Insights by Goldie: Knowledge is power: We hold the key to sustainable food

by Goldie Caughlan

This article was originally published in July 2009

The Cornucopia Institute recently released a new report: Behind the Bean: The heroes and charlatans of the natural and organic soy foods industry.

It aims to address the “social, environmental and health impacts of soy,” and to “lift the veil on the widespread importation of soybeans from China and the processing of soy foods labeled as ‘natural’ with toxic chemicals.” The report includes an organic soy scorecard, which ranks the sustainability of many companies that produce everything from soy milk to tofu.

You may recognize Cornucopia, a small nonprofit research organization headquartered in the heartland in Cornucopia, Wisc., from some of its other reports.

In 2006 the organization released two reports. One criticized Wal-Mart’s approach to selling organic foods. Another contrasted the strikingly different farming practices and challenges of America’s family-scale organic dairies with those of huge, confined, factory-style “organic” dairies.

Like the soy report, it included an “organic dairy scorecard” to help consumers choose sustainable brands.

Then, in early 2008, an intensely troubling report from Cornucopia documented examples of aggressive, seemingly false marketing statements made by some producers of organic infant formulas.

It raised serious questions regarding the use of dangerous processing chemicals, including petroleum-based hexane, to isolate soy proteins — common ingredients in vegetarian meat replacers. Hexane is forbidden in ingredients in organic food, yet some products tested (including organic) revealed traces of hexane.

Later in 2008, Cornucopia brought legal action seeking reversal of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) requirement that U.S.-grown almonds be “pasteurized” chemically or by steam, a rule financially impacting many small-scale and organic almond growers, and strongly resisted by advocates of raw food diets. The case is still in litigation and unresolved.

Cornucopia’s research continues and updates and new information are added continually to its Web site, You can read online, or print for free, all reports, including the soy scorecard.

It’s hard to see any reason not to support Cornucopia’s mission and goal of seeking economic justice for family-scale farmers. They state: “Through research, advocacy, and economic development, our goal is to empower farmers — partnered with consumers — in support of ecologically produced local, organic and authentic food.”

In full disclosure, my comments and perspectives about Cornucopia or its work cannot be totally free of bias. I’m a member of their board of trustees because I agree with the stated mission and goals. I admire its spunky, intelligent, thorough, and, in my opinion, fair and thoughtful assessments.

I certainly don’t fault them for pushing the regulatory system, challenging agribusiness practices, speaking truth to power, and advocating strongly for fair, ethical, safe food.

PCC considers the research of the Cornucopia Institute as well as other nonprofit groups. It helps us see that the whole is definitely greater than any of the parts as we evaluate the complex issues and challenges that underlie our commitment to providing the highest quality and safest foods available. We recognize the inseparable linkages between healthy foods, healthy communities and a sustainable food system.

Reports from Cornucopia and others aren’t always altogether “digestible,” but such work is essential in assuring all stakeholders of “transparency” and integrity in the food chain. Tough questions are asked and answers are critical.

Understandably, reports often get strong corporate push-back. Yet we’re all in this transition period together — and good, positive changes are happening.

Meanwhile, you can rely on PCC to continue providing high quality, healthful, safe and secure foods, based on a long history of strong, trusting relationships with providers — the best farmers, ranchers and food product companies available.

As consumers, we’re the key to affecting and assuring real change — in fact, we’re “the consumers — partnered with farmers” stated in Cornucopia’s mission. So, let’s own that power, by reading and discussing this latest report and others.

It’s important to contact and thank favorite companies, and/or urge them to source more sustainable, organic ingredients from family-scale, domestic farmers. Support especially those who’ve demonstrated that commitment already!

Our purchasing decisions directly help influence the manufacturer’s decision to secure organic products for the future. We can drive the conversion of many thousands of acres of cropland in this country away from genetic engineering by planting USDA-certified organic soy and other organic crops.

Time is crucial and stakes are high. Together we can achieve robust, healthy farming communities with thriving local economies all across this continent. It’s the only reliable road to real food security!

Also in this issue

Bicycles for Education

This month PCC’s community relations department is sponsoring another Bicycles for Education drive. Our goal is to collect 900 bicycles and to help recruit 100 volunteers to prepare the bikes for shipment.

PCC vendors and shoppers support the PCC Farmland Trust

PCC Natural Markets founded the PCC Farmland Trust in 1999 as a way to preserve threatened farmland in Washington and move it into organic production. While the Farmland Trust is an independent, community supported nonprofit organization, over the past decade, PCC Natural Markets — and its vendors and shoppers — have supported the trust in many important ways, allowing both the trust and the co-op to flourish as a result of the partnership.

Letters to the editor, July 2009

Corn sensitivity, Genetically modified foods, Deli packaging, and more