Organic Valley's George Siemon—A Living Legend in Sustainable Agriculture
While attending Ohio's largest food and farming conference last weekend, I had the opportunity to sit down with Organic Valley CEO George Siemon. Siemon was the featured keynote speaker at the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association's (OEFFA) 34th annual conference in Granville, Ohio.
I'm inspired by Siemon's ability to engage in food advocacy and policy while at the helm of this highly successful business. Organic Valley is an exemplary nearly billion dollar company that shows prioritizing human health and the environment is not only smart business, but vital to creating a sustainable planet for future generations.
SS: How did you get involved in farming and what did you do prior to the formation of the Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools (CROPP) in 1988?
GS: I was your classic back-to-the-lander. I moved to the country and lived close to the land. I got pulled into being a farmer and really enjoyed the traditional wisdom of the older farmers. Then I discovered organic farming. I wasn't raised on a farm, so I was very excited for something new. I milked cows for about 10 years, but then got increasingly frustrated by the marketing system. It wasn't rewarding, it wasn't reasonable and commodity prices didn't make any sense, so the economic part of it wasn't satisfying.
At the same time, the 1985 Farm Bill was the last hurrah of what you call a populous farm movement. There was the unloading of manure on the steps of the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] and the different American radical ag groups, and there was a group in Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Farm Unity. After the 1985 Farm Bill had very disappointing results, they felt that they would not get the kind of help they needed from the government. They needed to find ways to help themselves, and the Wisconsin Farm Unity had the idea of starting value-added co-ops which was very pioneering at that time. It just so happened that one of the board members was in our region and he wanted to start an organic produce co-op, vegetable co-op. So, it was really a political activist group that had the idea to start a co-op that would help do what the government was unwilling to do, which was trying to provide farmers with a viable market.
It was a do-gooder concept that started taking root. We started our co-op in 1988. We had tremendous community support from the beggining.
SS: You were a big part of designing the original organic standards. What can you share on how and why they were formed?
GS: Organics is a unique industry in that they actually want more regulations. There were starting to be state laws on the definition of organic and they were conflicting and it was getting to be a mess, so in 1989 we started the process of a national bill. We passed an organic labeling law in 1990 and right away we noticed that organics was a fairly neutral political issue and crosses many stakeholder groups. It was a unique law in that it has the only congressional empowered advisory group in the whole United States government called the National Organic Standards Board. That took a while to get going. Between 1990 and 2002 there was a long period of time to get the standard up and out. It was very challenging to have a program that covered all the commodities.
We have the strictest standard in the world and we should be proud of that.
SS: Local vs. organic, what do you think?
GS: First off, organics is part of the movement of people reconnecting to their food and that's the good news. Seeing how it affects their lives and so naturally local is part of that same reconnecting to your food. I could never comprehend the local vs. organic because it would seem that if you're reconnecting with your food and concerned about your food and your local community that you would be concerned about farming organically in your local community and not polluting your watershed. To me it's a way over played conversation.
There are farmers that farm organically that don't get certified. That's a different story. They are still organic, they just can't use the USDA seal. So to me supporting local chemical farmers vs. an organic farmer, I'm pretty sure that if you look for a local organic farmer you'd find one. You should always support your local people because that's your local community.
Local is a value that needs to be built on top of organics, not a value instead of organics. It should be organics plus other values because organics only go so far on its value model. It tells you how food is produced. It doesn't tell you that it was produced locally. It doesn't tell you if it was produced on a small farm or a big farm, or all the things that you as a consumer may choose to think is important. It's a consumer choice issue.
SS: What are your hopes for the next five years?
GS: My hope is always about educating the consumer. I'm all for everything we do in Congress and politics but its been a little disillusioning to say the least. Educating consumers and getting them to make choices is to me still our biggest hope going forward. Unfortunately, the economy, the recession or whatever you want to call it, just drove us to this numbing conversation about jobs, jobs, jobs and it has really set us back. I am very excited about the web and how it educates people. I'm very excited about educating young mothers, which is really what drives our business. You can really see a very positive movement out there that keeps going despite all the challenges.
SS: What about the connection between human health and the environment?
GS: Part of my talk today is to at least acknowledge that we have some very serious health issues and we are not connecting it to food enough or the environment, and they are obviously connected. Health has got to take on a preventative basis. We have to start preventing health [problems] versus coming up with these health crisises and part of that is through food. We are not addressing food related health issues near enough.
SS: What are your thoughts on genetically engineered (GE) food?
GS: GE foods have never been regulated. There's a lack of regulation and there's a grip of control by the GE community in DC that's pushing bills through. They tried to get a bill passed recently to make it faster yet to get these products through. They are basically being railroaded through. There's a lot of investment money on the line that hasn't come to bear yet, so there's a lot of pressure to get these products out there.
I don't have much confidence in the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] doing good due process. First thing they should have real regulation and they don't. Second, we should at least label it. Number one, organic farms need to know they are buying input that is not GE. Number two consumers should know as well.
We started the labeling effort and it has been a very good educational tool. We've gone from ground zero to a very impressive position. We are going to have a hard time ever getting through in DC. But the state label initiatives started up. I don't think that California was necessarily the best state to start with, but we had a good fight in California and we did really well. The truth is now that one of these states is going to pass a law and it's going to be disruptive. We've actually made big strides, very big strides. I'm very pleased. It looks like Washington state will pass and that will rock the boat because no food processor, me or otherwise, supports state by state laws, because it's a nightmare for packaging. So we've actually gone from no hope to a pretty amazing position in just two years. It's really exciting seeing us reverse the trend.
SS: So you're close to becoming a billion dollar company. Where do you see Organic Valley in ten years?
GS: What's nice about working for a family farm cooperative is you'll know where you'll be in 50 years, which hopefully will be an honest marketing vehicle for their children's children. It's kind of neat to know who you want to be in 50 years. Not many businesses can actually say that, but we can. As far as in 10 years, we've always been very thrifty and modest but we have to now face the reality that we might have a 19 percent growth rate this year, and that if we were to grow 10 percent starting in 2014, by 2020 we'll be a $2 billion company. So we're having to put a different set of glasses on now and look at our reality which has been a fantastic success.
Thanks to Siemon for his hard work and dedication in the sustainable agriculture industry and to OEFFA for their long-standing mission to build a healthy food system that brings prosperity to family farmers, meets the growing consumer demand for local food, creates economic opportunities for our rural communities and safeguards the environment.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
- Coral Reef Tipping Point: 'Near-Annual' Bleaching May Occur ... ›
- Scientists Warn Humanity in Denial of Looming 'Collapse of ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
To save the planet, we must save the Amazon rainforest. To save the rainforest, we must save its indigenous peoples. And to do that, we must demarcate their land.
A new EarthxTV film special calls for the protection of the Amazon rainforest and the indigenous people that call it home. EarthxTV.org
- Meet the 'Women Warriors' Protecting the Amazon Forest - EcoWatch ›
- Indigenous Tribes Are Using Drones to Protect the Amazon ... ›
- Amazon Rainforest Will Collapse by 2064, New Study Predicts ... ›
- Deforestation in Amazon Skyrockets to 12-Year High Under Bolsonaro ›
- Amazon Rainforest on the Brink of Turning Into a Net Carbon Emitter ... ›
By Anke Rasper
"Today's interim report from the UNFCCC is a red alert for our planet," said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
The report, released Friday, looks at the national climate efforts of 75 states that have already submitted their updated "nationally determined contributions," or NDCs. The countries included in the report are responsible for about 30% of the world's global greenhouse gas emissions.
- World Leaders Fall Short of Meeting Paris Agreement Goal - EcoWatch ›
- UN Climate Change Conference COP26 Delayed to November ... ›
- 5 Years After Paris: How Countries' Climate Policies Match up to ... ›
- Biden Win Puts World 'Within Striking Distance' of 1.5 C Paris Goal ... ›
- Biden Reaffirms Commitment to Rejoining Paris Agreement ... ›
India's New Delhi has been called the "world air pollution capital" for its high concentrations of particulate matter that make it harder for its residents to breathe and see. But one thing has puzzled scientists, according to The Guardian. Why does New Delhi see more blinding smogs than other polluted Asian cities, such as Beijing?
- This Indian Startup Turns Polluted Air Into Climate-Friendly Tiles ... ›
- How to Win the Fight Against Plastic - EcoWatch ›
In a historic move, the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) voted Thursday to ban hydraulic fracking in the region. The ban was supported by all four basin states — New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York — putting a permanent end to hydraulic fracking for natural gas along the 13,539-square-mile basin, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
- Appalachian Fracking Boom Was a Jobs Bust, Finds New Report ... ›
- Long-Awaited EPA Study Says Fracking Pollutes Drinking Water ... ›
- Pennsylvania Fracking Water Contamination Much Higher Than ... ›