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A Conversation With... Ryan Zinn
Campaign Director for the Organic Consumers Association

Interviewed by Susan Lutz, ATH Co-Editor of Organic Living



Ryan Zinn
OCA Campaign Director

Michelle Gregg, Former ATH Senior Editor: Hello All Things Healing readers and listeners. Thanks so much for joining us for another exclusive ATH interview. Today we have "A Conversation With...Ryan Zinn." Ryan is the Campaign Director for the Organic Consumers Association and he's spent the last 15 years working in the sustainable food and farming movement. His work has taken him throughout Latin America and the United States. He's been involved with the Center for International Law, Friends of the Earth - Paraguay, Global Exchange, and now the Organic Consumers Association.
So just a little bit about the Organic Consumers Association: they're a grassroots nonprofit campaigning for health, justice, and sustainability. The OCA deals with crucial issues of food safety, industrial agriculture, genetic engineering, children's health, corporate accountability, fair trade, and environment sustainability, among many other very relevant issues and they're the only organization in the U.S. focused exclusively on promoting the views and interests of our nation's estimated 50 million organic and socially responsible consumers. So this is a really big deal and these are really big issues. 

Interviewing Ryan is Susan Lutz, and she's been with ATH for over a year. She's our wonderful editor of the Organic Living page. Susan lives in Costa Rica with her two children and she's been there for the past 13 years. She says it's like living in paradise -- which is wonderful! Susan recently created a documentary film called The Coffee Dance: Planting Seeds of Empowerment and this is a film that's relevant to today's conversation because it focuses on a group of very poor women in Costa Rica who worked via theater to form a program that educates migrant coffee workers about the dangers of breast cancer, which is the result of the very high use of pesticides on coffee crops there. Probably unknown to most of us in the U.S. is that there is a very high incidence of breast and cervical cancer among women who pick coffee. So that said, welcome to you Ryan and Susan. Thanks so much for being here! 

Ryan Zinn, Campaign Director for the Organic Consumers Association: Thank you. 
Susan Lutz, ATH Editor of Organic Living: Thank you.

Michelle: You two are welcome to get started…

Susan: Okay. Welcome Ryan to All Things Healing. How are you doing today? 
Ryan: Very good Susan. Thank you very much. 


Organic Consumers Association


Susan: Good. Ryan, the Organic Consumers Organization, or as it is abbreviated -- OCA -- is a nonprofit organization. It's a grassroots organization and it promotes a worldwide movement to educate and change the policy of how we treat food, how we treat the planet and ourselves. Ryan, could you explain how that original spark formed the OCA and what mission it is coming to embrace today? 
Ryan: Well Susan, really about 15 years ago what was happening, at the national level of the United States, the federal government was coming up with a standard for organic food and farming. The first draft -- so-to-speak -- of this standard (which was later to become the National Organic Program) included everything from genetically-engineered crops, antibiotics, sewage sludge, and a whole host of other things that most people would not consider to be organic. And as a result of that, really almost 300,000 mostly consumers, but also farmers, retailers, and everybody in between -- had this huge outpouring of support for a more holistic and comprehensive approach to organic food and farming. And out of that huge outpouring, the Organic Consumers was born. And since then, we've begun to focus on being both a promoter and a watchdog for organic standards. Also we're really trying to educate and activate consumers to take a look at the food system from start to finish - to make sure that not only the food that you're eating is free from pesticides and is grown in a very healthy way for both humans and the environment, but in a way that also represents and respects workers throughout the food chain and really look for ways to democratize the food supply because, as you can imagine, right now we have a food supply that is not only unsafe, but is also very -- you know -- unjust for many people. Not many people have access to fair and unhealthy food. 
Susan: I can't imagine what it was like to have started the OCA and then get to where you are today. And it's really interesting to see that the OCA works in areas that are really not considered organic. For example, the word "organic" is used when we think of body care and when we think of food, and when we think of cleaners for our home. But why does the OCA -- as you mentioned -- include things such as fair trade, economic fairness, how people are treated when they are working with crops, healthcare, and energy resources within its work? 


"So if we're going to be able to survive climate change and really mitigate some of those impacts, we're going to have to figure out a way to reduce the amount of energy that we use to create food."


Ryan: Well, that's a good question. I think when we're looking at the food system and our overall sustainability as a planet, one thing that we think of which is both very practical and very theoretical is that you can't expect to have a safe and healthy food supply unless the people that work within that food supply are actually treated well, treated with respect, they're receiving fair wages, and there's some sense of empowerment. At the same time, the basic vision and mission of "organic" as a whole is really trying to create not only a very healthy and sustainable, but comprehensive approach to living. We can't have safe organic cornflakes for consumers, but not treat everybody throughout the supply chain with respect and fairly. At the same time, we're also realizing that we can't expect to have a long-term revolution in changing the way that we farm from industrial agriculture, which is very energy-intensive, includes lots of dangerous chemicals, and is very disempowering for the workers within it, without really addressing some of these core issues of energy production. For example, many people would be surprised to know that food and farming in the United States really is very very energy-intensive. In fact, about the same amount of energy that it takes to power the entire nation of France -- that's about what we use here in the United States to actually produce the food that we eat. So if we're going to be able to survive climate change and really mitigate some of those impacts, we're going to have to figure out a way to reduce the amount of energy that we use to create food. And at the same time if we're going to be talking about healthiness for human beings, we need to take a look at the healthcare system. The OCA basically has a two-pronged approach to addressing "change" and that is: one, we use marketplace pressure that is basically forcing companies to be much more sustainable, source more organics and do it in a way that's not only respectful to the planet but also human beings. At the same time, we're also looking at system change, which is passing laws and policies from the municipal level all the way to the federal government to make sure that those changes we want to see are actually enshrined in laws and policy. 
Susan: You know, it's interesting because it correlates some of the issues about breast cancer for women who pick coffee and their kids. I think as consumers, we love to have our products - but I don't know if we make the connection that what we're putting to our lips has an impact on people in a very distant place. We can easily shut our eyes and forget about that. We love our coffee! I think this is really an important issue that the OCA is looking at - Making sure that when we put that coffee to our lips, or pay $2.50 and it's in a Styrofoam cup, we know what we're doing to the people who have created and brought us that product. 


" ...over 90 percent of people in the United States would like to use their pocketbook to really affect change."


Ryan: Absolutely. I think one of the things that we've noticed over the years at the Organic Consumers Association is that by and large the statistics back this up: over 90 percent of people in the United States would like to use their pocketbook to really affect change. They want to make sure that the products they buy reflect their values. In fact, they're not actually supporting the system that poisons its workers, poisons the environment and poisons themselves because they are, at the end of the day, consuming the same product. And so our job is to begin to uncover some of these big challenges that we see that are basically inherent within the food system. And so as a result, we also promote campaigns -- you mentioned Fair Trade -- which not only provides a fair price for workers within the coffee industry or a whole host of other sectors, but also provides them with tools to be able to actually make changes at the local level, and shield and protect them from the most dangerous practices in farming like these carcinogen causing pesticides. So we're looking at the food system as a whole, not just the end product that you're purchasing when you go to the supermarket or your co-op. 
Susan: Exactly. So let's take that a step further and talk a complaint, a charge, that I've heard often in the organic world: we cannot, the world cannot live on organic food alone. Most would say we have to feed billions of people, so we have to use a corporate model. The OCA sees it differently. Can you tell us how the organic model would feed the world and why that would be better?
Ryan: Well, in fact, the OCA is not the only organization that has really big issues with industrial agriculture. Interestingly enough, back in December of last year, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization stated that agro-ecology not only can feed the world (you know, 6, 7 billion people) but is the only real guaranteed solution to be able to feed them in the long-term. The reality is that industrial agriculture -- as I mentioned before -- is very very energy and chemical intensive. And now we see petroleum dwindling even further; petroleum being the basis for not only our pesticides, but in fact in many cases, the fertilizers that are used in industrial agriculture. And so to actually to be able to create this basically lock-stock-and-barrel reform of the food system, there are a number of things that we need to do. One, we need to be able to create a much more local food system that uses local resources wherein we eat more in season and support local employment and local farmers. That's one surefire way to be able to shore up our bio-region and make sure that we actually have access to food even in the face of climate change -- you know, disasters like we're seeing throughout the United States right now. Not only that, but throughout Latin America, we've seen that there's a huge basic challenge in the coffee market because of climate change - induced natural disasters, or unnatural disasters, everywhere from Colombia to Brazil. And these are causing big big problems for the farming sector. One thing that we've noticed, really over the last 20 years, is that farms have been the canary in the coal mine so-to-speak as it relates to climate change. And this is because the farmers are the ones who first notice climate change on a day-to-day basis as they're farming and they're really facing these challenges. On the other hand, what we've also seen is the benefit of a more holistic approach to farming. That means creating much more diversified farm systems. And in practical terms, that means a big change from what we have with these big monocultures that we're seeing now in industrial agriculture. We have hundreds and hundreds of thousands of acres of just one or two crops like corn or soy -- many of which don't even actually go to feed humans directly. There are benefits to switching to a much more diversified, mixed system that in many cases will use animals as a way to provide fertilization for the crops and keep a lot of that fertility on the farm. So I think the big question is how do we change not only our eating habits, but really look for ways to empower farmers to continue to grow, diversify, and support local communities. 
Susan: Okay, so that's the big scale -- that's the big picture. Now let's get back to that cup of coffee, get into our kitchens, our backyards, our own families. We know our culture floods us with stuff we have to consume nonstop. The majority of the stuff perhaps we don't need, and most of it we know is not organic. We're still in the stage of growing the organic movement. So what do we do at home? How can we become organic? How do we make that transition in a way that we don't get so frustrated feeling that "going organic" is an elite thing that only a few can do?


"And now, we're seeing more and more communities, and families particularly, starting to grow their own food and really diversify beyond a couple of herbs and vegetables in their backyard, to things like backyard chickens and beekeeping."


Ryan: That's a great point, and I think we're living at an amazing time right now. There's a trend in the United States that we're seeing that is not only localizing our food system to our community, but also to our homes. And one thing I've seen over the last 10 years, and moreso the last 5 years, is that people are really taking initiative in terms of becoming much more sustainable within their communities and within their homes. One of the biggest trends that I've seen in the last couple of years is the proliferation of backyard chicken coops. We've seen a huge proliferation of backyard beekeeping as well, and the number of communities that are actually growing their own food has skyrocketed. So, over the last 10 years, we've seen the number of farmer's markets double, triple, and multiply by 10 times. And now, we're seeing more and more communities, and families particularly, starting to grow their own food and really diversify beyond a couple of herbs and vegetables in their backyard, to things like backyard chickens and beekeeping. On the production side, that's something that is really really positive and I think it's great because there's such a great connection then that families have to their food. On the other hand, we're also seeing a number of things that I think are really positive like composting, which was something that only a handful of people did even 10 years ago. Now there's a sort of big boom in home composting which means we actually reduce the waste that's put into the landfill and the resulting greenhouse gases that are emitted. People are able to take that waste, mostly food waste, and turn it into something useful; basically compost that provides fertility to the food they're growing at home. So there are a number of things like that that I've seen not only anecdotally, but that we can actually measure and see that it's actually growing quite a bit throughout the country. 
Susan: I think sometimes the bigger countries can learn a little something from a -- you know, like Costa Rica -- where there's probably a chicken at every other house. And it's very natural to have chickens lay eggs and walk over to the cow and get the milk. It is, of course, in the culture to buy pasteurized, non-organic milk and refrigerated chicken. But there's a chicken in almost every yard here. So let's talk dollars and cents. If we do want to make that transition to organic, what are the facts? Is it true that organic is more expensive? How can we budget it into our day-to-day life? 


Buy organic foods that are not prepared, such as bulk grains and legumes and you won't break the bank going "organic!"


Ryan: Well, in the big picture, one of the things that we want to continue to get the message out about is that it's a myth that organic is too expensive and unable to feed the world. On the one hand, what we're seeing is that our tax dollars in the United States -- to the tune of many many billions of dollars -- are actually subsidizing the most harmful and damaging types of farming out there. Industrial agriculture uses subsidies from everything like monocultures of cotton and soy and corn. At the same time, what we also see is that there are very, very simple ways that people, even on a budget, can actually purchase organic on a day-to-day basis without breaking the bank. And there are a number of ways that we guide consumers to do this. Many of these resources are in fact available on our website. But generally speaking, you can buy organic foods so long as a) they're not prepared -- meaning pre-prepared like processed food -- that's going to save you money right off the bat. You can get organic oatmeal, for example, at a very, very competitive price -- in fact, cheaper than you would buy a prepared cereal, by just simply buying bulk organic oatmeal. You can also cut coupons at bulk and wholesale places or your natural food stores, and get those deals. But really the bottom line is finding ways to actually prepare your own meals, and I know that's a big challenge, especially for working families like my own. But the one thing we find is that by buying organic, not only will the benefits pay off for the health and well-being of you and your family, but also you make an impact both in the marketplace and in your community. One thing that we do in my family is we are members of an organic, raw, goatmilk cooperative. You know, a couple of folks here in town will make a contract with a goatmilk producer and then we can get goat milk products cheaper, faster and more directly by simply having a little bit of organization. We also buy some of our pasture-raised organic meat directly from a farmer, and that basically ensures that the farmer is getting more of that dollar that he's working for, without the money going to intermediaries. Because we practice these ways we have a guarantee that we know who is raising our food and as a result, my family now has a much closer connection to the food we eat. So that actually has a longer lasting impact not only on our health but in the way that we educate our children and younger generations.
Susan: I think you hit on something there about the long-term impact and I think we're going to see that change over time. We're going to see that if we put the effort in now, it's going to pay off in the long run. We have just about a minute or so left, Ryan. Can you quickly say what's new on the horizon for the OCA? Can we look forward to seeing anything new from you?


"The OCA is really focusing on getting genetically-modified food out of the food system."


Ryan: Well really, the one issue we're looking at right now Susan is that we're focusing quite a bit of our energy on eradicating genetically-modified crops from the food system. We see this as the biggest challenge, really at the intersection of a lot of our issues with industrial agriculture, because genetically-modified crops are patented, which means that basically it dis-empowers farmers to maintain their seed, develop seed, save their seed. But they're also very much connected with increased use of pesticides for example and they're totally dependent on very energy-intensive forms of agriculture like big tractors and irrigation. So we're really focusing on getting genetically-modified food out of the food system. And as a result, we're focusing on two things: one, is we're looking to support a ballot initiative in the state of California to require labels on all foods that contain genetically-modified ingredients. We see this as one way that we can begin to a) give consumers the right to know what's in their food and to begin to phase out genetically-modified foods from the food system. And b) we're also launching a nationwide campaign on World Food Day, October 12th this year, to be able to make sure that consumers have the right to know what's in their food and they can actually make those decisions. We know that right now there's a couple of crops which are basically 100 percent genetically-modified. Soy is at 93 percent genetically-modified, corn is at 88 percent. So if we're going to turn back industrial agriculture, we need to stop genetically-modified crops and that's the way that we're focusing on it. 
Susan: Wow. Get back to the simple things, get back to the basics. Thank you so much Ryan for joining us. It's been wonderful speaking to you and we look forward to hearing from you again and seeing what the OCA is up to and how those goals are going. 
Ryan: Very good Susan. Thank you.
Michelle: Alright! Thanks so much Ryan and Susan for sharing this really important and eye-opening information and I'm sure that many of us will now begin to shop locally at our farmers markets, maybe plant our own gardens, and compost. So again, thank you, this gives us a lot to think about. For those of you reading or listening, you can find out more about the Organic Consumers Association by going to www.organicconsumers.org. And also, we'd love to have your comments on today's interview so feel free to be in touch, comment below, or visit our Organic Living forum to start or join a conversation. Thanks for joining us, and until next time be well. And don't forget about World Food Day on October 12th. Thanks again Ryan and Susan. Take care all.
Ryan and Susan: Thank you!
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About Ryan Zinn 
Ryan Zinn is the Organic Consumers Association Campaign Director. Ryan has worked in the sustainable food and farming movement since 1996 at home and abroad. His work has taken him throughout Latin American and the United States while working at the Center for International Law, Friends of the Earth-Paraguay, Global Exchange and the Organic Consumers Association.

About the Organic Consumers Association
The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) is an online and grassroots non-profit 501(c)3 public interest organization campaigning for health, justice, and sustainability. The OCA deals with crucial issues of food safety, industrial agriculture, genetic engineering, children's health, corporate accountability, Fair Trade, environmental sustainability and other key topics. We are the only organization in the US focused on promoting the views and interests of the nation's estimated 76 million organic and socially responsible consumers.

The OCA represents over one million members, subscribers and volunteers, including several thousand businesses in the natural foods and organic marketplace. Our US and international policy board is broadly representative of the organic, family farm, environmental, and public interest community.

The Organic Consumers Association was formed in 1998 in the wake of the mass backlash by organic consumers against the U.S. Department of Agriculture's controversial proposed national regulations for organic food. Through the OCA's SOS (Safeguard Organic Standards) Campaign, as well as the work of our allies in other organizations, the organic community over the last eight years has been able to mobilize hundreds of thousands of consumers to pressure the USDA and organic companies to preserve strict organic standards. In its public education, network building, and mobilization activities such as its Breaking the Chains campaign, OCA works with a broad range of public interest organizations to challenge industrial agriculture, corporate globalization, and the Wal-Martization of the economy, and inspire consumers to "Buy Local, Organic, and Fair Made."


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