“In short, the continuation and evolution of organic agriculture belongs to young producers, but they need to understand and not dismiss it as being something taken over by big corporations and government. Young producers have responsibility for what it becomes. Our generation has to do some letting go. We need to be actively encouraging that transition of leadership and identity.” – Mark Lipson

For more than three decades, Mark Lipson has been intimately involved with the organic movement from the local to national level, as an organic producer, a researcher and an advocate. He has been extremely influential in shaping state and national policy surrounding organics, including certification standards.

As a UC Santa Cruz student, Lipson became passionate about gardening and organic production. He has worked the land as a co-founder of the Molino Creek Farming Collective, a farm north of Santa Cruz. Lipson was the first paid staff member at the California Certified Organic Farmers; it’s now the nation’s largest certification organization. Lipson also has worked as the policy director at the Organic Farming Research Foundation. As the organic and sustainable agriculture policy adviser at the USDA, he helped lead the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative. He chaired the USDA’s organic working group from 2010-2014.

Mark Lipson at Molino Creek. Credit: Melissa De Witte, UC Santa Cruz.

Lipson has recently returned to his roots at UC Santa Cruz, where he is serving as a research associate with UCSC’s Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems.

The UC Food Observer caught up with Lipson to learn more about his current work. A special thanks to Lipson and also to our UC Santa Cruz colleague Melissa De Witte, who graciously provided photographs of him. (At the end of this Q&A, we link to a terrific article that Melissa has recently written).

Q: Can you tell our readers a bit about your current projects/work? What do you hope to accomplish?

Lipson: My number one mission is to encourage people who are in all different aspects of the sustainable – and particularly the organic – food streams to be engaged in the policy arena and more specifically, to think about getting in and being an actor inside government at some level. They are needed to bring their knowledge, language and experience about sustainable agriculture into the public policy practice. That’s my general mission, but I am still in the early phases of trying to locate that here in my new role at UC Santa Cruz’s Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (UCSC – CASFS).

Another purpose is to transmit what I’ve learned. It’s less of an academic proposition than a practical one, although I’m certainly anxious to be a resource for other people who are doing scholarly work on the policy system and food policy. My forte is in practice and that’s been my whole career … that’s what I’m trying to transmit. That includes involving people at all stages … undergraduates, graduate students, mid-career folks, faculty, people who are in the NGO world and also in the private sector. To put it crudely: we need to be in the “revolving door.” People who have knowledge, experience and understand the goals of sustainable agriculture need to be serving in public policy capacities. There are lots of opportunities for this.

Q: There is currently a major focus on translating research into policy. A subcommittee of the UC Global Food Initiative has recently published a paper and hosted a workshop about leveraging research for food and agriculture policy. Would you care to comment?

Lipson: That publication, the workshop and the discussion going on within the UC Global Food Initiative and UCOP are all very auspicious. I have a lot of thoughts about it. It’s a real swing of the pendulum.

Mark Lipson in the barn at Molino Creek. Credit: Melissa De Witte, UC Santa Cruz.

When I was an undergraduate here at UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there had been a real golden age of engagement in real world environmental policy issues. But just at that time the pendulum was swinging hard back against that. It was viewed as not a rigorous pursuit and inappropriate by the UC administration. Now the pendulum has been swinging back the other way and that arc is hitting a point of maturity and comfort. And this shift is intersecting very directly with the interests in food systems. There is a realization that food and agriculture is found at the interface of all these things: environment, human health, economy and social justice. So the opportunities for systems research to interact with the policy sphere in all those different directions is incredibly rich right now. It’s all very timely.

From my perspective – after working in Washington, D.C. – UC has not been as big a resource at the national level as the institution could and should be. So there is a lot of upside to UC trying to improve its game as a resource in the food and agriculture policy arena in Washington, D.C., in particular.

Q: What’s your take on where the organic movement is today? Challenges? Opportunities?

Lipson:Organic” is both a movement and an industry. It’s a segment of the food economy. But there is a great deal of tension between those different identities. The movement part is still in the roots of the industry part … it doesn’t define it totally, but it’s still there.

There’s a narrative out there that organic has gotten too big and has lost its values. I think it’s a cop-out to surrender to that notion. Any movement that is sufficiently successful to reach a stage of maturity – as organic has done – has to struggle with those things and that is not a sign of failure. It’s not just black and white. To surrender to the notion that organic is passé is – I think – a gross misreading of the historical flow. It is also an abandonment of the goals. That’s just my take.

I spent a big chunk of my career on advocacy and policy resources for research on organic farming systems. That’s had a fair amount of success, but it’s still very small in the scheme of things. The historical lack of institutional scientific support is still a limiting factor in the success of organic agronomy (and husbandry). The availability of knowledge to sustainably take advantage of marketplace demand is still really insufficient.

Part of the challenge there is the nature of agricultural research system writ large. There are really fundamental problems with how agricultural research is done. Many goals of public research have been delegated to the private sector, and so the private sector interests somewhat define a large part of the work that gets done. Public interest agricultural research is not strong.

There have been many pleas for many years for more investment.* But those pleas are not being heard. Those efforts are not producing results in terms of changing the dynamic. I think a deeper part of that is the structure of the research enterprise itself.

This is something else I want to explore now that I’m out of the government. The structures are somewhat archaic in terms of how faculties are organized and how research is rewarded. The result creates silos and a disconnection between different aspects of science and research … and this is very debilitating. What is really needed now is integration. Organic research is an opportunity to perhaps pilot some new models for the research enterprise itself. That might help us to get out of the trap of how research funding is currently structured and how the disciplines are deployed. And it might inspire a return to a public interest set of goals with respect to research and science.

Q: What do you think about the cultural debates occurring around “organic”?

Lipson: There are all kinds of unfortunate cultural wars around it. “Organic” has become sort of a bloody flag with respect to the debate about biotechnology and transgenic agricultural systems. It shouldn’t necessarily have to be bearing the brunt of those conflicts, but it does. There are so many different aspects of what organic has come to mean.

As I recently wrote in Civil Eats, the fact that we can even be having very high-level and broadly engaged discussions about how to represent values in the food marketplace with different labels, certifications and rating systems is really because of the success of the organic label, the efforts of organic farmers and companies. Organic is sort of the great-grandmother of eco labels and not necessarily what people feel is the cutting-edge thing.

Organic still has not realized all its premises or promises … it’s still very much a work in progress. And there are limitations in terms of resources for research and science. Organic research represents only a tiny fraction of what has gone into what some term industrial mono-crop agriculture or global scale production (i.e., to the goals of yield and trade above all) … that’s been 99 percent of all public resources devoted to agricultural research and development for 50 years.

You can’t compare organic and that body of research as co-equals and as if they have had all the same resources put into them. The question that I hear often – “Can organic feed the world?” – is a misnomer. You can’t compare them that way.

In terms of young and beginning farmers, many – if not most – have organic built in as an assumption. That is what they want to do. However, many young people are also disaffected by the organic certification process and the different aspects of the institutionalization of organic. That’s extremely unfortunate. I attribute it in part to the individualism of recent generations, because they are perhaps not viewing organic agriculture as a community or group identity. I am not sure that beyond being young farmers that they have a group identity.

At the same time, I understand their frustrations and disappointments and the things they perceive about organic. But they need to own it. My generation needs to let them own it. Their organic world doesn’t have to be their parents’ organic world. They should understand the origins, I hope they respect it … but they don’t have to be trapped by the way it developed, because we had a lot of workarounds. Those workarounds were needed then, but are not necessarily needed at this time. That aspect is very important.

In short, the continuation and evolution of organic agriculture belongs to young producers, but they need to understand and not dismiss it as being something taken over by big corporations and government. Young producers have responsibility for what it becomes. Our generation has to do some letting go. We need to be actively encouraging that transition of leadership and identity.

Q: What kinds of public policies might support the organic movement more fully?

Lipson: There is still very limited acceptance of the multiple benefits and system level effects of high-level organic agriculture. There is importance in organic beyond reducing pesticide exposure … which is still fundamentally important. Even beyond that, there needs to be the recognition and understanding of what it really means to take a very different approach to agronomy, both in terms of pest management, soil fertility and plant and animal breeding … the system context in which breeding Is done – that’s still only scratching the surface.

We need more focus on organic research, especially in terms of human health, things like carbon farming (basically what J.I. Rodale and his intellectual ancestors meant by organic farming). But a lot of that is still very glib. Organic needs a huge surge of both fundamental and applied research to understand and put into practice. Putting large amounts of carbon into the soil as living ecology is taking it out of the atmosphere. As in the human health sphere, there are so many frontiers in terms of the microbiome and its importance for both physical and mental health. There are the effects of food on that and the differences that can be obtained through different farming systems and practices to interact with that frontier of science and research.

So the policy prescription for all that is to recognize those priorities and fund them at much higher levels and in different ways. Again, it comes back to the structure of the research enterprise … and we have to figure out a way to accelerate the impacts and results of research. The traditional university agronomic research model is not sufficient. We’re currently stuck with a very linear model. We conduct years of “fundamental” research, then years of controlled trials and all that’s still built on the assumption that you still have a robust extension system to get that knowledge on the ground. The system is not far from being obsolete and certainly needs new models of developing and applying knowledge.

I’m incredibly excited by all the threads at the UC system. You have CASFS here at Santa Cruz, the UC Berkeley Food Institute, the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis…and there are others. Seeing them mature, emerge and potentially synergize for wide impact on the UC system and beyond is exciting.

Q: I’m giving you a super power. You can change one thing about the food system with that super power. What change would you make?

Lipson: Externalities are built into the price of food.

Notes and related links:

*Re: the call for increased investment in agricultural research. AGree is an organization that “seeks to drive positive change in the food and agriculture system by connecting and challenging leaders from diverse communities to catalyze action and elevate food and agriculture as a national priority.” The organization recently issued Research and Innovation: Strengthening Agricultural Research. Page 3 of this document provides a list of reports (contemporary and historic) calling for increased investment in the research enterprise. The document also contains a list of organizations that are on record in support of this message. See also, Five Perspectives on Strengthening the U.S. Public Research, Extension, and Education System, also published by AGree.

To learn more about the history of the organic movement, visit the UCSC Library website. Its Regional History program produced a project entitled Cultivating a Movement: An Oral History Series on Sustainable Agriculture and Organc Farming on California’s Central Coast. Lipson was a participant.

Related links: Consider reading our Q&A with Maria Rodale. Maria is the grand-daughter of J.I. Rodale. In our interview, she addresses a number of issues relating to the organic movement. Also worth reading: Melissa De Witte recently wrote a profile piece about Lipson for the UC Santa Cruz Newcenter; it provides a wonderful trajectory of the organic movement and Lipson’s work.