Home ยป 2019 Symposium | Dave Mortensen

I am going to do something that I every once in a while do, which is to completely deviate from what I’ve prepared.

The speakers that I’ve been hearing today, this has been profound for me.

I work at a university and it’s easy to get lost in the hubbub of just being on a campus, just all the hubbub stuff. And so sometimes I actually feel quite guilty of not having gotten more involved than I have to date in this activity, Real Organic.

Dave Mortensen – National Organic Standards Board

I joined the National Organic Standards Board a couple of years ago and I can tell you one thing I did not know, was what I was getting myself into. And I was so thankful for Francis and Emily and Harriet welcoming me into the fold so I could kind of understand where I might fit into this.

Some people have called me ‘a numbers guy’ which is funny because I’m not a particularly strong mathematician. But I remember, and not to get too personal here, but a close friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer and the surgeon said “We’re gonna do this, that, and the other thing” and we said “Could we see the data, can we see the pictures so that we can make an informed decision?”

And it is kind of the way my mind works, whether it’s genetically modified crops – where I spent 10 years, really about ten years on a somewhat failed effort to prevent herbicide-resistant crops – and then now, with this so-called ‘new generation’ of 2,4-D and Dicamba crops from being deregulated.

All the while that I was working on that – it was the farmers that were supporting the effort – myself and the folks in my lab where we collected the data – I was always struck by how quick we were to make a decision with so little insight.

I went to the MOSES conference last year and it broke my heart, I’ll tell you, to hear two sessions that weren’t even in the program on Dicamba drift problems on crops. This is an herbicide that corn and soybeans were deregulated and genetically modified for, so the herbicide could be applied on them.

The Real Stakeholders in Organic Agriculture

That was my ten-year project, but I didn’t do so well convincing EPA and USDA not to deregulate. So I honestly was naive when I went off to attend this hydroponics vote for the year. Leading up to it, I was thinking “Well, gosh this is the organic community and they’re going to look out for one another, and it’s not like it’s the GMO thing where I felt like I was fighting against Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences.”

And they were trying to convince USDA and EPA to please make the right decision, we should not do this. And then they (USDA, EPA) would say “Well, you got to think about the stakeholders Dave, that’s where you’re missing the boat. We read your stuff Dave, but you don’t understand that we need to hear from the stakeholders and we’re hearing from them.”

Data, Stakeholders, and NOSB Sub-committees

So Linley and Dave, gave me four questions, including:

“Why do we make decisions that don’t seem to make sense to us?”

And I would say that one of the reasons why we make bad decisions – NOSB, EPA, USDA, APHIS, Animal Plant Health Inspection Service – is that this “stakeholder” thing is nonsense.

That’s one of the reasons why. Because we can just handpick our “stakeholder group”.

Like a group of farmers that will come into a presentation of EPA where the farm, on the bottom right hand corner of every one of their slides, has the Monsanto logo. And they’ll step through their no-till farming practice, right next to Francis’s place on how badly we need to have this legislation go through.

The ‘numbers guy’ would ask, “Where’s the data?”

Let’s look at the data we have, for goodness sakes.

You increase the area treated, the amount of stuff that we put on the land, and the probability of seeing it in our water – groundwater, surface water, our neighbors’ fields – increases by a predictable function. We know that.

We have that data and yet we deregulate and make bad decisions.

Why?

Because we’re talking to the wrong stakeholder group.

This is a powerful stakeholder group here. I am deeply moved by what you presented. And Francis and Cameron’s pictures of those aerial images, my goodness, the data are there.

Okay, so we have a problem with stakeholders. And here’s another problem that we have (I think my NOSB colleagues agree though I should not assume that or presume that):

To get really specific, the subcommittees on the NOSB work on things. And that certainly was the case with hydroponics, that the subcommittee was pretty much on the same page. But the subcommittee is only a fraction of the NOSB; the whole group is 15.

The subcommittee – I don’t remember the number – five or six of us. I was, I will tell you, I was surprised by several people’s votes there, that were not from the subcommittee. And all of the team that’s here from the NOSB knows, and I think they all agree, I believe we need way more time in conversation and debate to perfrom our duties as a National Organic Standards Board.

We came to that meeting debating amongst ourselves.

But to sit there in that room for 3 days and then come together at the end for a vote, where you have 3 minutes to say what you think?

It’s an insult to me and to all the rest of the board members. That is not good pedagogy. That does not lead to good decision-making.

We need to create space for conversation.

A Picture of Carbon Sequestration vs. Hydroponics

I had prepared most of this to be about climate change and diversity; we heard it all.

How are we going to sequester carbon or mitigate the effects of plastic reflecting and trapping heat in the air?

We’re not saving carbon. And these hydroponic things? I spent so much time with the students looking at these images and what did we see in hydroponic operations?

We saw lighting, the cost of lighting, compressors, synthetic lubricants, polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride, lexan, tygon tubing, duct tape. That’s what I see in the pictures, you’ve shown them.

Chlorinated hydrocarbons.

This is the same as 2,4-D and Dicamba. This is unacceptable and my goodness, to call it “organic”?

It looked like a paved over roadway through the plastic there.

How is Academia Doing Supporting the Real Organic Project?

“How is academia doing supporting the Real Organic movement?” was this third question and I’ll tell you and I have strong feelings about this.

We could argue about it, or some of my university friends would argue with me about it; University folks are really uncomfortable advocating for anything.

I am serious about that. We write papers about advocacy and neutral arbiters and most of my colleagues are very comfortable being a neutral arbiter.

You, let me look at those plastics, and look at the light transmission quality, and let me look over here – I’ve got some plants growing and we can measure that – and I’m exaggerating, but when they come down and say “Man, we got a problem with that plastic system” you will not hear a lot of University folks go out and make that claim.

Not advocating.

Yes it’s what Onika is saying about being passive and being quiet and being like okay. This is a real problem.

I just moved to the University of New Hampshire. Durham, New Hampshire, where I took the role of chair of the newly formed Agriculture, Nutrition and Food Systems program and it’s a progressive thing and I’m very excited about it.

And by the way, I’m looking for some young folks to join me. We’ve got funding for this kind of stuff that I’m – I haven’t even told you the kind of stuff we do, I’m just telling you about NOSB stuff here – but we’re looking for some people. So if you know some people that would like to work on policy or Real Organic, Linley and I were speaking at lunch about how it would be interesting to study farms as a network of farms. A participatory network that contributes data about the quality of their farmsteads.

So enough on the university thing. We can do better and we have. The younger faculty are doing much better than the older faculty; they’re much more willing to engage and that’s really encouraging.

Is the USDA Going in the Right Direction?

As to “Is the USDA going in the right direction and if not what can we do?” personally, I think that the direction that I see this group going in, towards a supplemental label, to me this makes a great deal of sense and I totally support that idea.

As a shopper, I have two sisters that are shoppers, and when they hear me telling them what is going on with hydroponics and they buy organic? They are shoppers that do care actually about not just about the price, and my kids care and not just about the price, and their friends care and not just about the price. So I think it does matter for folks to know what’s going on with this.

And I’m personally also really annoyed with getting vegetables that don’t have any taste.

I am a bagel eater in the morning. A bagel with egg and tomato – and it freaks me out to no end to get a white tomato on my bagel, which is becoming more and more common. A light pink tomato with a white center that doesn’t have any taste.

When Onika was born in 1973 in New York City, I was a junior in high school in New York City. I taught in Spanish Harlem for a while, before going back to graduate school, I taught 5th grade children.

I can’t agree more with Onika that we have to bring the food system and our people together. Together, we have to be touching food and cultivating soil and understanding the difference between something that has co-evolved in the soil to grow in the soil.

I see hope.