A Conversation With Mark Ritchie on Food and Co-ops


Bruce Bacon is a community activist and market gardener in Ramsey, Minnesota.

Dave Gutknecht has been working with food cooperatives since the early 1970s, and is the publisher and editor of Cooperative Grocer.

Mark Ritchie, a founder of several cooperatives in northern California during the 1970s, is a trade policy analyst for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, on leave to work at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

Following are selections from a conversation that took place May 10, 1990:


Bruce: Today we have an opportunity to review twenty years of committed food work. Food is a topic that we've wanted to see coming, and now there's a lot of state and consumer interest. What's going to happen as this interest builds and as people's understanding of sustainable development and sustainable agriculture develops?

Dave: In the U.S., a prominent thing happening now is the California "Big Green" Initiative. And there is a movement at the international level to establish accreditation and certification standards so that we can build consumer confidence in reciprocity of standards between nations on organics.

Mark: I'm trying to pay attention to how the victories within this movement have come, and then the attempts to overturn them. For example, California's Proposition 65 created a list of known cancer-causing pesticides and herbicides and chemicals and required label information for consumers. The new initiative, called "Big Green," is on the ballot for November and goes beyond labeling and the right to know to actually banning the sale of food using any of a list of chemicals and creating a kind of environmental czar for the state, a new position, an elected position.

Prop 65, which passed a year ago, and the new one, which is very likely to pass, come out of a historical context of California family farmers being eliminated in the 1930s and 1940s, sometimes using racism and vigilantism and all kinds of economic pressure and fraud. The replacement of many California family farmers with large scale corporate farms engendered a type of agriculture that began to lose the confidence of consumers. One result was the creation of a whole wave of cooperatives and direct marketing and of organic and natural foods production.

But, that being said, the victories that have been won are now in danger because of forces that those victories had to overcome in the first place. For example, with Prop 65 in California the chemical companies, agri-business, etc., have gone to the federal government, specifically to the Bush Administration, their friends for a long time on these issues, and have asked for help in trying to find ways to overturn the regulations.

The federal government, the White House in particular, has made it clear in speeches and in various documents that they're furious about Prop 65, and they're looking for a way to get it overturned. One approach is the traditional route of going to the next higher level government, which in this case would be attempting to get Congress to set some national standards which would then pre-empt the state standards; this of course is the normal pattern.

Dave: So, the interest in food and sustainable development is taking place at many levels. Its manifestations on the public policy level, and in other public forums, are both positive and negative. There is an institutional power base struggling in reaction to this interest, and one form the reaction will take is the federal government trying to supersede and not allow more stringent regulations on the state and local levels.

Mark: That's right. Sometimes we see state governments trying to pre-empt locals. We see the feds trying to preempt the state. But the newest twist to this is the use of the GATT negotiations (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade; see sidebar, below) as a new way to overturn not only state legislation but also to get around Congress. Trade is a very unusual element because it's considered an element of foreign policy, therefore it's exclusively controlled by the White House. Trade agreements in modern times are negotiated in secret by the President and then they're presented to Congress for an up or down vote. In the case of the California Pesticide Initiative, they've already said publicly that the White House is going to attempt to use the GATT negotiations to overturn that law. Similarly, they want to use it to overturn federal legislation. They'll come in with a gigantic trade bill, it'll have goodies for various industries and it will do some real damage to the environment and to family farmers. They'll simply argue that there are winners and losers in ~ matters of political life and that in the GATT there are more winners than losers.

Dave: Are other governments represented at GATT following this kind of U.S. example?

Mark: It think it varies. In some countries the citizens have waged a battle and have declared clearly that higher quality, particularly in food, is what they want. In those instances the governments have begun to implement increasingly strict criteria, and there is a lot of consumer pressure to maintain. A good example is the ban against raising cattle with hormones in Europe. They banned their farmers from this practice, then gave the rest of the countries one year before they would ban the imports of beef with hormones. Within Europe it's an extremely popular measure. The companies that make these drugs, the pharmaceutical companies, are extremely profitable and extremely powerful and very influential with the Bush Administration. So, the last thing they want is for Europe to ban a product which would then lead the American public to question it, which might lead to a ban on that product at a global scale.

Bruce: What's the role of science here? Is the science adequate, is it not being done? How is the risk to the consumer determined in these quality issues?

Mark: It seems there are three different questions on science. The first is the question of accuracy. Science is defined by today. What was thought to be true forty, four hundred years ago is now not true; science itself is not a unitary or fixed measure. Thalidomide was thought to be safe, etc., etc.

The second question is the incredible influence and control by corporate and other vested interests over science. What's called science today is often the hired guns of industry putting out "scientific papers."

But this moves very quickly into a third question, about the role of science in a democracy. Currently, decisions about social and individual risk are made politically in the crucible of democracy. It's certainly a messy, uneven, often difficult process, but that's how we make decisions, and scientists have a role in advising. There's often contradictory scientific opinion, so that's part of the democracy. But what we're talking about with these trade negotiations and with some of the other measures is turning the system upside down. Instead of science being part of the mix, advising, conflicting scientific views being blended together with the concerns of consumers and farmers and workers and everybody else, we're talking about turning over to scientists - either scientists of good will or scientists bought by the corporation, it doesn't matter - the rising obligation to dictate rather than to be advisors. It's a very serious change in the role of science and experts.

I think whether you believe a scientist is sincerely watching out for your interests or whether you believe that scientist is defending the interests ofthe corporations can be debated. But whether science should have the determining role rather than an advisory role is a question about democracy, not about individual scientists or their personal points of view.


GATT and the Environment

The great majority of international trade Is regulated under the General Agreementon Tarifls and Trade (GATT), a body of law covering approximately 90 percent of world trade among nearly 100 countries. Initially drafted in 1947, GATT is periodically amended by a series of complex negotiations that may span several years. The current round of discussions, known as the Uruguay Round, concludes in December 1990. The GATT decislons may well determine, to a greater degree than any other international instrument or treaty, whether we will be able to implement the sustainable environmental policies necessary for the survival of our species and other species on Earth.

Washington has included as part of its GATT agenda a call for the global 'harmonization' of health and safety standards. While the development of an international consensus on environmental standards may be a desirable objective, there are reasons to suspect that the agendaof the "free trade" advocates is to lower envlronmental standards while placing the standard-setting processes in the hands of institutions less accountable to the people and more amenable to corporate control.

To learn more about GATT:

  • Mark Ritchie at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (www.iatp.org)
  • The Center for Rural Affairs newsletter, GATT Tales (PO Box 405, Walthill, NE 68067).

Greenpeace also is monitoring the GATT process.


Bruce: Is this amenable to bottom-up remedies? Could cooperatives, trade organizations, domestic businesses impact the process of science by either asking questions or politically supporting specific research agendas?

Mark: I think there are two different issues here: one is impacting the public policy and the other is impacting the private business. Cooperatives in particular have an enormous opportunity, and I would say danger, in the whole business of eco-marketing. Unless the cooperatives join with others who want very strict standards for organics and for ecologically labelled products, unless the cooperatives take a hard line in defining quality, they could find the niche in the market which they represent being destroyed because it's being commercialized. The co-ops and the distributors and producers and the individual consumers have a role to play in boosting the scientific element of the definition of quality and of certification.

However, the bigger question is the public policy, the legislative one. Using science to dictate public policy denies the operation of the democracy. The problem here is that corporations and some individuals don't like the way democracy works. To them, the fact that it ends up allowing individuals to say "no" to certain chemicals and to say "no" to certain practices, makes democracy an unacceptable form of government.

Dave: So, short of the day when our government doesn't primarily represent corporate capital, we should be trying to organize our forces at local, regional and state levels -- consumers, the food industry, as well as producers -- into the certification agencies, into the coalition promoting the "Green Label." Maybe the best we can do now is to promote grass roots and democratic input.

Mark: Yes, in fact I would argue with a slogan that the modern food co-op movement grew up under, "Think Globally, Act Locally." The idea was to think about hunger in Africa and do hunger walks at home. But we have to add the corollary, which is to think locally and act globally. If we want to have a co-op with organic food that we can trust, we're going to have to act regionally, nationally, internationally on certification. We're going to have to try to impact these trade negotiations.

Dave: But there's another reason why that reversal of the cliche is important, and that is that most people don't think globally. They think locally. While we've got to be articulating that global vision, if we don't think locally we won't organize and manifest the energy that will make it a more democratic process.

The beauty of co-ops as a fundamental building block of the democratic polity is in being an organization that allows the link between the big picture and the individual and their family.

They can be forums for education, and most of the better food co-ops do see themselves as forums for education, not simply vehicles for selling goods. That direction is basically toward the individual. But even more than that, there's the direction of working with other consumer and trade groups. Co-ops have, as businesses among other businesses in the public realm, an opportunity and an obligation to organize for change outside their own walls.

Mark: I think we overlook one element that co-ops need to take more credit for, and then to think about for the future. Perhaps only the United Farm Workers Union movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s generated more lifelong political and social activists than the food cooperative movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Tens of thousands of people who are socially and politically active got part of their initial experience or exposure hanging around or being part of a food co-op some place: working or volunteering or driving a truck or whatever.

People who take on leadership positions within cooperatives have the opportunity to become lifelong in their political and social commitment. The co-op should recognize that and take better advantage of it. There are also shoppers who came through co-ops years ago and aren't active now but got their roots there, people who could be tapped for further leadership positions, for education, for other things.

Dave: The point is for people to realize that food makes a difference, and daily practice makes a difference. This is just following through with that initial intuitive or conscious political judgement that led thousands of us into this. Similarly, thousands will be led into a broader consciousness not just from this one food or that one, but by the whole notion that food makes a difference and that we have a crucial part to play in the whole food production and distribution system, as consumers, as retailers, as distributors, in addition to the farmers.

Mark: Food matters, and as a central issue it raises a lot of questions that touch other parts of modern political life. For example, the difference between biology and manufacturing. The minds of the elites believe it's all manufacturing, except for a few rare individuals. But fifty percent of the people in this country garden, and eighty percent are concerned about the environment. They know that there is something more to integration of organisms and human life and other life, there is opportunity still to have biology and food be a major element of that, be a bulwark.

Dave: There's a shift needed to evaluate the effects of new processes or problems while taking into account much more than the scientific point of view on these things.

Mark: A cycle happened in the co-ops, where after trying to run things for a while some people in the movement went back to business school and finance school and went back and learned certain skills. There was a certain attrition, but some of them came back. I'm assuming this is also going to happen in other fields, like in science.

At some point if you really want to run a certification program, a person may need to go back to school for a year for chemistry and biology to be able to advance these processes a little further. I know people trying to work on eco-labelling stuff. When you get down to discussing the full stream, the production of raw material, the transport and processing, there are scientific and other questions at each of the stages. It's a lot easier to take someone who is socially conscious and teach them some good chemistry than it is to take someone who has been fed the nation's ideology and chemistry and then get them to open up their thinking.

I'm taking a look around to see what's working and what's interesting. There have been rural-urban exchanges, studies about technology. The cooperatives could be playing more of a role in initiating and creating these intersections. Not as more work for the co-op but recognizing that something is needed and doesn't take much money to get up and running. It also includes more people in the co-op. Your co-op shoppers are your natural constituency, whether it's defending family farmers or giving inducements to sustainable, or "right to know" labeling on pesticides and country of origin. Cooperatives have been a lead place for taking on food irradiation, and also bovine growth hormone and other new technologies.

At whatever level it would take, cooperatives need formal organizations which then have staffs. It requires co-ops seeing an integration reason, not just for more bulk buying, which is certainly a reason for co-ops to affiliate, but for political representation, for speaking out as a group, and for having some more organized campaigning.

What seems to work in terms of giving us all a fighting chance of solving the problems is this thing we call democracy. We kick the word around, so do the people in the White House. The fact of the matter is, democracy implies group expression, and implies a sentiment that you can also call anti-monopoly.

Bruce: It's a process, a social process, just as science is a process.

Mark: In the 1970s we spent a lot of time confronting corporations. And we found out that the issue is monopoly, the lack of diversity. What cooperatives do is give us an opportunity to achieve diversity, to play in a different arena. Where there are more voices and more opportunities and more diversity, things survive better. If you look at the plant world, there is more diversity. My personal objection to destroying family farmers and small towns is that I think society survives better when there's diversity. It's not a nostalgia for this or that lifestyle, it's a survival mechanism. If we can't learn a little bit from biology on diversity, we're in some deep trouble.

Monopoly is the key issue. Co-ops are part of denying monopolies that create the opportunity to dominate our lives.

Dave: We can learn not only from biology but from the history of past revolutions, which appear to be based at least principally around land. And I think land and food is still the heart.

Mark: We have a lot of rhetoric, but this is the problem that could threaten all of society. California is going to require a land reform process, and southwest Minnesota, where so many farmers have gone out of business. We're going to have to have, if we're serious about the environment, a new land ethic.

Dave: The co-ops can not only be active because of their locus for different forms of exchange, but because they model a way of doing business and deciding policy for other arenas, even if they're not directly linked.

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