Michael Dimock from Roots of Change
Michael Dimock is the President of Roots of Change (ROC), a collaborative network of leaders and institutions in California working toward the development of a sustainable food system by the year 2030. Armed with an acute awareness of food and agriculture’s current shortcomings and an innate capacity to identify solutions, Michael – together with his dedicated team at ROC – is in the process of forging a sustainable food future for California. Michael very kindly agreed to speak with us.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to be involved with Roots of Change (ROC)?
A: My interest in agriculture and food stems from a mother who was a great cook, extended family who run a beautiful cattle ranch that deeply impacted me, a stint working with small holder farmers in a mountain village in Nepal, followed by eight months working for then Governor Jerry Brown as an advance man in his 1982 run for the Senate, then a Masters Degree in International Affairs from Columbia University, and finally two years working for an California based-agribusiness company in Western Europe.
Somehow all that experience combined to clarify for me that the food system is the base system of civilization and that the future depended on creating a sustainable food and agriculture system. I realized that the only way to do that was to engage many more people in activities that could reshape food and farms. Once I saw this, I began to try anything that might work.
I founded the Russian River Slow Food chapter in Sonoma County and then became a national and international leader with that organization. I even farmed for a bit in the 1990s. In that same period, I founded and ran an organization that still exists called Ag Innovations Network. We had created a project in Ventura County, California called the Ag Futures Alliance (AFA). The Ventura AFA is a consensus building roundtable involving farmers, environmental and social justice advocates, local government officials, and concerned citizens. Its mission was to ensure agriculture’s existence in Ventura forever, which by definition meant it had to become sustainable.
ROC’s founders learned of that work in Ventura. So in 2004, Ag Innovations was among the first three grantees of ROC. We received funds to spread the model up and down the state. After two years of organizing and running these roundtables, I was invited to apply for the job of running ROC. It is the best vehicle I have found for impacting a key point on the planet, California, around food and agriculture.
Q: What causes you most concern when you think about the current state of California’s food system?
A: Actually it is probably not what you’d think. Of course there is a large list of problems: food quality, food access, pollution and resource degradation from production systems, animal welfare and antibiotic use in factory farms, etc., etc. But the core problem underlying all these symptoms is how we think about food and agriculture. Our mental model of food and agriculture is the key to changing things.
We do not fully comprehend that food production in a biological activity and that healthy food is the key to healthy people. Farms and ranches cannot successfully operate as assembly lines for long. Biology demands diversity to ensure survival over the long term because diversity is the key to adaptation and thus evolution. So we must organize agriculture to tolerate and foster diversity, not eliminate it, which is what we are doing now. Likewise, we cannot produce food like it is some sort of input for a machine. Food is not gasoline. Food is the means by which we humans literally access the power of the sun and the minerals and compounds that support biological processes underway in our bodies. Food is our way of taking in the planetary life forces that sustain us. We must begin to think about how important that is. The national health crisis reflects our misunderstanding of food. Much of the climate change, water and other pollution crises reflect our misunderstanding of agriculture. So I am most concerned with how we think and how we create systems based on that thinking.
Q: ROC has a very broad network of support. How do you balance the creativity that must stem from such a diverse group with the need to stay on target?
A: You have named our biggest challenge. It is hard to keep a large advisory board composed of many sectors and views and an amalgamation of diverse staff, consultants and NGO partners focused. In fact it is impossible to reach 100% consensus all the time. I have learned that there exists a sphere of general agreement on direction that must be maintained in order to move forward. Consent is easier to achieve than consensus. If the ROC network at large can agree on a direction and the staff can win consent from those not in total agreement, then we can act. The key to success is that ROC’s actions have perceivable impacts that will keep the network engaged. People want solutions to emerge from their work. It gives them meaning and hope. So we need to be creative and make things happen. So far it is working.
Q: Achieving ROC’s vision of a sustainable food system by 2030 will require the ability to work collaboratively with large corporate interests. What has the response been like so far?
A: To the extent that we have engaged the large corporations it has been constructive and encouraging, but we have not yet engaged the real holders of the current system. I am talking about the largest food manufactures and retailers that, in the end, control the system. The big farmers will move in sync with markets and farm policy because they must move to survive. I am less concerned with their actions. The real challenge is to change the business models of really big enterprises that benefit from their ability to externalize costs by pushing the risk down to the farm, or impact health without paying the price, or control resources that are rightfully part of the commons. That engagement is really just beginning. Luckily there are some food manufactures and retailers that see that their long-term financial health depends on solving the health and safety problems experienced by people and the planet as a result of our industrial food system.
Q: What role do you see organic agriculture playing in the sustainable food system of the future?
A: Organic producers are the vanguard of farming and ranching change agents. Organic farming has framed the right way to think about producing food from the land. Farming and ranching are biological processes. They are not industrial. Organic systems require that farmers and ranchers think holistically and biologically to remain successful. As some complain, there may be industrial organic farms today, but they are not sustainable and will not work in the end. Truly organic production systems are biologically integrated and work with nature not against her. Organic farming is here to stay and will become a larger share of the landscape over time. My hope is that one day we will not need to use the term because all farming systems will embrace the biologically holistic principles that underlie organic production.
Q: Are we doing enough to address the issue of access to healthy food? What needs to be done?
A: We have a lot more to do as a nation, a state and as communities, but we are making progress. Nearly half the kids in the nation now live in poverty, 20% of our kids are obese, and with a very high unemployment rate likely to remain so for some time, it is imperative that we expand efforts that ensure people are able to access and eat healthy food. There is not one simple answer to the challenge; a systemic solution is required.
I will start by saying that the underlying issue is poverty. So in the end, hunger and healthy food access will only be finally settled when we create a social and economic context that provides access to healthy and safe neighborhoods, education that prepares people for our complex technical world, and a robust ecosystem of enterprises that can continually hire. This end goal is huge and not easy to achieve when the values that shape our behavior are still so self-oriented, and we limit our identity or identification to a very small circle, like just myself, or just my family.
We need to reach a place in our development as people where we see that our well being and the well being of future generations depends on sharing the wealth and prosperity more broadly. The current concentration of wealth is a recipe for greater ill health in our nation. It seems we have forgotten that this nation was built by those who saw danger in multigenerational aristocracy and concentration of economic power. It leads to tyranny. Our founders rejected concentration of power and wealth. They created systems to prevent it, but these systems have been eroded in the last 40 years. It will likely take more national pain to learn that we cannot concentrate wealth in few hands without slowing innovation and increasing social unrest, which is often linked to hunger.
I see four big things that we must do now to improve healthy food access. First, we need to increase the use of federal nutrition programs like food stamps, now known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Only about half the people eligible for SNAP actually sign up with the agencies that offer it. Some of the reasons for this are the social stigmas, but there are also administrative barriers in many jurisdictions that have been designed to limit access. These need to be eliminated. For instance, here in California we need to end the fingerprint requirement to sign up for SNAP.
Second, we need to restructure our approach to health based on a prevention model and the new healthcare bill does some of that. Prevention must include providing low income folks with incentives to purchase healthy food over highly processed food. Such incentives include “Healthy Bucks” or “Fresh Fund” programs that provide SNAP recipients or WIC (Women and Infant Children) nutrition voucher recipients with additional matching dollars at farmers markets. Or a new development is vegetable prescriptions or Veggie Rx, which our great partner Wholesome Wave is spreading across the country. In this approach a doctor actually writes a prescription that includes vouchers to buy vegetables and fruit from farmers markets or farm stands.
Third, we need to create many more points of healthy food access within communities that have been undermined by racism and other forms of injustice. We need more grocery stores and farmers markets in the midst of neighborhoods that today are dominated by fast food restaurants that literally degrade the health of their customers.
Finally, we need to give communities more power or sovereignty over their own food supplies. This is where the future lies. We need more food production in cities or urban environments and we need to create food access consortia in which low income folks develop direct relationship with farmers in their foodshed. Market forces by themselves have proved incapable of ensuring healthy food access. In low income areas, the market has gotten us either no access at all or access to only highly processed junk food. I have heard some people say, well that is how capitalism works. I say, that such comments ignore the fact that, in the end, we will all pay anyway through insurance premiums or taxes. Our federal, state and local budgets, our prosperity and productivity depends on us ensuring all our people eat healthy food every day. It is less expensive to feed people well than to attempt to cure disease.
Q: When you look around, what are some of the things that make you feel positive about where food and agriculture are heading?
A: I am actually very positive about the growing national focus on healthy food and agriculture. The fact that so many young people now want to farm organically and that small farms are on the rise is sure sign of change. The fact that large crop associations are engaged in developing industry wide sustainability standards and that large retailers are doing the same is very healthy. The fact that Michele Obama is focused on community food access to healthy food and organic vegetable gardens in schools is wonderful. The fact that USDA launched “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” says the old paradigm is changing within the biggest bureaucracy. The fact that the State of California through its department of Food and Agriculture has created the California Ag Vision project to reorient the state’s food and farming system to align with needs of the 21st Century is really thrilling. The media’s growing focus and sophistication on food and farm issues is very important and positive. Momentum is definitely shifting in the right direction. I believe that in 20 years the food and agriculture in this country will be much healthier. The negative trends will have been reversed.
Organic Guide wishes to thank Michael Dimock for generously sharing his time and insights. To find out more about Michael and the important work being done to create a sustainable food system in California by 2030, please visit Roots of Change.
Keywords: Michael Dimock, Roots of Change, sustainable food system, sustainability, food, agriculture, poverty, food access