Ronnie Cummins is national director of the Organic Consumers Association and the author of the recent book, Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers.

Monday, 2 Apr 2001

SANTA FE, N.M.

I woke up at 4:30 a.m. today thinking about organic coffee, social justice, and genetic engineering. Specifically, as I climbed out of bed slowly and quietly, so as to not wake my wife and my 3-year-old boy sleeping beside me, I was thinking about the Starbucks campaign that our organization, the Organic Consumers Association, launched two weeks ago with protests and press conferences in 100 cities across the U.S. and Canada. Our demands of Starbucks, a $2.2 billion-a-year transnational corporation operating in 18 nations and the owner of 20 percent of all the coffee shops in America, are that it (1) remove recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone and all genetically engineered ingredients from its beverages, chocolates, and baked goods; (2) brew and seriously promote Fair Trade, shade-grown coffee as the “flavor of the day” in its cafes; and (3) fulfill a promise it’s been making since 1995 to raise the starvation wages of coffee plantation workers who work for its coffee suppliers in Guatemala, Mexico, and other nations around the world.

After several years of preliminary consciousness-raising around the hazards of industrial agriculture and genetically engineered foods and crops in the U.S., we and groups like Greenpeace (who have targeted the upscale supermarket chain Trader Joe’s) have decided to go on the offensive. Since the government won’t listen to what 80 percent to 90 percent of consumers want (i.e., mandatory labeling and safety-testing of genetically engineered foods), we have no choice but to bring the “Frankenfoods” battle to the marketplace. Our goals are to take on the brand-name bullies and food giants and to build up a mass movement against genetically engineered foods — and for organic and sustainable agriculture — comparable to what our counterparts in Europe and Japan already have done.

As I turn on the light in the kitchen of the house/campaign office we’ve rented in Santa Fe and prepare to brew a pot of organic coffee, I’m reminded that we must be doing something right. Sitting on the counter next to my computer is an editorial from last Friday’s (28 Mar. 2001) Wall Street Journal, entitled “Sleepless in Seattle.” The article is basically a vicious attack on our organization and a condemnation of Starbucks for announcing that they are considering giving in to our demands. Earlier last week the right-wing Washington Times newspaper in Washington, D.C., denounced the OCA as “organic thugs,” while Feedstuffs magazine, the trade journal of factory farming and the international grain cartel, recommended that biotech and agribusiness firms get tough and declare war on public-interest organizations such as ours that have managed to gain the upper hand in a series of David versus Goliath food fights.

The OCA is a 3-year-old, rapidly growing, nationwide network of 125,000 organic consumers that deals with issues of food safety, genetic engineering, and sustainability. Besides talking about the problems of our food chain, we also talk about the solution: organic and sustainable agriculture. We have 12 staff members, thousands of volunteers, 40,000 subscribers to our monthly electronic and print newsletter, BioDemocracy News, a central campaign office located in the middle of the woods in northeastern Minnesota, and a series of virtual home offices scattered across the U.S. We work nationally and, to some extent, internationally, cooperating with consumer and farm activists across the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Europe, and Asia. Our political perspective is that the overall crisis of American and global agriculture, the damage to our environment, the steady deterioration of our system of food safety, and the economic crisis faced by most of the world’s 2.2 billion farmers and rural villagers are but symptoms of a deeper underlying problem — out-of-control corporations, unlimited technology, and unresponsive and nondemocratic governments.

I generally get up and begin work by 5 a.m., so that my email correspondence and postings to the daily news section of our website are completed by 9 a.m. Because I’m the national director of the OCA, I have to put in a lot of hours every week. I have to inspire and coach our staff, raise money, help in coalition-building, do media interviews, give talks around the country, manage most of the content for our gigantic website, and write leaflets, action alerts, and articles. In addition, I try to be a good father to my boy, Adrian (who wants to play and have fun every day, not just watch me sit in front of the computer or talk on the phone), and a good husband to my wife of 19 years, Rose, who also serves as the OCA campaign manager.

Because I passionately believe in what I do, I feel fortunate. People often ask me after my talks or lectures how I can be so optimistic, in light of all the bad news and scary stuff that I report on and talk about.

Well, after I do my exercises in the morning and sip my java, here’s part of the reason for my optimism. When I turn on my PowerBook and open up my email inbox, there are a couple hundred messages and articles waiting for me. Some of the stuff, of course, is bad news (Mad Cow-like diseases in the U.S., a new virus resembling AIDS in pigs, the hoof-and-mouth holocaust in Europe, toxic pesticides, genetically engineered trees and fish to complement our 70 million acres of Frankencrops), but a lot of it is incredibly inspiring: Greenpeace is launching a national day of action against Trader Joe’s in 13 states on 17 Apr. 2001 (Trader Joe’s is growing increasingly nervous). Activists in Vermont and across the nation are organizing for mass protests at the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s annual convention in San Diego 24-26 Jun. 2001. Organic food sales are booming across Europe, Japan, the U.S., and even China. A million farmers in New Delhi, India, held a demonstration against the World Trade Organization. And, directly relating to our current corporate campaign against Starbucks, there are enthusiastic email reports from our coordinators in Seattle, New York, Los Angeles, Madison, Ann Arbor, Minneapolis, and other cities — the bottom line is that we are going to win this campaign.

The best news of all is a note to me this morning from the OCA’s web master, Steve Urow, in Los Angeles. Our website received over 3 million hits in March, a 300 percent increase over our recent monthly averages. Our primary internet address used to be http://www.purefood.org, but some of our militant adversaries in Washington, D.C., set up a counterfeit site at www.purefoods.org, filled with lies and propaganda, called the “Pure Fools Campaign.” Since then, we’ve tried to publicize www.organicconsumers.org as our primary URL.

We and our allies may not have the enormous financial resources that Starbucks, Monsanto, McDonald’s, Cargill, Dow, DuPont, Kraft/Phillip Morris, and the rest of the food, beverage, and biotech giants have, but we do have the incredible power of the Internet, and increasingly, the hearts and minds of the people on our side. I look forward to another exciting day of campaigning. As the sun rises over the still snowcapped mountains outside Santa Fe, it’s great to be alive, fighting the good fight.