A safe-food crusader answers questions
What environmental organization are you affiliated with?
Physicians for Social Responsibility, Oregon Chapter.
What does it do?
PSR is a nonprofit educational organization committed to the elimination of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, the achievement of a healthy and sustainable environment, and the reduction of violence and its causes. PSR has programs on the health effects of war, pesticide use, global warming — and, in Portland, a blood screening program for lead in low-income neighborhoods.
The mission of my program, the Campaign for Safe Food, is to advance the establishment of an agricultural system and food supply in Oregon that doesn’t use genetically engineered (GE) organisms. We started on October 1, 2003 — Oregon is the first PSR chapter in the country to address problems associated with GE food. Specifically, our two goals are to discontinue the production of any dairy products in Oregon from cows treated with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST) and to ensure there is no risk of human or environmental contamination by biopharmaceutical crops, those that have been genetically engineered to produce drugs or industrial chemicals. At a minimum, this would prohibit any open-air growing of these crops.
What’s your job title?
Project Director. By the way, I’m not a doctor. There are many scientists, nurses, and lay people like me in PSR.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
At the basic level, the usual activities — reading and sending emails, phone calls, writing, fundraising, recruiting and orienting volunteers, meetings, making presentations, travel.
From another perspective, I connect the dots. For example, I’ll gather scientific and medical information and translate it into language that resonates with the general public. Or, I’ll introduce people to each other from a variety of fields — medicine, agriculture, science, business, consumer advocacy, etc. — to address what we see as the very serious health and environmental issues created by GE food.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
I typically get 25-30 per day, most of which I can read and respond to in a day or two.
With whom do you interact regularly as part of your job?
Oregon PSR staff and board members, especially the main medical advisors, funders and potential funders, people in the dairy industry, farmers, GE food activists in other states, volunteer researchers, Oregon Department of Agriculture staff, state legislators, scientists from here and all over the country, people from organizations and businesses we are looking to partner with, and media.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
This is a category: those businesses and organizations that have extremely long (five- or 10-step) automated phone trees when you call. It’s obvious they’re designed to prevent, not facilitate, a conversation with a real human being.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
It’s common practice to criticize people in the government, both bureaucrats and legislators. I do my share, especially when I know they’re serving corporate or other special interests instead of all of their constituents. However, I have found, with a few notable exceptions, that Oregon government workers and legislators have been willing to grant me time to exchange ideas, even when we don’t always agree on an issue. I think they have quite challenging jobs and most are doing their best to make difficult decisions.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in New Jersey, but moved within a year to Sidney, N.Y., a small town on the western edge of the Catskills. I grew up there, then went to Mt. Union College in Ohio and stayed for 17 years, living in Canton and Toledo (please, no Toledo jokes here, and yes, I’ve heard the John Denver song). I lived in Baltimore for nine years, then moved to Durham, Ore., outside Portland, where I’ve lived since 1993.
What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment?
There have been a number of them — here are two:
In 1999, I was at a meeting in Madison, Wis., when I stopped into the university bookstore and picked up The End of Nature by Bill McKibben. He made a compelling case that global warming is real and we have to take immediate steps to counteract it. The U.S. had done almost nothing, of course, and this book had been out for 10 years! A few weeks later, I saw a blurb in the Portland First Unitarian Church’s bulletin asking for a representative to Oregon Ecumenical Ministries’ new global warming committee. Do you ever have a feeling that the universe is telling you you’re supposed to so something? I joined, got involved deeply in global warming activities, and have been working for environmental issues ever since.
The second came when I was researching how food production and eating habits affect the environment, local farmers, hunger, and our health, again for the church. I stumbled on the story of how rBGH had been approved by the FDA (over the opposition of many of its own scientists), its harm to cows, and its stimulation of another growth hormone linked to increased cancer rates. I was shocked. My wife’s three sisters all had cancer, so she is likely at a higher risk, as is our daughter. I’d previously worked for the American Cancer Society for 21 years, the last six as CEO in Oregon, and had never heard of the drug. The FDA had ruled that rBGH milk didn’t have to be labeled. So much for informing the consumer. I showed my wife what I was reading — we haven’t bought rBGH milk since.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
My gosh, there have been so many! The 2002 defeat of Oregon’s Measure 27, which would have required the labeling of genetically engineered foods, ranks right up there.
What’s been the best?
Playing a leading role in the state’s successful 1996 ballot initiative to raise cigarette taxes by 30 cents a pack. We won in spite of the tobacco industry pouring over $4 million into Oregon and outspending us 8-1.
What’s on your desk right now?
A folder on dairies that I’m calling to ask to meet regarding rBGH, two agricultural newspapers, revised wording on the Precautionary Principle, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ report on the Bush administration’s suppression and distortion of science, and the Portland Trail Blazers’ basketball schedule.
What environmental offense has pissed you off the most?
It is incredibly irresponsible and short-sighted for the Bush administration to ignore the evidence on global warming, pull out of international efforts to do something about it, and attempt to weaken domestic carbon-emission controls. Future generations will pay dearly for this unwillingness to place an emphasis on renewable energy.
Who is your environmental hero?
Barry Commoner, a pioneer of the ecology movement and a fearless scientist unafraid to state his views even when he knows he’s going against the establishment. He’s in his 80s and still going strong. He’s also a true gentleman, a great role model for the lost art of common courtesy extended to all people, whether they can help you or not.
Who is your environmental nemesis?
What can I say? Monsanto, take a bow. I’m sure this corporation has all kinds of really nice, talented, well-intentioned people working for it. But the leadership has an unfortunate tendency toward sending letters threatening people who cross them with lawsuits, including farmers, dairies, and the media.
As for Monsanto’s vision, here’s a chilling story from Jeffrey Smith’s excellent book on the safety of GE food, Seeds of Deception:
The now-defunct Arthur Anderson Consulting Group, of Enron fame, had asked Monsanto what their ideal future looked like. Monsanto responded that it would be “a world with 100 percent of all commercial seeds genetically modified and patented.” Think of that — no natural foods would be left, only those genetically engineered by scientists. No seed-saving or ownership of seeds by independent farmers, only corporations. No organic or non-GE conventional foods. Choices for consumers? Forget it — you’ll eat what they want you to eat.
Unbeknownst to most Americans, there is a war going on right now over control of the world’s food supply. It has far more to do with corporate profits and control than feeding the hungry.
What’s your environmental vice?
Too often, I’ll stay in the shower a little longer than necessary because that warm water feels so good.
How do you get around?
Mostly in my ’99 Toyota Camry, a four-cylinder stick shift that averages 30 mpg. I take the bus or light rail whenever I can in Portland, which has an excellent mass transit system.
What are you reading these days?
The books I’ve read in the past few months have been Trust Us, We’re Experts by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, The Price of Loyalty by Ron Suskind, Soul of a Citizen by Paul Loeb, and My Losing Season by Pat Conroy. Right now I’m reading World Hunger: Twelve Myths by Frances Moore Lappe, Joseph Collins, and Peter Rosset. My favorite magazines are Mother Jones and YES!
What’s your favorite meal?
My wife’s lasagna, tossed salad, garlic bread, and chocolate cake for dessert.
Are you a news junkie? Where do you get your news?
I don’t consider myself a news junkie, but as I sit down to answer this, maybe I am. I read the Portland Oregonian daily, the weekly Capital Press, the Northwest agricultural newspaper, the weekly Willamette Week, Portland’s alternative newspaper, and The Milkweed, a monthly dairy newspaper. Also, I’m on the Daily Grist and two GMO listservs, the Genetically Engineered Action Network, and the weekly version of GM Watch from the U.K. Finally, I’m still on Stan Glantz’s listserv to get the latest news on the tobacco industry. I don’t watch much TV news.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I really, truly love trees, so go ahead and call me a tree-hugger.
What’s your favorite ecosystem?
This is too tough to narrow down to one. Two of my favorites are the Cascade Mountains in Oregon and Washington and the Oregon coast, especially Cannon Beach and the sea stacks in Bandon.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
I would eliminate, or at least strictly control, the excessive influence of corporations on our government and other aspects of our society. Barry Lopez made the observation that the U.S. government is supposed to have three branches with checks and balances on each other’s power. He cites a fourth branch — corporations — whose power is virtually unchecked.
Corporate influence goes beyond buying elections and pressuring government regulators. It extends to the WTO, where nations’ environmental safeguards can be shoved aside if they diminish corporate profits. It also permeates scientific research at universities and continues to manipulate and centralize media outlets.
I don’t have a problem with legitimate businesses competing in the marketplace and being profitable. There are lots of responsible corporations trying to do the right thing for their customers, their employees, their bottom line, and the environment.
But I have major problems with undue corporate influence over our political, social, educational, cultural, and informational institutions. We have to overcome the worldview being drilled into our heads that the environment (and every other aspect of life) is subordinate to “economic growth.” That mindset, where the means has become the end, is suicidal for this planet.
When was the last time you wore tie-dye? How about fleece?
I wore fleece when I went cross-country skiing last month. I can’t ever remember wearing tie-dye.
Do you compost?
Yes. We bought a wonderful composting bin from Portland Metro (area government) for $25. It looks like Darth Vader, but it works great.
Which presidential candidate are you backing in 2004?
John Kerry, although I’m worried he hasn’t taken stronger stances on GE foods, as Dennis Kucinich has. See above for my concerns about corporate influence.
Would you label yourself an environmentalist?
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly?
We’re not getting the word out enough on the unknowns and increasing evidence of harmful effects to the environment and human health by genetic engineering. As award-winning geneticist David Suzuki said, “Once we cross species barriers, we’re in brand new territory. We have absolutely no idea what might happen.”
GE crops are turning the Earth into a huge uncontrolled experiment and turning us into human guinea pigs. Unlike citizens in other countries, where GE food is front-page news, most Americans don’t even realize what’s going on. We’ll be doing our best to educate the public so they can make informed choices about their food.
What’s one issue about which you disagree with other environmentalists?
There are times when I’ve observed environmentalists criticize each other because they don’t feel they’re doing enough, taking the correct measures, etc., kind of a greener-than-thou attitude. There are a lot of paths up this mountain, and if someone chooses one that doesn’t appeal to me, but is still a step in the right direction, that’s OK.
I think the same flexibility should apply to tactics. There are times when you have to force a confrontation to stop something cold — demonstrations, lawsuits, opposing legislation, etc. There are also times when it works better to sit down with those who see things differently and try to come to an agreement, although you may not get everything you want.
What could the environmental movement be doing better or differently to attract new people?
In general, I think motivating would-be environmentalists to take bite-size steps to help the Earth works better than trying to tackle huge problems all at once. It’s just not human nature to do a sudden 180-degree shift in behavior. Something local, like removing invasive plant species from a park or planting trees, is a good start.
Also, you can vote with your dollars. If you want to address global warming, tell people how much less energy compact fluorescent light bulbs require and urge people to buy them. If you want to reduce pesticide use, buy organic foods, preferably from local farmers, and increase their market share. Frances Moore Lappe has a great quote: “Every choice we make can be a celebration of the world we want.”
I’d also serve pizza at any event whenever possible.
What was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?
At 18, the Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, and Peter, Paul, and Mary. Now, Catie Curtis, although I still listen a lot to Cat Stevens and the Ozark Mountain Daredevils.
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
About the only shows I watch are The West Wing and Bill Moyers’ NOW. As for movies, well, here goes any pretense of being a mature adult: Animal House.
Mac or PC?
What are you happy about right now?
My wife, my kids, my health, my job, and my dog.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Read The Food Revolution by John Robbins. John’s a vegetarian so you know he’ll have comments on the U.S. meat system, but the book also covers the environment, fad diets, hunger, genetically engineered food, mad cow, and more. I think you’ll be entertained, enlightened, amazed, and outraged — your eyes will be opened like never before regarding the American food system. You’ll also be much better prepared to protect yourself and promote positive changes.