on the doors of representatives.

“Lobbying is not enough,” explained Dr. David Wilmot, president and co-founder of Ocean Champions at the Sustainable Foods Institute earlier this month in Monterey, Calif. “You have to engage electoral politics, like it or not, in our democracy elections matter. If you want them [politicians] to care about you [organic], you have to help them get elected and understand the things they need and care about.”

Part of supporting candidates, Wilmot outlined, is knowing who the bad guys are, and who you don’t want in office. Your support of a candidate may simply be to keep someone else out of office.

I understand that you may be morally opposed to PACs—political action committeesand organizations that use money to influence a federal election. But let’s face it: Everyone is doing it, and so if you take the moral high road you lose, as we have been.

Just look at the inequalities in subsidies. I’m not naive. I understand the big companies have a lot more money to donate, but sometimes it doesn’t take much. Sometimes it’s simply buying a $150 ticket to a dinner to support a candidate and having the opportunity to introduce yourself in that setting. At a recent event in Denver for President Obama, the range of ticket prices went from $250 to $40,000.

Wilmot uses the sugar grower’s PACS as an example. “They are the biggest in agriculture and they go out and give money to people who have no interest in sugar. They make friends.... there are a lot of people who don’t have an interest in a lot of issues, but can be swayed.” To that effect, a targeted $1,000 donation could go a long way.

A tipping point

It could be in this election that the tide is turning our way.

As agricultural journalist Jerry Hagstrom of the Hagstrom Report outlined at the Sustainable Food Institute conference, people are starting to understand that our current food system is not as secure as we once believed.

“They are now putting pressure on politicians,” he said. “We now have an activated community of food citizens, not passive recipients eating whatever they put out there.” He added, “The more we become involved and engaged as food citizens working with our own politicians, we will see a new kind of politics.”

To keep this momentum, I think the organic industry has to to direct the public, as well as everyone involved in the organic movement, on their vote. And we may just have to put some money where our mouths are. 

Do you think organic needs to get more political? Leave a comment.

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