Ten Questions with Michael Dimock, President of Roots of Change

Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Michael Dimock, President of Roots of Change, who will be speaking at the Farm Tank conference:

Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to get involved in food and agriculture?

Michael Dimock (MD): The realization in 1988 that the food system was the foundation of civilization and that if we did not get it right in terms of sustainable principles and practices, nothing else really mattered, because the human pursuit of sustenance was destroying the resource base and exploiting developing nations and the people that work the land.

FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?

MD: Because I work in policy, I will speak to the biggest policy opportunity. I say this because I believe policy is an essential, but not the exclusive, element in the comprehensive solution to our challenges. We need to scale up the policy changes emerging at the local level—to build from that grassroots energy and commitment and transform regions—then the state level, until we have enough examples of restorative, resilient, and healthy food system policies to influence Washington, D.C. We must do what the marriage equality movement did. First winning in cities, then states, and then at the federal level. By scaling up from places of early adoption to larger footprints, we will help people to realize that the industrial farming mindset is like a prejudice against people of color or gay people. It is wrong-headed, counter to the natural order, and immoral. Farming should not be based on an industrial paradigm. Rather, to be sustainable, it requires a biological or agroecological paradigm that acknowledges that all living things are connected, interdependent, and only possible because of a natural resource base that must be restored. Right relationship to workers, animals, and the planet’s ecological dynamics must be acknowledged by laws that emerge from political processes. That is the work to which I am now committed.

FT: What innovations in agriculture and the food system are you most excited about?

MD: I am most interested in policy innovations that change how government incentives accelerate the development of food systems that are restorative and resilient and deliver health to all our people. Nutrition incentives are an example. They were modeled in several parts of the nation from 2009 to 2014, including California, where ROC launched the Market Match program to make fresh affordable. Due to collaborative advocacy, the concept was then supported at the federal level by changes to the Farm Bill. Another example would be the Good Food Purchasing policy created by the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, which ROC helped to launch in 2010. That intelligent policy is now spreading across the nation. Another would be the new Healthy Soils Initiative created by the California Department of Food and Agriculture because of the advocacy of the California Climate and Agriculture Network, Community Alliance with Family Farmers, ROC, and many others. It will provide an incentive for farmers to build soil and capture carbon.

FT: Can you share a story about a food hero that inspired you?

I have many heroes and have been inspired many times over the years. But as of late, I was inspired by a brief and very pithy talk given by Dan Imhoff at the True Cost of American Food Conference in San Francisco last April. He set out some goals for U.S. agriculture policy that were crystal clear and, in my view, doable. But more importantly, he implored those listening to use inspiring language and poetic phrases and communicate in ways that move people. His speech modeled what he meant. It was beautiful and moving. Dan wrote the best book around on the Farm Bill, called Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill. Of course, he is right: if we want to build public action in the policy realm, we have to move people to see how new policy will make a better, more beautiful, and enjoyable world, one not threatened by climate chaos, toxic algae, pesticide poisoning, cruelty to workers and animals, and amputations due to diabetes. We must show how jobs will be created, people healed, and communities reinvigorated by a transformation of the food system.

FT: What drives you every day to fight for the bettering of our food system?

MD: The clear understanding that the industrial food system is destroying nature and human health and must be stopped if we don’t want to face a huge collapse. It concentrates wealth, extracts resources, exploits humans and livestock, and fosters diet-related disease. It is out of sync with biological reality and that means death. A once simple principle given to us by Darwin clarifies it all: “specialization leads to extinction.” He wrote that in Origin of Species in 1854. This implies that diversity leads to resilience. We need a food system that is resilient and provides human beings and our communities with resilience. We don’t have that now and that is why I am committed to food system transformation.

FT: What’s the biggest problem within the food system our parents and grandparents didn’t have to deal with?

Corporate monopolies over production and markets that make it very difficult to price food correctly because there is so little real competition. These corporations have the money to control Congress and therefore federal farm policy. The good news is that it is a bit tougher to control lawmaking in 50 states and a thousand cities and counties simultaneously. That is why we need to build the movement’s political chops and its voter base to work for regional and state law changes.

FT: What’s the first, most pressing issue you’d like to see solved within the food system?

MD: We need to switch the government subsidies from creating cheap calories and cheap ingredients for food processing through the commodity crop system. We need to redirect public investment to do three things:

1) We must pay farmers for ecological services like capturing carbon, building soil fertility, protecting water quality, and reestablishing animal and plant species diversity on agricultural lands. We must do this to restore the nation’s resource base in order to ensure a future food supply.

2) We must provide healthy food incentives to low-income Americans in order to effectively lower the price and increase the availability of organic, sustainably produced fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grass-fed meats so that every American may access these healthier foods. That is a moral and financial imperative for the nation. We are killing and maiming people with cheap, unhealthy food, and we are driving healthcare cost through the roof. Diabetes alone is costing California US$37 billion per year in treatment and lost productivity, and only about seven percent of us have diabetes. More than 40 percent of Californians are pre-diabetic. If we do not act, the cost of this disease alone will break Medicare and Medicaid.

3) Finally, we need to reinvest in the rural communities of this nation, where the food and resources upon which cities depend are managed and produced. We need to invest in the emergence of a massive sustainable food sector composed of regional food production networks that are distributed, not concentrated, across the nation; that are restorative rather than degrading to people and the planet; and that are focused on stimulating diversity in our diets, rather than diminishing it. This reinvestment action must be on the scale we undertook to rekindle the agriculture economy during the great depression and after the dust bowl, like we did for NASA’s moon shot or for the development of nuclear weapons. It must be massive and fast. People think I am talking pie in the sky, but the cascade effect of climate chaos, diet related disease, and a population of nine billion will force us to focus on the food system as never before in human history.

FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?

MD: Write to your representatives at the city, county, and/or state level demanding they take part in the work to make the food system more healthy and resilient. More and more people are voting for good, healthy, and sustainable food with their dollars, and you can see how that is impacting big food and industrial agriculture. Unfortunately, not enough are using their actual votes to elect officials who understand the food system and the changes required. The movement is not yet political enough. In California, we have been documenting and critiquing our legislators in Sacramento on their voting records as well as the Governor on what he is signing or vetoing. This is the best way to hold them accountable to the food movement. I wish other states would do that same. ROC has been aligning communities through the California Food Policy Council and the nonprofits active in Sacramento to produce the annual Report on California Legislation Related to Food and Farming and to pass legislation. We have passed two bills and won state funding for nutrition incentives using this method, and we have some big legislative policy goals in mind for the long-term. As we increasingly collaborate and align power and resources for strategic wins, the food movement will really begin to alter the policy dynamics.

FT: What’s one issue within the food system you’d like to see completely solved for the next generation?

MD: I think this is the wrong question and obviates what the food system teaches us: it is all interrelated. The question is like the reductive thinking behind the science and industrial mindset that has created the multitude of ecological, social, economic, and health challenges rooted in the food system. One problem solved will not provide the health and resilience the planet needs.

FT: What agricultural issue would you like for the next president of the United States to immediately address?

MD: I’d like the next President to build off the Obamas’ good work, enunciate the central importance of the food system to our civilization globally, and frame farmers and food companies as a central players in solving global warming, water pollution, obesity and diet-related disease, and the degradation of rural economies, if they’re given the right tools and incentives. The next President must help Americans realize that we must invest much more in food systems in order to ensure a healthy future for the nation, and the next President must champion and sign legislation that will transform the system. I am not really sure that will happen in the next eight years, but it could begin to move in that direction if we first move several key states to act along the lines I am talking.

*Food Tank, in partnership with the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau, Farm-to-Fork Program, and University of California, Davis, is excited to announce the 1st annual Farm Tank Conference at the Hyatt Regency Sacramento on September 22–23, 2016. This two-day event will feature more than 35 different speakers from the food and agriculture field. Researchers, farmers, chefs, policymakers, government officials, and students will come together for interactive panels. The event will feature interactive panels moderated by top food journalists, networking, and delicious food, followed by a day of hands-on activities and opportunities for attendees.