We were so pleased to chat with Andrew Kimbrell, founder and executive director of the Center for Food Safety, a Washington D.C.-based group that works tirelessly to protect our right to safe food and our right to know what’s in our food. Over the last few years, CFS has specifically been advocating for strict regulations on GMOs.
In this Rootstock Radio conversation, Kimbrell and guest host Missy Hughes talk about a wide range of topics, from GMOs, biotechnolology and “technocracies,” to fly fishing in the Catskills and what he’s learned as a musician. Enjoy.
We spoke to Andrew Kimbrell again in October 2015. Listen to the two-part conversation here.
Transcript: Rootstock Radio Interview with Andrew Kimbrell
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, listeners. My friend Missy Hughes recently had the opportunity to sit down with Andrew Kimbrell. For those of you who don’t know Andrew, he is the founder and executive director of the Center for Food Safety. The Center for Food Safety is a Washington, DC–based group who have worked tirelessly for strict regulations for biotechnology. Besides being a gifted musician, a fisherman, and a very talented lawyer, Andrew is a gifted speaker. It is really an honor to listen in today on this thought-provoking interview of Andrew Kimbrell with Missy Hughes.
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ANDREW KIMBRELL: Many, many years ago, in my twenties, my brother Alan came back from South America and decided that we should fish. Our family was not an outdoor family—we were very urban, very intellectual. And so I began to fish with him, and I actually though it was okay. But we were fishing with worms, which was not sort of my style. And I said, “You know, Alan,” my brother [unclear] say, “I’ve heard of this thing called fly fishing, and it looks really cool. So we should try that.” So we bought one rod between us and we started fly fishing.
And this was outside of New York City, in the beautiful Catskill area, the Beaverkill and the Willowemoc, legendary rivers for fishermen. And we fell in love with it. I just totally fell in love with the rivers, with the mountains, and the whole art of fly fishing.
And within about four years of that, they were going to build a huge apartment complex above the most beautiful pool in this river. And we started a lawsuit against it. And I was at that point making my living in music, and so I was pretty much just bringing the coffee to the lawyers as they strategized fighting this big corporation and stopping it from all that effluent coming into this sacred—for us at that point—it was a sacred river, really. And they won.
And at that point I said, you know, music is my profession, and this politics, this legal stuff is just sort of a hobby now that I’ve been getting into. I want to switch—I want to do what they did. I want to protect rivers. I want to spend my life with music as a hobby and make my life protecting rivers, make my life protecting these ecosystems that are so incredibly important to me. And so I actually went to law school, to NYU Law School, in order to defend rivers. I mean, that was my first thing, is to work in environmental law and particularly working for American rivers and doing that work.
I am convinced that you do not defend that which you do not love. I think just sending a check over to the Sierra Club or sending something to Farm Aid, I don’t think that’s sufficient. And I think one of the beautiful things about fishing is that it takes you into places and, as a fly fisherman who ties flies, brings you into the insect life, both from the nymphal stage all the way to the imago stage, all the way—the life cycle. And you’re in the river—you’re experiencing it, you’re experiencing its cycles. And you fall in love. And I think that’s why you see Trout Unlimited working with a lot of the farm groups, because you will defend that which you love. And fishing is one magnificent way, particularly fly fishing, to get you to fall in love with a huge part of this natural world, and a very beautiful part of the natural world. And once you do that, you’ll defend it, oh yeah, as they did in the Beaverkill so many years ago.
MISSY HUGHES: So you moved from rivers to food. Can you talk a little bit about the transition there and how that happened?
ANDREW KIMBRELL: Yeah. You know, I became… One of the things I learned as a musician is—and it’s hard for people to really know this who have not played an instrument at a high level—but for instance, playing the piano, you know, people see the little fingers moving on the piano: “Oh, look at all those notes he’s playing! He’s playing pretty fast.” So what people don’t realize is that you choose those fingers very, very carefully when you’re a good pianist, because the fingering itself, whether you make it harder or easier for yourself, creates the emotion. So there’s no motion—it’s like a dance: there’s no choreography, there’s no motion, without an emotion. It’s not just something that’s just covering the top and just that you can play any fingers you want and you will emote on top of it. The actual fingering you use to play a piece, whether it’s expressing sadness or agony or joy or laughter, you want fingering that fits that, that will show that. I had great teachers that taught me that in music.
And then when I compared that, when I looked at society, I see, you know, what’s really controlling our society is the technologies that we use. Much of everything else is just the icing on top of that cake, right? I mean, if you have filled your society with technologies, whether they be nuclear—let’s just take nuclear, take nuclear technology for example. Regardless of whether it’s owned by a socialist, you know, communist country where everyone owns part of it, or if it’s owned by the Bolshevik Ballet or the New York Mets or by three people or by a very rich corporation, the technology will determine a huge amount about your society.
What is needed for that technology, for example, is centralized control, right? You have centralized control of energy; you have massive need for water; it’s the largest capital accumulation that we still need for any technology on earth; you need a military elite, because it’s dangerous; you need a scientific elite, both to build it and one to monitor it, right? And so if you want a society that has military elite, a scientific elite, a regulatory elite, that can do massive accumulations of capital and massive exhaustion of resources, including uranium and water, that’s your technology. That will create your society.
Technology is legislation, whether it be the automobile, whether it be the nuclear power plant, whether it be genetically engineered crops. They will govern how your society works. And just like there is no technology without a legislative reality to it, it isn’t neutral. That’s the biggest myth, just like fingering is neutral. No, it’s not. The fingering you use will determine your interpretation of the piece. Technology is never neutral. It will determine, ultimately, whether you live in a more totalitarian society or whether you live in a more free society.
MISSY HUGHES: Because of the resources that you’re investing in it and how much that carries through…?
ANDREW KIMBRELL: And the technocracies that you need to control it. Never separate a technology from the various technocracies that are used to control it. A corporation is one such technocracy, but so is a government bureaucracy.
MISSY HUGHES: Because they won’t give that up easily.
ANDREW KIMBRELL: And they’re needed, because how are you going to run the whole transportation system? How are you going to run a whole industrial food system? How are you going to run an oil or nuclear system for energy? You’re going to have those technocracies in place. You know, we use corporations, China uses government bureaucracies. But the environment doesn’t know the difference.
And also the manner of centralized control and the lack of individual control over their actual life—where their energy comes from, where their food comes from, what they’re being taught, what wars they go into, what their money’s being…those are all controlled by these technocracies. And I became very involved in that and, as an attorney, decided I was going to concentrate on trying to promote the most humane, democratic technologies possible in our fundamental needs, and oppose those technologies which I saw as totalitarian and also immensely destructive of nature.
MISSY HUGHES: So this exploration of technocracies brought you to, I think, a center part of your work now on food safety and what’s happening with the food system.
ANDREW KIMBRELL: Well, the first thing it brought me into was a tremendous commitment to work for organic, because the thing that a lot of people don’t know or think about organic is that it represents a completely different paradigm. Organic is basically saying no to the three great technologies of the last 150 years: the nuclear technology, chemical technology, and biological technology, genetic engineering. And it’s not only just saying no to those. It is saying that there’s another way, that progress does not equal those totalitarian technologies; that working with nature, working in participation with nature and not trying to dominate it through these technologies is the future.
And not only that, it has convinced huge numbers of young people, almost everyone I meet, that that’s true. Almost no one says, “Oh, organic—that’s old-fashioned,” or “Organic—that’s not a reality as far as today is concerned.” People say, wow, it’s the fastest-growing sector in American agriculture. We have studies now that show medium-sized organic can feed the world. I mean it’s an exciting—it’s not only a paradigm change, saying no to these technologies and saying progress is in a totally different path. It also creates its own excitement and its own energy. And that’s why I think we underestimate the enormous impact of organic—not just because of what it’s done to our food supply but the entrée (forgive the pun) to a whole new way of thinking.
MISSY HUGHES: So one of the things that I often hear in the work that I do is that organic is Luddite and anti-technology. So it’s interesting that…I would almost think that you would agree with that—at least that it’s anti-technology, not that it’s Luddite.
ANDREW KIMBRELL: You know, Rachel Carson has this wonderful thing in Silent Spring, which says, you know, think about a wetland. And now think of a tractor and all the machinery that goes in there, takes out the wetland, and builds a high-rise. That’s a lot of technology. I mean, because you’re talking about a combustion engine, you’re talking about all the various engineering feats of getting it done and filling in the land.
Then she says, now think about going to that wetland, learning about all the relationships that are in that wetland, and then devising a way for humans to live integrated into that living system. Those are different technologies. It’s a different way of using science. You’re still using science, you’re still using our capacity for knowledge, but in a completely different way—not to dominate, but to participate and integrate. Not to be out of relationship through control but to be in relationship in participation. But it takes a lot of thinking.
And you know, we talk about landraces, but there are also farmer races. You know, seeds are often called landraces, development of seeds, but the farmers are the ones that are there, so they should also be called farmer races. And that knowledge, that knowledge of an ecosystem, that knowledge of an eco-niche where you are a farmer, where you are working, is science. That’s its own kind of science, and often better science than the stuff that’s being done in labs.
MISSY HUGHES: So why is it that our scientists today are much more attracted to the technology aspect of things, or the silver bullet, when Mother Nature provides the ultimate study of science and the ultimate answers for things? Why do we find ourselves in this place where mankind is much more interested in the things that they themselves create rather than what’s been created around them?
ANDREW KIMBRELL: That’s a great question. You can go into the religious answers to this, which many have given, that particularly Christianity, with its emphasis on the other world, the next world. We have invented a secular Christianity without knowing it, and we have a religious-like devotion to it. And it’s really simple: it’s progress. It’s really the religion of progress, the idea that we are on a linear progress towards a heaven on earth, created, you know, that we are going to create. So it’s concretizing heaven and saying we’re going to have it right here. We’re going to live forever through nanotechnology, biotechnology.
But what really is Science, then, with a capital S, becomes God. We will eventually know everything through R&D, and we’ll know why you fall in love, we will know why one of your kids is more high-strung than the next, we will know why all animals do…we will understand everything. It’s just a matter of time. So Science will let us know everything; it’ll be omniscient.
But that’s still a little bit removed. So Science incarnates into the Son—Father, the Son—which is technology, the miracle worker. And that’s what we really like. I mean, that’s [unclear—that’ll give us?] the antibiotics, cures from diseases, we fly. I mean, Christ walked on water, but we have jet skis! And that’s much more impressive, to be honest. This technology becomes the Son, the everyday miracles around us. Television: I can click here, I can click there—oh my goodness, it’s amazing, I can get Skype around the world and talk to people. I mean, it’s a miracle.
But if you get bored with that, there is the Holy Spirit. Remember that Christ brought the Holy Spirit to remind everybody and to get their enthusiasm and spirit up. Well, what gets our enthusiasm and spirit up? The market, right? The malls. I mean, if you want to go to see excitement, don’t go to a church—go to a mall. I mean, the excitement of buying—the smell of a new car, that new computer. I went from my Blackberry to an iPhone, now watch me do this, watch me do this!
So the new religion of progress is actually an unconscious re-creation of Christianity. Science will let us know everything, technology will let us do everything, and the market will let us buy everything. It’s the new trinity. And each has its rules: the scientific method, efficiency for technology, and supply and demand for the market. They have their theology. And if you’re a heretic to any of those three, by the way, you’re called a Luddite, or if you’re against the market, some kind of a communist, or if you’re against science—their kind of science, the capital-s Science. So they’ve created a whole mood where this is the future and you have to go to nano and buy technology and nuclear [unclear], because that’s the way this particular myth of progress works.
And like every religion has a trinity, there’s usually a fourth that’s the evil one. And we have the devil—watch out! So who is the fourth in this religion of progress? We know the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit of science, technology, and the market. But who is the fourth? What’s the evil thing?
MISSY HUGHES: Mother Nature.
ANDREW KIMBRELL: Mother Nature, exactly. The limits of nature, which, hey, I have to take Advil[?] to be able to actually walk correctly in the morning and not resemble my grandfather. You know, I mean, we know that we get older, we know there’s difficulties, we know there’s illnesses, we know that Mother Nature is often very cruel. So in some sense it’s understandable. But nevertheless, the limits of nature are viewed as evil. And this whole enterprise is to try and break that, to break nature and to create our own heaven on earth.
And that is an unconscious, but not altogether unconscious, drive and strive of western man for about 400 years, where progress was measured by how much we were able to control, manipulate, and overcome nature. And I think that project is diminishing now, but it’s still a huge part of western, especially western consciousness. And now much more the consciousness around the world as that western consciousness spreads itself through the media.
MISSY HUGHES: And now we’re seeing the implications of that 400 years’ worth of strong work that we’ve done, in the form of climate change and environmental destruction and things like that.
ANDREW KIMBRELL: Yeah, it looks like the evil one’s going to win! Nature wins at the end, you know—nature bats last.
And I think, though, it’s another thing to realize how cold this particular trinity is. Science is all about the scientific method. I mean, if I were to say to you, tell me more about your daughter, and you’d say, “Well, she’s five-foot-six, or five-foot-seven, and she weighs 120 pounds, and she’s 98 percent water…” I mean, that’s all interesting data—she’s 98.6, her temperature right now, and her blood pressure is 120/80, whatever. That’s all interesting vital statistics, they’re called, and that’s perfectly fine. It doesn’t tell me really anything about your daughter though. It’s fun, it’s nice to know, but really, when I mean tell me about your daughter, I want you to tell me about your daughter—what are her interests, what she’s like, her psychology, her spirituality, what you’re feeling about her, you know.
Our science for 400 years has taken that out. You’ve got a science that only is interested in number and mass, and if it cannot be coordinated in a number, we’re not interested. That’s considered your opinion or your value judgment. It’s not considered science.
And technology is based in efficiency, right? What is efficiency? Minimum input for maximum output in minimum time. Do we treat anybody we care about that way? Do you treat your children that way? Minimum input of affection and money for maximum output?
MISSY HUGHES: Sometimes I treat my dogs that way!
ANDREW KIMBRELL: I treat my dog in the exact reverse way. I lavish affection on my dog, who does no work whatsoever and pees on the rug and eats the baseball glove. I mean, it’s the most inefficient relationship known to man.
And the market, supply and demand—people say, “Well, we have to have unemployment. We have to… Oh, that third-world country is going to have to [unclear] because they lost in the market competitive nature.” So these new gods of this kind of science, technology and the market, with all the benefits they have provided, they’re also very cold, and they’re also totally alienated from participation in relationship with the rest of the natural world.
And as you point out, we are now really beginning to see the consequences of that—I don’t mean this in the medical sense—that autism towards the world: being completely ensconced in this belief that we’re somehow going to get through in this pseudo-religious belief.
And if you oppose biotechnology or nanotechnology or the market or this view of science, as I was saying, you are viewed as a heretic and treated very much like the church used to treat heretics 500 years ago. They don’t know where to put you, and they don’t know what you’re about, and there’s a lot of mistrust if you go against that. You can say, “You know what, the free market isn’t working right, because corporations are controlling it.” Okay, you kind of get by on that God. Or, you know, “Technology has to be more democratic,” and they say, all right. But if you actually begin to question the entire enterprise as a pseudo-religious fantasy, yeah, then you can run into some trouble.
MISSY HUGHES: One of the things I struggle with is the concept that every religion has an Armageddon. Sometimes I think the climate change conversation is the modern Armageddon: if we don’t do this, the world is going to end.
ANDREW KIMBRELL: Yeah, I think…I think we have to remember—and again, it’s sort of hidden in a lot of the unconscious of our society. But I certainly was ten years old during the Cuban Missile Crisis. And so we do know that we have the technology to destroy much of what we know of the world—nuclear weapons, for example, that are still around; much less threat, thank God, but still around. So I think there is this imagination of catastrophe about. And there’s nothing wrong with it—up to a point.
But I think you can go in the reverse direction with a scientism that says, you know, “We can safely predict that we will now look like Venus in 200 years.” We don’t understand how…you know, Gaia—and by Gaia I’m using the Lovelock phrase meaning the relationships of everything to everything else, the dynamic reality that is our reality. Nature isn’t a person—nature is a transcalculable number of animate and inanimate things working together in this [unclear]. We don’t know the carrying capacity of how that can cure itself, how it can heal itself.
I’ll give you an example, a very humble example. There’s a small weed that you see, arabidopsis—you can see how it comes up in concrete sometimes in cities and stuff—and it reproduces very quickly, so the genetic engineers like to use it. And so this one team—actually it wasn’t engineering, they were hybridizing it through seven different mutations. On the eighth mutation it returned back to its original form, and they had no explanation for that. How could that possibly be? And they tried it again: on the eight time it returned back to its original form. And they went to other researchers, and they said, “We must be doing a mistake here, we must… There’s something wrong here, because there’s no biological principle that we know that could return something back to its original form.” They tried it—the same thing happened. Published research. And no one has an explanation for it to this day.
So I think there’s tremendous mystery and a capacity for heaing that is in this world. And despite the enormous injuries that we have inflicted on it, I think we should be careful in assuming that there is not capacity within these Gaia relationships of compensating and working things out in a way that we do not yet understand. So while I’m not optimistic—that would be foolish—I am very hopeful that if we can stop things now, that there is going to be a self-healing capacity in these Gaia relationships.
Years ago I lost a case on bovine growth hormone. This is this terrible genetically engineered hormone that Monsanto had sold and farmers were injecting, usually into the cows that weren’t producing much milk, and basically burning them out—massive increase in mastitis in these animals and every other illness you can possibly think of. And I lost the case in Wisconsin—I lost it right here in this state that we’re talking in. And I was brutally upset. And I called my brother, my brother Mark, and I said, “Mark, I fought for two and a half years on this case, and I don’t know what’s going to happen. Maybe it’ll be approved in Canada, or [unclear].” I mean, I just feel terrible because I worked on a dairy farm, as he did, in our teenage years. And I just know the impact this is going to have on cows, and I just…
And he said, “Andy, it sounded like you really wanted to win this one.” And I said, “I really do.” He said, “You really wanted to be successful in this, didn’t you?” I said, “Yeah!” He said, “No, you’re not required to be successful. You’re required to be faithful, right? You’re not required to be successful.”
I don’t know whether we’re going to stop global warming. I don’t know if we’re going to stop GMOs—I think we will. We’ve certainly done great in the last few years, stopping wheat and rice and biopharmaceuticals and bentgrass and potatoes—those have been stopped. It’s nice to be successful, but I’m not required. We’re not, none of us are required to be successful in what we do. You’re required to be faithful—to have a view that we’ve been talking about, a view of nature, a view of our place in it, and then acting as best as you can in accordance with that, and then being at peace with that, because that’s all you can do. If I knew that global warming was [unclear], I would still be fighting against it because you’re required to be faithful, not successful. It goes against sort of the American ethic of success. But it really is, I think, a fundamental, if you’re going to be a successful activist and do good work, is to really be at peace. I worked hard for two and a half years on that suit, I did everything I could to win it. Monsanto came in at the end and just kind of blew it away. And well, I acted faithfully, and I must be at peace with that.
MISSY HUGHES: Well, and if you look now at, the use of rBGH has massively decreased so that now we’re looking at 10 percent of the whole herd in the United States is being injected with rBGH as opposed to previously with 80, 90 percent.
ANDREW KIMBRELL: That’s an incredible—it’s a great story.
MISSY HUGHES: I mean, it shows your faith. You did your part; others have stepped in and done their part, and—
ANDREW KIMBRELL: Right, and the marketplace became a really great place to fight bovine growth hormone. And so we had labeling—more and more dairies were labeling “No hormones,” you know. And they fought it—Monsanto secretly went to thirteen different states to try and get them to… First of all they went to the Federal Trade Commission and said, “Hey, we want to outlaw this labeling—it’s inaccurate.” Federal Trade Commission said no. So we fought them and won there. And then in Pennsylvania it started and it went all around the country, all these states, they tried to get state laws to forbid the labeling. The big one was Ohio; we won that circuit court opinion there. Well, once they lost all the states Monsanto sold the product, because they realized as long as there was labeling they were doomed. So they sold the product. Elanco has it now. It’s not clear, they’re not really pushing it. So yeah, it shows the great work that local organizers can do, that the market can play a role as far as getting rid of some of these products.
MISSY HUGHES: It shows what the educated consumer can do.
ANDREW KIMBRELL: Exactly. To me, somebody should write up that story, the bovine growth hormone story, from beginning to end. First of all, what a disastrous product for Monsanto to bring out to begin the biotech revolution, one that actually influences milk. I mean, who’s their public relations person? I mean, it was a gift to those of us who are fighting this technology.
MISSY HUGHES: I think he’s working for the FDA now.
ANDREW KIMBRELL: [unclear, laughing] I think you’re probably right. But it was a gift to us because it was a great organizing—it still is; people still ask me about it all the time because milk is this, obviously it’s an icon for the American mother and consumer. So fooling with milk is never a great idea.
And the great thing, though, I mean, bovine growth hormone did something really, really amazing, and genetic engineering has done it, in general, which… Bovine growth hormone really pushed the organic milk and dairy industry. Without them you would not have seen the exponential growth, often outstripping supply to that demand. Bovine growth hormone, thank you—you really… I mean, you can walk into any gas station now and see organic milk and organic dairy products. It’s just fantastic, I mean, the growth of that sector. And I think Monsanto unintentionally, obviously, did that. And the one thing that GMOs have done is they’ve put a premium, as the Non-GMO Project is learning, they’re putting a premium on non-GMO. So it’s ironic. But to me, that’s a great story of people all across the country really working together to get rid of that—really, a product with no socially redeeming value.
One of my good friends is Ralph Nader, and Ralph has been a mentor to me for many, many years. We know about 2000—it wasn’t a great decision on Ralph’s part, and I certainly advised him against it, but he’s still a good friend.
But one of the problems I have with Ralph is this whole idea of consumer—this whole idea of we’re consumers. You know, you think of the word consume. You know, fires consume. They used to call tuberculosis consumption because it ate away the bodies of the victims. What a terrible way to think of ourselves, as consumers.
One of the things I find so wonderful about this “Organic and Beyond” movement that we’re all part of is that I see out there that it has changed people’s view of that. You know, I think people say, ah, by the food I choose to grow, the food I feed my children, the food I buy, I’m creating a different food future. If I’m going to buy McDonald’s, that creates a horrifying future for the animals that are involved—more pesticides, more herbicides, more destruction of this earth. If I’m buying organic, I’m buying socially just, humane, that’s going to create a very different environment for farmers, farm communities, for the animals involved, for the soil. I have in my power to… I’m not a consumer. Whether I like it or not—and we are maybe not always on top of that mountain, maybe we do make the wrong decisions—but regardless, we are creating one food future or the other in everything we do. And that’s empowering. It can also be discouraging if we’re making some of the wrong decisions. But we know the responsibility is with us. We’ve gotten out of that role of passive consumer.
And so when you go to food co-ops, when you go to almost any store that carries organic, you can feel the empowerment. You can feel people saying, “You know what? I get to choose. I will be able to choose and use my dollar and my influence with people to create one food future or the other.” And I think that’s one of the most exciting things about working in food, is this empowerment. We don’t have it in many other areas—whether our taxpayer dollars go to war that we don’t approve of, for instance. But in food we can do it. In food we can actually fundamentally change a paradigm and fundamentally change our way of looking at ourselves and our relationship with nature, by being creators in what we do.
So this consumer-to-creator movement, I think, is a fundamental aspect of what we’re all doing. And it continues, to me, to be exciting and empowering.
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THERESA MARQUEZ: We just heard from Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety. I want to thank Andrew and Missy and all of you for joining us today. See you next week.
Rootstock Radio is brought to you by Organic Valley Family of Farms.