An Interview with Chuck Benbrook
Where did you first hear about organic agriculture?
I first became interested in organic agriculture in the early 1980s, when I shared a cramped office in the Longworth House Office Building with the Congressional staff working on organic farming legislation. Frequent visitors included Bob Rodale and Garth Youngberg, two of the most influential voices in organic in those days. I had no choice but to listen in on many conversations covering the attributes and challenges of organic farming. Then we started trying some of the methods out on the farm, and the rest is history.
You have held a number of influential positions in Washington, D.C., such as working for the Executive Office of the President, being the Staff Director for a U.S. House of Representatives agricultural subcommittee, and acting as the Executive Director of the National Academy of Sciences Board on Agriculture. What are some highlights from your time in D.C., and in what respect do you think you had the most impact?
My contributions to the Conservation Title in the 1985 Farm Bill have to be near the top of this list. I played an important role, along with a half-dozen others, in crafting the Conservation Reserve Program and associated policies adopted in that historic bill. I remember fondly the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) signing ceremony at the White House in August 1996. The FQPA implemented the major pesticide dietary risk recommendations presented in a seminal NAS report done during my tour of duty at NAS. The public release in 1989 of the NAS Alternative Agriculture report was an incredible experience. There was a major press conference at the NAS building with about 10 cameras. We then rushed to the Senate for a hearing on the report and another set of cameras, quick lunch, and then to the House side for another hearing. Virtually every paper in the country covered the report. The New York Times ran a long story on the report on the front page above the fold—only the second time that this happened in the history of NAS. And the best part was that all the coverage was accurate and positive, and in keeping with the measured tone of the report.
What was the climate surrounding organic agriculture during your tenure in D.C., and how do you think it has changed?
Until passage of the Organic Food Production Act (OFPA) in 1990, the general attitude in “official” ag circles was somewhere between disinterested and dismissive. Things have changed a bit, but not necessarily for the better. Today, various activist groups have latched onto organic farming and the organic food industry as the only viable option to a conventional food system that they see as broken in one way or another. As a result, organic farming is pushed to the front of the class, and is expected to have all the answers. While organic farming offers a softer, more biologically based approach to farming, in the political arena it now often feels just a notch away from full contact karate. Among many players, feelings have moved beyond passionate and are now visceral, and this has created a climate where the “middle ground” is pretty barren.
What are some research highlights from your time as the Chief Scientist for The Organic Center?
In our second State of the Science Review that came out in 2005, there is a table showing the total antioxidant capacity per serving and per 100 calories across about 100 foods. I had never seen such a table, and many people picked up on it because it drove home the message that people can get all or most of their essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants with no more than 15 percent to 20 percent of their daily caloric allotment. In a 2007 report, I was pleased to be able to draw on my pesticide risk assessment experience in estimating that a predominantly organic diet would reduce pesticide dietary risk by around 97 percent. But the most provocative and original report done during my tenure at The Center was Transforming Jane Doe’s Diet, released in September 2011. For reasons I cannot explain, this report was largely ignored. It had more original analytical content than any report from The Center done to date, and the findings were really, really interesting. I hope the day comes when people take a fresh look at it. By the way, a major goal of my new program of research at Washington State University is to place on the Internet the underlying nutritional quality and pesticide risk models used in Transforming Jane Doe’s Diet. We want to give people a chance to experiment with ways to make their diets more nutritious and safer, and we believe there is a growing number of consumers who will take advantage of such a system.
Tell us a little about your current position at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University.
I am running a research program called “Measure to Manage: Farm and Food Diagnostics for Sustainability and Health.” We are putting onto the Internet tools to evaluate the impacts of farming systems and technology, and policy, on food nutritional quality and food safety. Our work will support future efforts to measure progress to, or away from, stated sustainability and health goals. I am a firm believer in the saying “What gets measured gets managed.” The M2M program strives to make sure that the metrics we use to monitor the performance of agricultural systems are firmly rooted in sound science and outcomes that people really care about.
What do you think is in store for the future of the science behind organic food and farming?
Things will begin improving when and as people realize that science is showing with increasing clarity that huge differences exist in the impacts and outcomes of different farming systems and technology. Some systems excel in attaining one set of goals, but leave collateral damage in their wake. Take the labor-environment-pesticide nexus. Conventional systems deliver ample and affordable food and reduce the labor (jobs) needed in farming, goals that have been generally embraced since the 1950s. But conventional farming often also increases agriculture’s environmental footprint and contributes to a host of public health problems. Today, people are rethinking whether it is always a good idea to eliminate jobs in America, and it is clear that most of the food needs of the United States could be met by a wide diversity of systems, including organic farming. Also, public commitment to agricultural resource enhancement and safe, nutritious food is rising. At some point, policy change will follow evolving public attitudes and values about what is both possible and really important to attain.
I am worried about future public funding and the adversarial environment we now work within. While growing and strong in many ways, the organic farming community and the organic food industry are not yet able to significantly move public policy. The divisiveness that plagues Congress today seems to reflect and permeate the dysfunction in many other areas. And, what a shame! We all have to eat, and everyone cares about soil, water quality, and the economic viability of farmers. What we lack is sincere openness to many forms of agriculture and food culture, each with intrinsic strengths and weaknesses, each with a chance to compete on the land and along the food chain. The huge problem for policy-makers and organizations like The Center is that the notion of a level playing field in the food industry is long gone. Inventing the best technology, being the most diligent farmer, and serving the tastiest and most nutritious food are just not enough to assure survival in today’s marketplace.