Stephen Walker’s Summary of May 6 Town Hall
On May 6th, our wider organic community engaged in some more valuable thinking forward, in an online “Organic Spring 2020 Town Hall” meeting hosted by IFOAM NA, the North American body of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements. We looked at “lessons from the pandemic,” including: shared challenges – loss of markets, distribution bottlenecks, and labor shortages; steps all can make toward food system resilience; and scaling up to make organic agriculture the norm. International participants found optimism amidst COVID challenges through a lens of IFOAM’s vision – worldwide adoption of ecologically, socially and economically sound food systems based on IFOAM’s Four Organic Principles of Health (of people and planet), Ecology (nourishing living ecological systems and cycles), Fairness (relationships with fairness among people and other living beings), and Care (for wellbeing of current and future generations).
The meeting featured panelists Liz Henderson, Monique Marez, Jennifer Taylor, and Arzeena Hamir.
Henderson farmed organically grown vegetables in Wayne County, NY for over 30 years. She works on policy with NOFA-NY, and is on the Board of the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP), a domestic fair trade certification. She described the development of the New York Organic Action Plan. A NYOAP infographic shows how everyone can contribute to change, starting with their own diet and home gardening, and all the way to influencing federal policy. She also chaired the Wayne County Farmland Protection Board. As its only organic farmer, she nonjudgmentally brought exciting and inspiring ideas from sustainable farming to her conventional colleagues, who were most impressed with her ability to get fair prices for her work, and with all the community involvement in her farm.
Monique Marez has worked in the food system since 1999. She is incorporating organic support while coordinating the Pueblo, CO emergency hunger relief response for the COVID crisis. Pueblo has the highest poverty rate in the State. 70% of residents are on food assistance; every child qualifies for a free lunch program. Her approach provides accurate information to citizens in this uncertain time; ensures efforts are inclusive, culturally responsive, healthy and nutritious, and create an opportunity to spark joy rather than food assistance stigma; and coordinates community food system leaders.
Jennifer Taylor is a Board Member for the Organic Farmers Association, Rodale Institute, National Organic Coalition, and Georgia Organics, and previously served on the NOSB. She is an advocate for underserved farming populations, supporting participatory capacity building strategies that enable well being and change through organic farming systems. Her participatory capacity building sessions enable participants to see the connection between the health of soil, plants, animals, food and the earth. She said, “we need to act inclusively and work to specifically share information, provide hands-on training and technical knowledge to the under served farming population about the benefits of organic agriculture. This is how organic can gain access and outreach into all communities. This is how we grow as organic nations. This is how we can grow organic agriculture outside of our own neighbors… This is how we will gain the global impacts of organic benefits in all environments. This is how we work together to grow organic and enable all human beings.”
Arzeena Hamir runs a 26-acre certified organic vegetable and fruit farm on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Her experience in starting a farmers cooperative applies as markets are changing due to COVID. By joining forces, farmers can gain access to markets that were previously closed to them. She discussed moving from competition to cooperation, including efficiencies through sharing resources.
Questions and discussion followed panelists’ opening remarks. When asked what policies would cover the full cost of ecological farming practices and pay fair prices, Henderson suggested a return to parity pricing (covering the full cost of production – true cost accounting) with supply management and required set-asides for conservation. This would be similar to 1930’s programs, but designed for the 21st century, including compensation for earlier systemic racism.
It was noted that there are many global issues that organic can help address, but we need to increase organic’s scale. Henderson said what we need are many small farms, rather than a few large ones – rather than a scale up, it’s a scale out, so more farmers can participate. Marez noted the power of evidence and research toward converting more farms to organic. Organic methods have positive outcomes, shown by research. This allows farmers of every scale to make decisions based on evidence. IFOAM NA Board President Brian Baker noted there are economies and dis-economies of scale.
As to “how do we influence government?” Marez replied, “get involved!” The advocacy work that actually changes the ways politicians think takes a lot of work. “There are a ton of different ways to get involved… Participate on a working group… Make meetings with local and state representatives… contribute comments… Participate in conversations.” Henderson noted development of farmer and farm worker coalitions and working with consumer organizations creates a majority that can make policy changes. Hamir noted success by having organic farmers in public offices. But, she cautioned, this means stepping back from an activist role, instead working to encourage the community to come forward, then being receptive.
Steve Crider, Consultant at Stone Soup Advisors, shared his Pacific Northwest perspective on responses to COVID. “The feeling here is this is our moment. We’ve been building towards this point for years now and this is our time. The seed that got planted years ago – food hubs, farm to school, local incubators, food banks… have all matured. Now we’re connecting the dots. This crisis has forced the issue and now there’s a new level of synergy and collaboration and a feeling of not waiting for permission, but, ‘let’s just do it!’ Seattle is screaming for local food. The county and city government is throwing open the doors and offering options, money, and space, and the region is responding. The frailty and unsustainability of the old system is now apparent to everybody. In the midst of this cloud there’s a light that people are feeling.”
Ann Baier, of the National Center for Appropriate Technology, has been working with a couple pastured poultry projects. She asked, “How do we take advantage of this moment when there’s a lot going on, but a lot of the relief has been directed in the same old ways? … Doing the really local stuff is really great, but in order to have the efficiency to make this really mainstream we’re going to have to figure out the regulatory and policy ways that meat is processed, meets regulations, and is safe… It’s a challenge and an opportunity.” Baker noted right-sized capacity is needed to serve new organic farmers, and we must make supply chains less complicated.
Henderson drew attention to the Green New Deal as an opportunity to put together a whole package of programs that would bring about the kinds of transformations under discussion – relocalizing markets, bringing community control to processing, changing the system that’s so concentrated. “In organic agriculture we have so many of the answers and it’s been frustrating knowing that we have the solution, and waiting for the opportunity to do it. This is our opportunity and we need to move on it and build big enough coalitions to make it happen.”
Marez added, “right now everyone is looking for creative problem solving solutions, and what is obvious to us as long term actors in the organic community is not going to be obvious to those engaging with organic for the first time. So, when we’re sharing concepts or ideas, it’s important that we’re carrying ourselves in an inclusive manner.” Take on an educational role. Show examples of successes. “But, for some, this will be so new. We don’t want to isolate or chastise… Now is the time to blow the lid off of assumptions and stand out as food system leaders, not just as an organic leader.” She further noted that IFOAM’s Four Principles of Organic Agriculture illustrate the link between organic and social justice and come back to food as a right, not a privilege. This thinking ladders up through all levels and sometimes requires taking a firm stance on principles.
Charlie Tilt, Hummingbird Wholesale, Oregon, noted that distributors’ ability to leverage partnered relationships translates farmer’s values to customers at a more cost efficient level. He emphasized that our economic system is competitive. Distributors can level their philosophical insight and value creation to practical outcomes. During COVID, they’re seeing an uptick in business which increases communication opportunities.
Chris Schreiner, Oregon Tilth Executive Director, noted he’s been considering the notion of “never waste a good crisis.” He said we should ask, in this time, “what parts of normal are worth rushing back to, and which are worth leaving behind?” He said he’s also thinking about Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine” notion. As politicians are looking for solutions, we have opportunities, but, we should also remember that there are others with contradicting interests that are also trying to take advantage. He said, cruel as it may seem, the COVID crisis has accomplished what a lot of long-running global climate change efforts have failed to accomplish. He noted we must connect these dots for policy makers that are looking for solutions, and elevate organic agriculture toward the larger existential crisis of climate.
The Town Hall included some discussion about the NOP Standards not addressing all market demands, like strong regenerative practices, and social justice. Baker pondered ways to address this outside of a regulatory and market approach. He observed, “a lot of what we’re seeing is cultural in nature, about changing human behavior at a more fundamental level, not just in response to market forces, but in response to people’s psychological stress over the current crisis. Consumers resonate with a food system based on Health, based on Care.” The longstanding discussion of fairness goes beyond a regulatory approach and is an important discussion to continue to have. Taylor said “This is the space where the Principles of Organic Agriculture come into play. If farmers implement principles on their farms, then, whichever way the label goes, we will still have sustainable systems.”
Fred Ehlert, a retired organic inspector, said we can bring along nonorganic consumers by educating them on how the food system works. Hamir added that as supply chains start to break, she’s seeing far fewer complaints about fair pricing for local food, as consumers recognize their dependence on long supply chains is not healthy. People now see a direct link between their consumer choices and the type of agriculture in their community.
In summary, the pandemic has taught the value of international cooperation, that we’re all linked, and that core customers are demanding that organic scale up. We appreciate IFOAM’s global perspective.
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