Interview with Michael Colby

This article is published in Orion Afield,Vol. 2 number 3, the Summer 1998 issue entitled: Taking Back the Farm
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Michael Colby is a leading national advocate for safe food and Executive Director of Food & Water, a Walden Vermont based nonprofit organization which publishes the Food & Water Journal and educates the public about the environmental and health impact of food technologies and threats to integrity of our food and water supply.  He and his farm manager partner, and their young daughter, live on Wild Madder Farm, which sells organic produce to two local farmers markets. 

1.  Food and Water has been an uncompromising voice against threats to food safety.  Tell us about these threats, and their causes. 
 The specific threats to food safety that Food and Water works on are food irradiation, toxic pesticides and food biotechnology. But you have to go beyond that to the causes of contamination, which is the industrialization of the food supply, and to the environmental threats that agribusiness and their technologies pose.  They donıt just bring you food irradiation and toxic pesticides, they bring with that a whole ideology, which is about centralization, about monopolization, about getting big or getting out of business. This has enormous ramifications for small farmers, rural communities, and to the culture as a whole in terms of how we relate to the land and our food supply. 

 Technologies like irradiation and pesticides come with false promises that they will solve problems. Food irradiation, for instance, is supposed to solve the problem of dirty industrialized food, and food biotechnology and pesticides are supposed to solve the problem of feeding the world.  But these technologies allow the causes of contamination to flourish.  There are line speeds which make meat processing one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, a lack of inspectors because corporations are allowed to police themselves, factory farms with crowded inhumane conditions, and growing monopolization, where now only four corporations control 90% of the red meat industry.  And then, at the end of the line, the proposed solution is to expose contaminated meat to the waste products of the nuclear industry, to irradiation which is the equivalent of tens of millions of chest X-Rays, and then they say the meat is safe to eat.  It isnıt.  The irradiation process does not kill off all of the pathogens, it reduces the nutritional value of the food and introduces a whole new host of chemicals, mutagens and carcinogens to people and to our environment.  So, our focus should not just be on the dangers of these technologies but also on the causes of contamination. 
 Industrializing the food supply has had devastating consequences, in terms of how we relate to the natural world.  Food is one of the last remaining connections that many people have to anything natural.  And we are severing that relationship, by running people off the land, by keeping people from producing food for themselves, by putting people out of their kitchens.  These technologies glorify consumption at the expense of celebrating production. 

2: What is Food & Waterıs approach to these problems? 
 Food and Waterıs approach is to try to bring balance to the movement.  There are so many organizations and individuals that are focused on legislative and regulatory battles, and those battles are necessary, but so much of the movementıs energy is devoted to going to government agencies and legislators.  Instead, we go at the puppeteers, the corporations who hold the strings of the puppets, who are the legislators, the President, and the regulatory bodies.  We go after the folks who have the power, directly, tenaciously, and in a way that empowers people. Food irradiation is still a huge battle but largely through the work of Food & Water, this technology is still not in the marketplace.  We built a huge grass roots activist movement and went after the fruit and vegetable and the pork and poultry industries with creative advertisements in their own trade publications, and with calls and letters to thousands of executives.  We held demonstrations and rallies in front of the corporate headquarters and in supermarkets. Your position has to be very uncompromising, you want them to not use food irradiation, period. And it worked! We kept irradiated foods out of the marketplace so far, by educating and activating the grassroots public to go after the targets that have the power. 

 The disengagement of the public is the number one enemy of Food &Water.  Its up to us, the leaders of social movements, to figure out how to get the public excited again about the political process. We are doing two things: we focus on short term implications, like carcinogens in food irradiation, and we focus on the big picture: how did we get food irradiation?  How did we get into the situation where so much of our lives is industrialized?  How did we get to the place where the people are so powerless?  We have to provide people with some hope, and also some art. Art plays a critical role, as does humor, in social change. 

3. Organic farming and food production started out 30 years ago as a "counter-culture" movement, but now it is a 4.5 billion dollar a year business, and it is being referred to as an "industry".  How do the proposed USDA national standards reflect the increasing industrialization of organic agriculture and how can we preserve the original values of the organic movement? 

 Food & Water has been opposed to the idea of  national organic standards from the beginning because what organic agriculture should be about is decentralized sustainable forms of producing food.  You can not have a national set of standards for something that prides itself on being about localized social and environmental conditions.  It is just impossible. Organic agriculture is booming, so it has caught the attention of multi-national food conglomerates.  What they want, in addition to unfettered growth in the organic sector, is regulatory cover - to produce organic food on a massive scale and for international trade.  Some people see the economic growth as positive, in that there are more foods produced with fewer pesticides, but that doesnıt address the industrial ills of our food supply. 

 We have to create the next food movement - a movement that goes beyond what chemicals you can or can not use, to how are we going to reconnect with the food supply locally ?  We have to disconnect ourselves from notions of bigger and faster and address the anonymity of consumption, not knowing or even caring where your food comes from.  We have to replace these concepts with celebrations of local production and consumption.  It is not about a federal bureaucracy stamping our food as safe but about "assurance by familiarity." The best agricultural relationship is direct contact between the producer and the consumer. If organic agriculture is going to be saved, its got to reconnect with its roots as a political and social movement.  The food co-operatives that began around the organic movement had the motto of "Food for People, Not for Profit."  It must be about how we treat animals, our relationship to the land, social justice issues, resource consumption and conservation. 

4. If the solution is a decentralized food system, what kind of changes do people need to make in our buying and eating habits? 

 We are not saying that everyone will have to move to the country and grow their own food. But people can shorten the distance between themselves and their food producers by belonging to a co-operative, getting to know the people that produce or supply your food, joining  a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) or shopping at Farmers Markets. Disengaging from the industrial food supply, personally, starts with our diet.  Ultimately we have to localize our diets to the greatest extent possible.  That will mean some sacrificing.  We are not talking about a simple phone call or letter, writing a check once a year to your favorite organization. When you go to your northern climate grocery store in the winter and pick up oranges and bananas, it means contributing to the use of fossil fuels and creating an industrialized, nationalized food supply.  But I know that when you have to tell a Vermonter that they are going to have to eat parsnips and carrots all winter, you better duck and cover!  It doesnıt get much more northern than where we are, and we are able to substantially feed ourselves on the food that we raise and grow. 

 We have farmers who have a need to farm, safely, for their own health, the health of their land, and to make a living on farming and we also have people who need healthy nutritious food.  We need to be linking these two as intimately as possible, particularly when we are in the middle of a cancer epidemic.  One in 2.5 people in this country, according to the American Cancer Society, will get cancer in their lifetime. The United States spends, per capita, the least amount on food but we pay the most of all the industrialized nations in the world in terms of our health care costs but  we pretend that these two phenomena are not linked.  Food & Water is about trying to get people in their own hearts and minds to realize that these connections exist. Everyone deserves access to healthy foods that prevent disease rather than foods that are laden with poisons or could cause disease.  This creation of two food systems, ones that are supposedly are safe and expensive and one that is largely toxic and cheap, is one of the primary challenges that face food safety and agricultural activists. The ultimate goal has got to be one, safe and sustainable food supply, ocally produced, that is available to everyone and rooted in social and cultural values. 

5: You took some time off last fall to focus on your farming and to reflect on your work at Food & Water, something that activists do not do nearly enough.  What did you discover? 

 I found out that the issues never go away and I can probably never get away from the issues.  Also how long it takes to build a tractor shed! 

 I learned that activist leaders have to be careful about our campaigns.  We have to make sure that we are not promoting false promises just like food corporations are promoting false simplicity. We have to be careful that we donıt put out one urgent actual alert after another that just adds to the quickening pace of life and this obsession with gathering more and more information and the thought that these problems can be dealt with quick and simply.  We have to go deeper than that and we have to make sure that we donıt become surrogates for the public in terms of the their own involvement in their community, food safety or environmental issues. 

  We have to try to resist this addiction to a lot of the busy work that happens in our lives now with the advent of the fax machine and e-mail. We are always looking for the next piece of paper, the next horror story, the next person that can articulate the problems beautifully.  Unfortunately we are not taking the time necessary to step back, take a breath, think about the bigger picture and think strategically.  How are we going to articulate the information we get in a way that sets the public on fire, that gets them interested, energized and gets the ball rolling towards real change?  I think that is what we try to do at Food & Water.  And for me, living on a farm, living off the grid with a solar house in the middle of the woods, that slows me down.  It helps to disengage from the energy sapping pace of normal life, and take time to think and rest. 

©Claire Cummings 1998.  Claire is an environmental lawyer, activist and writer, a former organic farmer, and food and farming editor for KPFA Radio in Berkeley, California