With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
I am the executive director of Food and Water Watch, a brand-new consumer advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.
What does your organization do?
We’re focused on protecting two critical essentials: food and water. Our mission is to challenge the economic and political forces that are promoting industrialized food production and the commodification of the oceans and freshwater sources. Our goal is to engage in substantive public policy work, while at the same time engaging in campaigns that make complex issues exciting and easy to understand.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
I’m spending a lot of time getting our new organization off the ground. We just moved into our new offices two weeks ago, so we’re still unpacking boxes and ironing out technology problems. I’m a little wistful for the good old days when all you had to do was unpack, plug in the typewriter, and hook up the phones.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I grew up in the late ’60s and had my first political experiences in high school in rural Virginia. We girls weren’t allowed to wear pants to school, so we agitated for a dress-code change — and won. When my high school integrated, the African-American girls from a high school across town who had been cheerleaders were told they couldn’t keep their places because tryouts had happened the year before. We organized a sit-in in the lobby to protest this injustice and were all kicked out of school for two weeks, but they did allow the girls to be on the cheerleading team. I also became involved in the anti-war movement. Many of the boys I knew were being drafted to go to Vietnam. Seeing your friends forced to go fight in an unjust and immoral war is a very politicizing experience.
It was also about this time that I became really interested in organic agriculture and the back-to-the-land movement. While I was in college, I lived in a commune in rural Virginia where we grew a lot of our own food and lived very simply — no plumbing or central heat.
My first job out of college was working in rural southwest Virginia for an anti-poverty program. I spent several years working on poverty and aging issues. During this time, I got involved with the anti-nuclear movement. In 1984, I inherited my family’s farm in northern Virginia and moved there. I eventually decided to find a job in Washington, D.C., fighting for a clean environment. I worked for the Union of Concerned Scientists organizing around renewable-energy issues, and I ran Citizen Action’s environmental program. In 1997, I started working for Public Citizen, running the Critical Mass Energy Program. Eventually, we expanded that program to include food and water issues. In November 2005, because of the growth of our program, Public Citizen spun off the food and water issues into Food and Water Watch.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in New Jersey and during my early years lived in Pennsylvania, California, Montana, and Washington state, but my family ended up on a farm in Virginia.
Today, I live on that same farm, which my husband runs as a Community-Supported Agriculture program. I get to eat terrific organic food that’s grown just steps away from my front door. I feel lucky that my public and private lives are in sync!
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
I am outraged that companies like Nestle, Pepsi, and Coke are getting away with selling bottled water to consumers as a healthy option that is better than tap water. Bottled water is almost entirely unregulated, and studies have shown that some bottled water has more bacteria and chemicals than tap water. Bottling water from springs (water mining) can have a devastating effect on ecosystems. Also, the containers release dangerous toxic chemicals into the air and water when they are manufactured and when they are burned or buried. Think of how we could improve our tap-water infrastructure if we took the money spent on bottled water and spent it on our public water systems.
What’s your environmental vice?
Eating blueberries out of season.
What are you reading these days?
For the last couple years, I’ve been reading the biographies of the presidents in order. But sometimes I get interested in a period and read a lot of other related things. I just finished a book called Edith and Woodrow: The Wilson White House by Phyllis Levin and have started reading Ron Powers’ biography of Mark Twain.
What’s your favorite meal?
I love homemade pasta with spicy red sauce, but beans, tortillas, avocados, and picante sauce are tied for first place.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I really do prefer whole-wheat bread and brown rice.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
Making environmentalism mainstream.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly?
Allowing environmentalism to be co-opted by niche marketers.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
I think the best thing we could do for the environment is to take the money out of politics. As long as our campaign-finance laws amount to legalized bribery, we will not be able to protect the environment.
Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?
At 18, I loved Frank Zappa. Today, I listen to all kinds of music, from Lucinda Williams and Bonnie Raitt to Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter songs and John Jackson singing the blues.
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
I never watch TV — haven’t for 25 years. But I love movies, especially screwball comedies from the ’30s and ’40s. Some of my favorites are Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Howard Hawk’s Bringing Up Baby.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Become an informed consumer. Go to the Eat Well Guide and see where you can buy sustainably produced meat, poultry, and dairy products.
What Goes Sup
If city tap water is full of chemicals and bottling spring water damages ecosystems, what on earth is a health-conscious environmentalist supposed to drink? — Molly Miller, Denver, Colo.
In many places, healthy people can drink the water out of the tap. You can request testing results from your utility. If you are concerned and don’t want to drink the water, the best thing to do is to get a water filter. The best filters use reverse osmosis; this gets rid of most contaminants including heavy metals, parasites, and pollutants like arsenic and perchlorate. You can also use a less sophisticated type of filter like a pitcher with an activated carbon filter, which can reduce a range of dangerous contaminants. Look for filters labeled as meeting NSF/ANSI standard 53, and look at which contaminants the filter removes. This certification program is not perfect, but it shows some level of verification for claims made by the manufacturer.
After watching the inspiring documentary Thirst, my office is having internal debate as to whether to continue our contract with a spring-water company or donate the money to one of the activist groups portrayed in the film. If we cancel the contract, some fear that more of us will purchase individual water bottles because the tap water tastes pretty bad. What would be your suggestion here? — Jessica Kaslow, Berkeley, Calif.
We have had to deal with this issue. We are buying a good water filter, which will protect against a range of contaminants. It will be good for our health and prevent the staff from having to buy bottled water. First, we had our water tested and then we picked a filter that protected against the contaminants that showed up in the test and that we knew were a problem in D.C.
Why have you chosen to be upset about water as a bottled beverage and not milk, carbonated corn syrup, beer, or juice, when all of these are much worse for the environment? — Stephanie Marsh, Westwood, N.J.
When you buy a soda or beer, you know that these items are bad for you. The problems around bottled water are not well-known. I was pointing out the fact that companies are marketing a product — water — as a healthy product, when there is no assurance that it is better or even as good as your tap water. Bottled water is almost completely unregulated, and tests have shown that it often has a range of contaminants from heavy metals to bacteria. Also, water bottles leach chemicals into the water, and pumping water from springs harms the environment. So, it’s at least important for people who drink bottled water to know the downside.
Why create yet another environmental organization? I feel that if some of them worked together, we’d be farther ahead and not so fragmented into niches. — Lisa Conley, Edmonds, Wash.
I agree that it is extremely important that organizations work together. Coalition work is one of the most important tactics that can be used in moving along our agenda. But in our society, there are so many issues that some degree of specialization is necessary. We created Food and Water Watch because we felt that a number of the issues we work on were not being covered by other groups.
I go back and forth about meat. After reading books like Fast Food Nation I write it off, but I usually slowly come back and start eating meat again, as long as it’s organic, free-range, natural, heritage, sustainable, cage-free, etc. Do you eat meat? Regardless, do you think it’s a safe choice? — Morgan Poncelet, Fremont, Calif.
I have been a vegetarian on and off for most of my life. Recently, I learned I had an iron deficiency and started eating meat again. For me personally, I feel OK about that as long as I eat locally grown, humanely raised, family-farmed meat. I am lucky; we get our meat either from our own animals or from one of the farmers in our community. I almost never eat meat in restaurants.
I enjoyed reading your interview and have long admired you. However, you mention the Eat Well Guide, which suggests asking the farmer or butcher how the animals were treated. Why in the world should we expect an objective answer from those who profit from the killing of these animals? “Humane slaughter” is oxymoronic. There is also the saturated fat and cholesterol contained in animal products, and the heavy metals and fat-soluble pollutants that accumulate in animal tissues. Why not instead urge people to choose a genuinely better diet by rejecting animal products and opting for a vegan one? — Mary Finelli, Silver Spring, Md.
I agree that a diet heavy in meat is unhealthy. Until recently, meat was a small part of most people’s diet. But today I don’t really see a world where a vast majority of people give up meat. Our focus is to stop corporate control of animal production. We believe that family farmers are the best producers for a range of food products. We should talk about this in person sometime!
One of my biggest concerns is genetically modified organisms — both for the consumer and organic farmers. What can we do to stop these monsters from continuing this travesty of nature? — Melissa MantiQ, Vestal, N.Y.
GMOs are a critical issue. We need to keep organizing politically to require labeling, which will make them unprofitable. And we need to educate consumers not to buy GMO products. This has taken some time, but people are becoming aware of the problems.
Can I be confident that all products labeled “organic” are free of all genetically modified ingredients? Also, are there any foods that are so genetically altered that no one can confidently say they’re safe unless you grow your own food from “old” non-hybridized varieties? — Marilynne McCarthy, Blaine, Maine
Organic food is required to be GMO-free. Unless a company is lying or inadvertently had their crop contaminated by cross-pollination from a GMO crop, you should be able to depend on the organic label.
Hybrids have nothing to do with GMOs. Hybrids have been around almost since the beginning of agriculture. They are plants produced by impregnating the pistil of one species with the pollen of another. Plants are selected for different characteristics, and breeding plants this way creates plants with different characteristics. It’s important to save heirloom varieties too. For instance, the taste of many heirloom tomato plants is amazing.
With all the billions of people starving around the world, I would like to start bartering food for goods. Africa has precious metals; we could trade food for diamonds and gold. I would like your comments. — Daniel Barker, Lakeland, Fla.
Bartering is a great thing, but mostly it is done locally. I like the concept of food sovereignty, which means that all countries or regions of the world need to be able to provide food for their citizens. Food security is critical. Think of what would happen if the transportation system broke down. The problems with poverty in Africa have more to do with transnationals stealing their wealth (in the form of gold, diamonds, and oil) and people being too poor to be able to buy food. We need to support policies that help local farmers feed the people in their country or region.
When I was a child during the ’40s, my family grew a “victory garden” on a vacant city lot. These “victory gardens” produced for each family fresh veggies to eat and to preserve for the coming winter. In the ’70s, community garden plots sponsored by various local businesses were made available, modestly priced, for families to rent seasonally. Both of these efforts created a heightened sense of community interaction, individual empowerment, a sense of stewardship to the earth, and raised awareness of the direct relationship between effort and the reward of good food. How can this country effectively instigate and encourage such “American effort” again? — C.J. Morgan, Providence, R.I.
In many places around the country, people are getting locally produced food in season. There is a real movement around community-supported agriculture programs. People from all walks of life seem to understand that food produced in the vicinity tastes better. Of course, the downside is that we are creating a two-tier food system. One for educated people with resources, and one for everyone else. But as we have more problems with contaminated food that is imported from developing countries and as the cost of transportation rises, I think people will buy locally if they have the choice.
I read that more and more schools are developing organic gardens through the schools’ environmental-science programs, but the food cannot be used in the school cafeterias because it competes with school-district purchasing agreements and union regulations for cafeteria staff. Can this be right? What can be done to improve school food? — Bill Wolpert, Petaluma, Calif.
Many school districts around the country have farm-to-school programs. Sometimes these programs even include food produced by the children. Decisions about school lunches are made locally. It requires having parents join together and organize to change their local school-lunch program. Check out Farm to School for more information.