There are few organizations in the food movement that have as much respect as the Organic Consumer Association (OCA). The group is linked to on the Commondreams.org website under the heading “America’s Progressive Community.” It shares this place with well-known organizations like the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and Amnesty International. Its literature is often referred to on the ongoing debates on biotechnology and organic agriculture. And, Ronnie Cummins—the organization’s founder and executive director—is a frequent lecturer on GMOs, author of the book Genetic Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers, and has been a contributor to the Huffington Post, Commondreams.org, and Alternet.org.
Despite these accolades and attention, a close examination into the Organic Consumer Association reveals them to be a deeply problematic group. They have—throughout their history—consistently taken fringe and anti-science positions when it comes to public health and the environment, have an unusually close relationship with certain organic food companies, and often engage in false — sometimes outlandish — accusations of their opponents. This type of behavior calls for some skepticism regarding their progressive credentials and activism.
Despite their name, the Organic Consumer Association does not really advocate for organic agriculture. Rather, it sees organic agriculture as merely a stepping stone for another agricultural system. As it states on its website “Organic agriculture rightly wants to halt the devastation caused by humans; however, organic agriculture has no cure for the ailing Earth. From this the following question arises: What was the original source of vitality, and is it available now?” For the OCA, this “original source of vitality” is biodynamic agriculture.
What is biodynamic agriculture? Biodynamic agriculture was created by German philosopher Rudolph Steiner. An interesting figure in modern history, Rudolph Steiner was a late nineteenth century/early twentieth century social reformer who meshed progressive ideals with his own personal pseudo-science—or as Steiner put it, his version of “spiritual science.” Steiner’s life was full of spiritual awakenings—all of which informed his personal philosophy “Anthroposophy.” Anthroposophy —like L. Ron Huber’s Scientology—provided a new theory for religion, literature, education, medicine, architecture, world peace, basically any and all things. Biodynamic agriculture was Steiner’s answer for crop failure.
In a nutshell biodynamic agriculture believes that a farm should function as its own organism. A farm should be a self-contained entity, being able to reproduce itself with its own natural mechanisms. On its face the notion of biodynamic agriculture appears fairly benign, and potentially even insightful. Who can really argue with using natural methods to grow better crops? But, underneath the surface there is a dark underbelly.
Essentially, there are two problems with biodynamic agriculture. The first is what Steiner believed were the elements of agricultural reproduction. The entire basis of Anthroposophy is a reconciliation of spirituality with a modern scientific world view. For Steiner this meant not the application of humanistic values to scientific inquiry, but the importing of mystical and religious notions into scientific work. Indeed, biodynamic agriculture has many “magical” elements in it which degrade its supposed scientific nature. For example, crops should be planted according to the phases of the moon in accordance with astrological notions, soil is thought to have “cosmic forces”, crushed quartz and animal manure is filled into cow horns and buried underneath crops in a manner that closely resembles rituals of sympathetic magic. One of the more bizarre—not to mention disgusting—practices include making a humus by filling animals guts with flowers, leaving them out in the sun to dry, burying them in a field for the summer, then digging them up again in the spring. How any of these practices square with a modern understanding of genetics, biology, geology, chemistry, climatology, or even physics is something that only advocates of biodynamic agriculture can explain.
The second problem is that by viewing the farm as its own organism, as a self-contained entity, biodynamic agriculture shuns an evolutionary and progressive view of agriculture. According to biodynamic agriculture everything that is needed for successful farming has already been provided by nature. Innovations in agriculture should be regard with suspicion, if not disdain, because they interfere with the realization of the farm as functioning as its own organism. This concept of farming is an example of the naturalist fallacy—that is if something is older, untouched by humans, more “natural”, it is therefore better. It is a completely ahistorical argument that ignores the tens of thousands of years that humans have been tinkering with crops to improve agricultural systems, and often offers subjective interpretations to what is considered “natural.” According to biodynamic agriculture it is completely “unnatural” to transfer genes from one variety of apple to another in a laboratory, but completely “natural” to stuff yarrow blossoms into a deer’s bladder, sun dry it, then bury it in the hopes that its will interact with the soil’s “cosmic forces.”
The pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo of biodynamic agriculture is problematic, but it is not the only issue with the Organic Consumer Association. Despite its often harsh anti-corporate rhetoric, the OCA actually takes a large portion of its funding from natural food companies. In 2011, they received almost $800,000 from corporations (pdf) and foundations, approximately 2/5 of their income for that year. The OCA is quite open about these connections. It frequently advertises the products of its sponsors (scroll to bottom) on its webpage. It sees part of its mission to protect the interests of these organic and natural companies. It states on its website that “the OCA represents over 850,000 members, subscribers and volunteers, including several thousand businesses in the natural foods and organic marketplace.” (italics added)
Ronnie Cummins has made clear that at the heart of the OCA’s campaign to label foods containing genetically modified organisms is—not to inform consumers so that they can make their own food decisions—but the expansion of the organic food market. During the height of California Proposition 37 campaign to label GMOs, Cummings wrote an open letter—published on the progressive news website Commondreams.org—that rhetorically asked “how – and how quickly – can we move healthy, organic products from a 4.2% market niche, to the dominant force in American food and farming?” Cummins’s answer: “The first step is to change our labeling laws.”
This blatant conflict of interests and posturing to the organization’s financial backers should be deeply troubling to progressives. It points to several contradictions in the OCA’s mission and activism. The OCA claims to be a consumer association, but seeing that it has such strong ties to companies—and so many of them—it is hard to say that it does not also act as a trade association. The problem with trying to be both a consumer association and a trade association is that the interests of consumers and producers are often opposed to each other in the market. How can the OCA honestly say that it protects the interests of consumers, while at the same time takes funds and advertise for businesses who could very well act against those interests? Apparently, it is a question the organization has never considered.
In light of this it is hard to say that the OCA is not a hypocritical organization. It constantly bemoans the financial influence that large agricultural companies—specifically Monsanto—have over public policy, while at the same time refusing to safeguard itself from the same type of colluding from smaller, more “natural” businesses. This is bad. What is worse is its constant accusations of others, often without any evidence, of being industry shills simply for disagreeing with the organization’s positions. For example, in its February 14th, 2013 issue of Organic Bytes—the organization’s newsletter—ran an article titled “Mark Lynas: GMO Convert or Hired Gun?” Mark Lynas is a well-known environmental activist who recently gave a speech before the Oxford Farming Conference on how the environmental movement should embrace the potential ecological benefits of biotechnology. The article provided no evidence that Lynas had become a shill for the industry. Instead, in true conspiratorial fashion, it simply listed a series of rhetorical questions that put his motivations in doubt.
With these type of shenanigans it should not be surprising that the OCA has a far from spectacular rating as a non-profit. According to Charity Navigator—an independent, non-profit organization that evaluates American charities—the OCA only has a two out of four star rating for their 2011 ranking. That is a fairly mediocre score. What is interesting about the rating are the factors which drove down the OCA’s score. Charity Navigator analyzes charities by comparing their financial records to their efforts to be accountable and transparent. The OCA actually scored relatively high when it came to its financial record keeping (with a 62.80 out of 70.00), but it lost big on the accountability and transparency score (41.00 out of 70.00). The irony is almost tragic. For an organization that is so quick to accuse others of hidden agendas and false motives, it would seem that accountability and transparency would be a bigger priority—but, alas no.
In the grander context of non-profit corruption, the OCA could be much worse. Its faults are nowhere near other organizations, nor do they reach the level of some of the institutions that they routinely criticize. However, just because they are minor in comparison does not mean that they should be ignored. The Organic Consumer Association treats itself, and the companies that it promotes, as an alternative to the highly centralized, environmentally destructive system of agriculture that exists today. But, are they a real alternative? Is the answer to the overuse of certain pesticides really a belief in magical animal guts? Is trying to avoid the interference that large agricultural companies have over public policies mean that we should accept contributions and sponsorships from small organic food companies who possibly have their own agendas? Is it really wise to substitute a reasonable, educated conversation about biotechnology with accusations, lies, and conspiratorial thinking?
Far from being a true alternative, the OCA represents everything that is wrong with the modern food movement. It often appears more like an organic version of a business fronted AstroTurf organization than a genuine grassroots non-profit dedicated to the progressive values of democratic debate, independent activism, and rationality. On many issues — but especially biotechnology — they poison the well by polarizing the conversation and misinforming the public. It’s an organization that is dedicated to an irrational worldview that wishes to replace the innovations and insights of modern science with the misguided mysticism of a bygone era. Broader criticisms of institutions and a truly thoughtful analysis of humanity’s relationship with the natural world are lost in the la-la land of the soil’s “cosmic forces” and a Monsanto conspiracy behind every piece of legislation. What is left is a vague localism and an eco-entrepreneurship that sees ties between activists and businesses as acceptable as long as those businesses are sufficiently “organic,” or “natural,” or “holistic,” or whatever eco-buzzword is most popular among a small subculture of New Age greens.
Worse of all, the OCA flips social activism on its head. The OCA’s main strategy of “voting with your dollars” by boycotting everything but a handful of natural businesses alters both the purpose and direction of social change work. Instead of putting social pressure on businesses to advance a progressive agenda, social movements are expected to be the consumer base for natural and alternative businesses. These businesses — though have many praiseworthy practices — have a tendency to sell questionable products, and are highly invested in an industry that preys on people’s good intentions and lack of scientific literacy.
Needless to say, both people and the planet deserve better.
(Editor’s note: some imprecise language in the corporate funding paragraph was removed since it was first published.)