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An Interview With Jill Richardson

Time for an Organic Spring

by KEN KLIPPENSTEIN

Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.

Ken Klippenstein: How often do you find that students in the food sciences are compelled to study things that Monsanto would fund? 

Jill Richardson: There’s definitely this theme over a lot of people that this is a problem. When people are looking to do their research or get their dissertation or choose a topic, you need to get funding. It’s not necessarily a conspiracy. Who has money? The government has money and private industry has money.

Somebody said to me that there’s a change over the years in universities. In the past, it was academic pursuit for the sake of expanding science and human wisdom and knowledge. Learning for learning’s sake. Over time, we’ve moved so that universities can or perhaps are even encouraged to help with product development and doing research that will lead to commercialization of products in private industry.

You look at organics or low-input farming, there’s no money in [it]. Nobody with a lot of money has much interest in funding sustainable agriculture.

I’m a little bit surprised at how often the rest of the government is too politicized and pinheaded to actually follow real science. Sometimes the army actually does a really good job there because they have to: they’re realists. They might go to war; they can’t delude themselves into believing what they want to believe instead of believing the actual truth. In terms of global warming, they’re probably looking at the reality that maybe someday we’ll have climate refugees and that could cause some destabilization around the world.

KK: Now that you mention that, I’m recalling a recent World Bank study that found pretty much exactly what you’re saying. 

JR: In Cuba, they switched to not all organic, but a lot of their agriculture has a lot of organic. They do a lot of urban agriculture. They’ve built around pesticide use in urban areas because, just common sense, your people are there, so why would you by spraying pesticides in your population center? They came up with a model that they call organipónicos, which is very similar to bio-intensive farming and gardening. It’s really successful so they adopted it out into their country. It was developed within their defense department, because they’re looking at contingencies of what might happen if the U.S. slowly blockaded Cuba.

So it’s not a given that the [U.S.] Department of Defense wouldn’t support sustainable agriculture.

KK: Why do you think the GMO labeling referendum in California failed? 

JR: It was because of money. It was tens of millions of dollars from industry. The labeling campaign was outspent.

The fundamental lie that I think really flipped it for them [the opponents of GMO labeling] was they funded a study that concluded that if we have labeling, this will force Californians to spend $400 more per year on groceries. If you read the study, it’s completely bogus.

It was a huge opportunity because it put GMOs in the media. I write a weekly column that’s intended for a very mainstream audience, and my editor won’t let me use the term ‘GMO’—ever—because people don’t know what it is.

People are much more anti-GMO in Europe. In Europe, activists will actually burn the fields of GMOs. It’s happened in several countries; it’s not just a one-off. They have labeling laws
[in Europe]. Europe’s never really adopted GMOs and then had to go about getting them out of their food systems. They just never had them.

KK: How common are GMOs in the U.S. food supply? 

JR: They’re pretty ubiquitous.

KK: As one of your articles points out, a peer-reviewed study demonstrates that “articles sponsored exclusively by food/drinks companies were 4-8 times more likely to have conclusions favorable to the financial interests of the sponsoring company than articles which were not sponsored by food or drinks companies.” How cognizant are university faculty of the revolving-door relationship between food corporations and research.

JR: It depends on the person. Not everybody thinks that there’s a problem with that. A woman from Purdue University has gone out and recruited companies. It’s pay-to-play. These food companies pay a bunch of money, and in return, they get access to the student body. They get to give their perspective to the nutrition students.

KK: What do you think would happen to a conscientious researcher who decided to publish
findings that were unflattering to the study’s corporate sponsors?

JR: It depends. I’ve talked to someone who was doing a study on fertilizer. They were being funded by the fertilizer industry. They came up with unfavorable results and they got their grant funding yanked the next day.

One way that I was told that the corporations or the government, whoever is funding the study, can influence the study is that they choose the parameters that are going to be studied. So the study might be, ‘tell us how awesome is our product.’ I’ve heard of a researcher being told by a food corporation, ‘Don’t tell us what’s bad about our product. We don’t want to know. Just tell us what’s good about it.’

You can really easily design a study to look at just the yield, but you’re not going to get data on pollution of groundwater, destruction of biodiversity, loss or topsoil, or whatever else. The data’s going to make it look much more favorable than it was by saying, ‘hey look at what a great [crop] yield you get,’ without talking about the bad things you’ve done. Maybe the next town over now has to pay extra money to clean their drinking water, and people are drinking pesticides and nitrates in their drinking water…that never gets deducted from the value of the crop yield.

KK: Could you talk a little bit about the regulation and safety of cosmetics in the U.S.

JR: The E.U. has a really strict database of things you can’t put in cosmetics. The U.S. doesn’t have that. In the U.S., we tend to have this belief that if there is not foolproof, 100%, complete proof that a chemical is harming people, then we should still be allowed to use it.

KK: It’s almost like the burden of proof is on the consumer.

JR: Chemicals are tested just one at a time. But nobody’s ever exposed to just one chemical. We’re exposed to many chemicals, and they happen to react with one another. The other thing is, we’re all different: our metabolisms are different; we have people with many chemical sensitivities; we have people who are very old and who are only fetuses. I don’t think there’s necessarily a fix for that. I do think that there’s a certain amount of wisdom in saying, there’s some things that we just don’t know about chemicals, and we’re not going to know, so we need to play it safe a little bit. 4/10 Americans will have cancer during their lifetime. Some chemicals are not safe. Period.

KK: What book are you working on right now?

JR: I’m working on a book called Starved for Justice. It is an answer to the people who are calling for a second Green Revolution. The first Green Revolution spread hybrid seeds, plus pesticides, herbicides, irrigation, mechanization, and fertilizer throughout Asia and Latin America—particularly Mexico and India. Africa mostly bypassed this. So there’s a movement right now to have what they’re calling a Second Green Revolution. It includes GMOs, a lot of fertilizer, drip irrigation. It’s largely being funded by the Gates Foundation and the U.S. government. My book is a critique of that.

I traveled to four continents and visited with the most heavy adopters of first Green Revolution technology, as well as people who are doing agroecology (what Americans might call organic). I learned a lot about how Green Revolution technology impacts the people vs. agroecology, and which one is better. What I came up with is that the problem isn’t a lack of food production; we actually produce enough food to feed the world. We have a lack of justice.

If you have some farmer who is an indigenous person in Mexico and centuries ago the Spaniards came and took their ancestors’ land away and relocated them to an hacienda. The hacienda owners basically just let them farm on the crappiest soil, so crappy that they can’t even raise their cattle on it. (When you have really crappy soil, you use it for grazing; you can’t use it for crops. So if it’s too bad even for cattle, then it’s really bad.) Often you’ll have an enormous plantation on very good, alluvial, flat soil, and then nearby on a steep hillside, you have many poor indigenous people with tiny little plots. This isn’t the problem of having the wrong agricultural technological. It’s not fair that this guy’s ancestors got their land stolen from them and they’re still struggling to grow food on this terrible soil.

What you had in Mexico, and still have, is that when things get so unequal, it causes major societal disruption. People will rise up and take what they think is rightfully theirs. So in the case of the Zapatistas in Mexico, in 1994 they had an uprising and took a whole lot of land back for themselves. It was not done in an organized fashion. It was not done in a fair fashion. If you compare that to land reforms that have been done in Japan by the U.S. following WWII, you can do it in a much more fair, organized way, in which the people who are losing their land are compensated before you wind up with social disorder and revolution.

It’s obvious and indisputable that sustainable agriculture is the only way that you can put power back into the hands of the poor peasants in developing countries. I was in Kenya, and I would ask people who had recently gone organic, how has this impacted your life? What’s different now? I thought they were going to say things like, ‘I have less pests.’ But they were saying, ‘I’ve never made so much money. I’m making so much money. I bought a water pump for the first time in my life. I no longer have to carry buckets of water up the hill.’ Or, ‘my kid’s going to school for the first ever, because we have so much of such a great crop that I can afford to send them to school for the first time.’

The other cool thing about organics is that it’s knowledge-based, instead of being capital-based. Knowledge is free. So you see these little villages where one guy goes organic, he starts doing well, and the neighbors come over asking how he’s doing so well. He goes, ‘I’m doing this organic thing, let me show you how to do it.’ The neighbors adopt it, then their neighbors, cousins…

That’s very different from even so-called sustainable technologies, like drip irrigation. The U.S. government is out there, providing free drip irrigation to select farmers. That’s really good—for those farmers. If you’re not on that list, it doesn’t benefit you. But if your neighbor learned how to farm organically, that’s knowledge that’s free.

Ken Klippenstein lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where he edits the left issues website, whiterosereader.org, in which this interview originally appeared.