Episode #176
Nora Taleb: Global Players Rule Our Food System

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Our Nora Taleb interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Linley Dixon interviews Nora Taleb, October 2023:

Linley Dixon 0:00
Welcome Nora Taleb to my farm. I was hoping we could start with the story of how we met and how you ended up on my farm.

Nora Taleb 0:10
That’s a really good story. How we met, I think we met in November 2018 from my perspective. And you were on a trip in Europe, because I guess you wanted to talk to some folks at the European Commission who are in charge of the EU organic regulation, to find out what’s happening in Europe with, with regard to the organic standards. And yeah, I don’t even recall how, like I heard about you coming. But it was initially Dave and you, were about to come. And then it was just you. And I just thought I need to meet her. I’m gonna invite her to Germany to visit us like, our organization.

Nora Taleb 0:51
And I thought we could do some trips on local farms in Germany, and this is what we did. And then we kind of fell in love. It’s been, it’s been so great to meet you. It was so inspiring. And how did it end up…on your farm? I’ve just actually been in New Mexico for a week on a trip because I’m part of a network that works with living systems thinking for, as a change technology for creating a better food system. And since New Mexico is so close to Colorado, I thought I need to make a trip to your farm. And this has been a dream for me to be here and see you again. Because it’s been like three years since we saw each other I guess.

Linley Dixon 1:32
Yeah. So we, I guess maybe even as an introduction, let people know, because we met through Naturland.

Nora Taleb 1:38

Linley Dixon 1:38
And we do not have add-on labels to organic. And that is something that’s so common in Europe. And that was what I was there to understand better, you know, what is the difference? Why don’t we have them in the US? And, you know, is that a good thing or a bad thing, because I think when the USDA created an organic standard, we had all of these local chapters, and they decided to not continue to write their own standards that everybody was going to follow the USDA standard.

Linley Dixon 2:06
And, you know, I don’t know if it came from the USDA as an order. But it was like we all are going to follow the same standard. And that kind of stopped this concept of continuous improvement that was always a part of the organic seal. And it became a level playing field, which was great, but we couldn’t push the bar further. In reality, what ended up happening is there was so much industry pressure to lower the bar.

Nora Taleb 2:35

Linley Dixon 2:36
And so in the, in the EU, when they created the organic standard that didn’t happen, all of the regional chapters kept doing this concept of continuous improvement. So maybe we could describe the add-on scene.

Nora Taleb 2:48
It’s funny, because I think this development really happened around the same time it was both in the 1990s when the, when the governments picked up the work on organic standards and legislation, which I guess the organic movement that has created those standards were supportive of. And I guess that was the same in the US also, we kind of needed at that time some market regulation because the market was taking off. So that in that regard was helpful, I think.

Nora Taleb 3:17
But in Europe, what happened is that those organic associations and certifiers who had started to develop these standards in the late 70s, early 80s continued on their work, as many of…so many of them as organic farmer associations, that means that the association is actually governed and managed to some extent by still the farmers and a farming board. This applies at least to the organization that I’ve been working with for seven years called Naturland.

Nora Taleb 3:51
And in Germany, there’s like four or five associations that still have their own add-on label to the EU organic regulation. And then in in other European countries. There’s other examples. Some of you guys might might know the Soil Association in the UK, and then in Sweden, we have KRAV in Spain, there’s CAAE, that’s just a few organizations that kept on developing organic standards in collaboration with farmers, and some of them in collaboration with food processors brands. Not only to raise the bar of organic or continuous improve, continuously improving it, but also I guess, to just make sure that the development that the whole standard and certification and market development is going to take will still be in the interest of the farmers who have created those standards and basically have created the organic market that we are all now benefiting of.

Nora Taleb 4:48
And Naturland is, is one of the largest farmer associations worldwide that also certifies with about 200,000 certified members across the globe and I guess about 1500 certified brands, food processors, most of them in Europe. Not all of them, but most of them in Europe, and the label is mostly known in Europe and Germany. And yes, we have created this partnership with the Real Organic Project.

Linley Dixon 5:18
Yeah. Yeah, we can talk about that, too. I wanted to first kind of establish the fact that it’s, it’s actually organic is really working in Europe. And you were just at a meeting with lots of food systems people and what was the feeling about organic there? In the US?

Nora Taleb 5:41
It was really interesting to me, because, um, lately I’ve been quite interested in thinking about and reflecting about what the regenerative, like narrative, what the, what this portion, this narrative for regenerative agriculture is going to have…what effect it’s going to have on the organic market in Europe. So I was talking about this to a few people there.

Nora Taleb 6:04
And it was just interesting that there was kind of an opinion, or I guess, a notion that organic in the US has kind of failed, and it’s not working out, because the market, this…project has been around the organic system for more than 30 years. And we are still at about 5%. Market Sales and just 1% of farmland in the US is certified organic. So clearly, this is what these people said, it seems to not work.

Nora Taleb 6:32
So we need an alternative, we need something that can work that is at a larger scale that can expand quicker and better, more effectively converting larger farms, I guess, which, which might be this new regenerative paradigm? Well, it’s not a new paradigm. Actually, that’s what we’ve been saying for a long time also that the concept of regeneration and regenerative agriculture is just as much sourced from agroecology and the organic movement as as our organic movement or agro ecology is, so it’s all like intermixed, but it’s still a different animal. Kind of what has, what has come about now, and is organic, more successful in the EU? Maybe to some extent, I mean, if you look at the market share, we are also like between five and 7%, in most European member states, like as an average.

Nora Taleb 7:24
But the farm, like the converted farmland, farmland under production is higher. So in Germany, we have about 14% farmland that is under organic production. And across all European member states, it’s between nine and 10%. And there’s also like a new policy that that you’ve heard about, we talked about it yesterday, the Farm to Fork strategy of the European Union that asks for a 25% of organic farmland by 2030. And all member states are required to develop national local policies to make that happen. And there’s a budget behind that as well to facilitate. So yeah, there’s support.

Linley Dixon 8:02
And there isn’t, I mean, isn’t there a reduction in the use of pesticides across the board by 50%? That part of it, that’s what I understood.

Nora Taleb 8:10

Linley Dixon 8:11
Even if it’s not certified organic, there’s still pressure from the government to reduce.

Nora Taleb 8:15
Yeah, exactly.

Linley Dixon 8:15
And in the US, the the chemical lobby is so high that we just don’t have the support for a, any program that would support reducing income for these giant pesticide companies. And somehow, and we’ve talked about Paul Holmbeck a little bit about the strategy, somehow, in order to get that passed, the environmental community really came together in Europe around organic. And he was saying that, you know, they got the Sierra Club and a lot of the environmental groups to support this concept. And that created a big enough lobby, to kind of overcome the pressure from, that they might be feeling from the Bayer, Monsantos of the world to, you know, support the sales of their pesticides and seeds.

Nora Taleb 9:10
Yeah. And that’s, that’s like in all Europe, European countries, there’s also just like in political parties that actively support organic and they name it as that. So the Green Party in Germany is actively advocating for organic agriculture, which is, which is great. Yeah.

Linley Dixon 9:26
So there’s a lot of good that is part of the regenerative movement, right, you talk to and, you know, one of the questions we asked ourselves was, you know, was organic, missing something and need for another movement? In your opinion, what, what did we miss?

Nora Taleb 9:43
I’m still like, I love this question. I’m still trying to figure that out. And I’m really curious about what the, like to more uncover, I guess what the regenerative movement is offering to the debate that we as an organic industry might have missed and not looked at and there’s so many things too that I could point out I mean, this whole climate, climate discussion, you know, the possibilities of farms sequestering carbon and creating positive ecosystem services and contributing to biodiversity and all of that, which I mean, we can definitely find in the organic system.

Nora Taleb 10:16
And there’s lots of proof for that. But another thing that I think is quite relevant is that…like this regenerative movement, kind of made, farming a lot more hip, I guess, and seemingly current and up to date and put it into a new narrative that I’m sensing a lot of young people are attracted to also, which I think is something that we all need to look out for, and be also concerned about. Because if you look at the average age of a farmer in any country, on the globe, I think it’s above 60. Usually, like so the demographics point out that people are getting older, the people who are in farming.

Nora Taleb 10:57
And so we need to become more diverse as a movement and allow other folks who have not inherited a farm who are not coming from a farming background to find their way into organic, sustainable regenerative agriculture. And I feel the regenerative movement has been doing a good job with that to, in my opinion. But having said that, I also feel that you guys are doing a good job with that. Because the way how you, like the narratives

Linley Dixon 11:23
The US, or the Real Organic Project?

Nora Taleb 11:24
The Real Organic Project. I feel the narrative that you have built around real organic and the people that you are portraying, the farmer stories you’re sharing, I really liked from the beginning, like the spirit about it, and felt, I call myself a young person, I guess, and I did feel drawn to that as well. So but if I look at the German market, there’s still this image of organic as being like a little bit dusty, old, white male, maybe not only looking at the farms, but maybe also looking at the brands. So and, and a lot of food startups don’t necessarily maybe feel organic is a must like social, social, what do you call them?

Linley Dixon 12:05
Social justice issues?

Nora Taleb 12:06
Yeah, social impact, new social impact businesses, they maybe feel like we can still create a positive impact in the world without necessarily being organic. So that’s also a shift in the marketplace, I feel with regard to those organic pioneers, that have really built the market and have so much experience. And then this newer generation, who are kind of looking where their place is. And it’s maybe natural that younger folks also want to build their own narrative, as opposed to just joining a narrative that is already out there that seems maybe to be dominated by, I don’t know, a group of people that don’t, they don’t totally associate with.

Nora Taleb 12:42
And this is what I see regenerative has done well in, in a sense, creating a, helping to create a new narrative around agriculture and the role of farmers with regard to climate change. But there’s a lot that the regenerative movement I feel is missing out on as well.

Linley Dixon 12:58
Yeah, so it probably doesn’t matter in, as far as we’re concerned, as long as what we all mean by organic and regenerative farming grows, right, that’s the goal is to get more farmers on the land and farming in a way that has all these ecological principles. And so what what is the concern that you might feel for not having a standard around regenerative?

Linley Dixon 13:24
You know, because I think there is a real rejection. So maybe first let’s, let’s kind of unpack why there’s this desire to not put a standard behind it, and then maybe under, like, help explain why you’re concerned about what that might mean? So are the growth of good farming, not just for competition between terms? You know, what I mean, if our goal is just to grow more of this kind of farming, where’s the concern with not putting a standard behind it?

Nora Taleb 13:53
Okay, that’s, there’s a lot of, a lot of questions.

Linley Dixon 13:56
A lot of questions, I’ll remind you of them.

Nora Taleb 13:57
Yeah, exactly. When and where to start. So I think maybe starting with why folks are wanting to create a standard around regenerative is, I think one…

Linley Dixon 14:07
Or not wanting to create a standard, right? Isn’t that part of the movement is that we, we don’t want to define it.

Nora Taleb 14:13
It’s both I think, well, to my understanding, there’s also a movement towards wanting to create a regenerative standard.

Linley Dixon 14:20

Nora Taleb 14:21
And then there’s the other side. So this other force not wanting to create a standard.

Linley Dixon 14:25

Nora Taleb 14:25
So, to my perception of how I’m seeing it, the reason why there is a benefit in creating a standard is that it allows more effectively, money, especially if it’s public money being directed towards regenerative farming, at least in the EU. My understanding is that in Europe, in the US, a lot of public funds have been made available for regenerative farming.

Nora Taleb 14:48
And for, for the European context, I would say having a standard would help facilitate the transition of money, facilitation of money into the sector, which is what they want. And then obviously to create a market. So if there’s no standard, it’s I mean, people make regenerative claims, but it’s more solid, I guess if there’s,if there’s a standard, and then not wanting to create a standard, I guess has to do with the fact that the idea of regeneration is not about generic standards.

Nora Taleb 15:18
So we could also look at regeneration in different concepts. Sorry, in different contexts outside of agriculture, where regeneration is exactly not about creating replicability and quantifying things and creating very fixed ideas, which to some extent, the organic standard does. I know, having worked in organic certification, there is variability and flexibility to some extent, but it’s still a generic standard, whereas regenerative claims to be more, I guess, place-based, place- sourced more, adapting to that specific environment that the farming system the farmer needs.

Nora Taleb 16:01
And not wanting to create a standard, I guess, also has to do with so that they can do what they want to do and can still use herbicides, pesticides in favor of no-till, for example, and feeling just more free about their methods and tools they can use. So what were the other questions?

Linley Dixon 16:20
So it sounds to me like, just as the first part of the question of understanding why the pros and cons of creating a standard understand, you know, for me, starting up an organic farm from the beginning, not getting certified for several years, because I didn’t own land and it was such a process. So I understand the kind of youth desire to reject something that is so mainstream and doesn’t fit my small farm, you know, someone comes in and does this inspection process, it’s a lot of extra paperwork and a lot of extra money for me when I’m directly communicating my story to my local community.

Linley Dixon 16:58
But then, after talking to so many of these organic pioneers, they tell the exact same story of what you just described of the conflict that happened with the organic movement at the beginning. There were many farmers that said, No way do we want a standard, you know, we communicate our stories, and, and the USDA doesn’t support us, they don’t understand what organic is. And so they, the exact same discussions were happening around organic. So I almost feel like the young people don’t even know that story anymore. Don’t even understand that organic has gone through all of this, and came out learning some of the mistakes of you know, what, what can happen when you do create a standard and the rush, you know, where there’s money behind a term, then you get this rush of interest in it, from people who don’t even believe in it, but just want to make some money behind it.

Linley Dixon 17:46
And so, yeah, I’m kind of going on. But I think the second part of that question is, I think there will always be pros and cons to anything we end up doing. And so now that we have this discussion around it, what can the organic community teach the, this next generation of people struggling with what’s coming into regenerative? What knowledge over the last 40 years in our movement do we have to share? And you know, so we just don’t repeat history again. And we can actually move forward through this.

Nora Taleb 18:22
Yeah, that’s a really good question. I think one of the strengths of the organic movement all over the world is that they have created an entire system. So it’s not only about an on-farm standard, and it’s about a whole economic system that has been built around organic production systems. It includes trade, it includes processing, it includes partnerships. I mean, I’m really curious how you guys will be, will be dealing with this whole infrastructure actually, that needs to be created in order to, in order to help the real organic movement thrive. And I feel there’s a lot of experience that we have there. And

Linley Dixon 19:08
Sorry about the steam engine.

Nora Taleb 19:10
Beautiful, I love it. I feel like in a movie. What was I about to say?

Unknown Speaker 19:18
I remember you use the term an organic landscape. And that really moved us because it’s not just about the certification of a farm. It’s about supporting that farm throughout the distribution system.

Nora Taleb 19:29
And this is in a way the beauty in the strength of the organic system. It is a systemic approach to farmland management, I mean, regenerative would say the same about themselves, but in the organic movement, it’s really about the systems and that these systems work and that these systems have a positive effect on the ecosystems and on people working in these systems is very well researched. So there’s a lot of research backing that up.

Nora Taleb 19:53
Yeah, but I’m really curious. So I’ve not totally figured this one out, but I’m really curious how how this whole development with regenerative and organic is going to unfold in the future, and what we can learn and how we can, ideally unite to be stronger together. And another interesting thing that I wanted to bring up is that another term and another narrative that is also part of this discussion is actually agroecology, which is not receiving the same amount of attention as organic or regenerative does. And I’ve always been wondering why that is.

Nora Taleb 20:29
And to me agroecology is a radically local approach. So it’s very specific, working in certain regions. And I guess, in the Global South, it’s a concept that is more…broadly spread, but also in Spain and France, it’s quite popular concept. And it includes the dimension of social justice, which regenerative is not really including I feel, unless I guess you’ll look at the regenerative organic certification program that has come out that has this social, social fairness pillar also as part of the standard, but it is also not addressing the question of power in food and in supply chains, whereas agroecology does that, and the Real Organic Project does that. And Naturland is an organization, for example, also does that, and this, to me, is a very important conversation and discussion to be had.

Nora Taleb 21:19
And it’s not the most popular conversation probably, and which is why the multinationals don’t feel drawn to, let’s do agroecology. Because it will ask the question of who has the power in that in that supply chain and that farming system.

Linley Dixon 21:36
What I loved when I went to Europe, right at the beginning of of this project, to just kind of understand this add-on concept was that all of the labels that were there, across Europe actually came together, and I was able to go to their meeting, and they were talking about trying to communicate, you know, with this concept of continuous improvement. Every year, they wanted to figure out what could they cooperate and can communicate together. And at that time, it was the fairness concept.

Linley Dixon 22:06
And that’s something that you have a background in and well, first, let’s start with what does fairness mean, in Europe? And because I don’t think here, you know, we pretty much automatically think of worker welfare on farms. But fair, as I understand it with Naturland and maybe some other add-on labels is fairness throughout the distribution system, even with contracts, with farmers.

Nora Taleb 22:30

Linley Dixon 22:31
So maybe describe a little bit about what fair means. And I’d love to kind of unpack the role of these add-on organizations to, for communicating these new ideas, and why they must be farmer led. But let’s start with with fairness as a way to kind of, it was pushing organic forward.

Nora Taleb 22:49
I mean, I guess you were referring to a meeting of IFOAM, the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements, I hope I said that right. And part of their organic principles and standards actually includes fairness and care as a principle of organic and you don’t really find this terminology in the organic EU standard or in the NOP program.

Nora Taleb 23:10
But it has always been part of the organic narrative as it was meant to be and was created in the 80s, I guess. And when we speak about fairness, probably we need to distinguish between fair trade as a certified program and, and agreement between processors and buyers, sorry, producers and buyers, and then fairness as an overall human value, I guess. And, and something that is maybe not totally definable, but that it’s something that we feel in our hearts and feel that should be more in the food system.

Nora Taleb 23:45
And so yeah, so fair trade is a concept that was created in the 70s and had a focus on the Global South. It was born out of the, we called it the Nicaragua Movement. When there was a lot of conflict and political conflict going on in Nicaragua and some local groups, sometimes church groups started to use trade as a vehicle for economic development, as opposed to sending donations or charity money. And, and this is the idea that fair trade is born out of that we can actually change the inequality in the world or can improve the inequality in the world through a better economic practice.

Nora Taleb 24:25
So that we empower, help to empower people to empower themselves in their local rural communities in the Global South. But Naturland has taken this concept also to Europe and the Global North, and other fair trade organizations like the WFTO which is the World Fair Trade Organization. They have also adopted this concept, that fair trade is something that is relevant in the Global North just as much as in the Global South. Because we all need to think about how do we create more equally, how do we create a more equal value distribution in supply chains, or you can call them supply networks, between farmers, including the workforce and the processors, traders, brands, supermarkets, and finally the eaters, consumers.

Nora Taleb 24:34
And, and then I guess this other more broad, more general idea of fairness and food. I guess any farmer in any country would want to be treated fairly, especially by their buyers and customers. And I think this is a debate that is going on everywhere. I was just this morning watching a YouTube video about a farmer, I’m going to send it to you, I need to send that to you. In the UK, they are right now starting a, like a political movement around fairness for small British farmers. So it won’t necessarily have to do with fair trade, I guess.

Nora Taleb 24:34
But it’s raising this question, what kind of food system do we want to have in the future. And if we want to have a locally grown food by smaller farms, that tend to be great stewards of the soil that, tend to have a higher ecological diversity on their farms, we need to think about making that possible to them, because it’s every year becoming harder for farmers to survive. And this is, this is the work that you’re doing with the real organic project, trying to support that idea that there’s a culture of farming, that there’s a heritage to be preserved, that local food systems will only work if there’s all over the place small farms that can help support that.

Linley Dixon 26:39
And I think you are right, that this was always part of the organic movement, and there was a big debate at the beginning, that this should be included as part of the organic standard, the USDA standard, and a lot of people were really upset that it wasn’t. And so this whole idea of continuing to push the bar forward, it’s, it’s amazing. I don’t know, if Naturland is the only add-on standard that includes this?

Nora Taleb 27:01
Yes, it’s the only one who includes it to the extent that it is actually audited and certified. So yeah.

Linley Dixon 27:08
And so I’m curious

Nora Taleb 27:10
Sorry, as part of the, as part of the organic movement, and standard.

Linley Dixon 27:15

Nora Taleb 27:15
There is of course, other add-on labels that just focus on fair trade or social equity.

Linley Dixon 27:19
Okay. So as an as an eater, this is all so overwhelming. And we talked a little bit yesterday about label fatigue. And what always ends up happening, at least in the US. And I don’t know how prevalent this is in Europe, where you get a community, a movement together, and we say this is what we stand for. And we want to support this in the marketplace. And so that’s where the role of the label comes in, is to be able to support these concepts. And then you always get industry, like kind of coming up with a mock label that’s then, they’re actually so good at marketing themselves. And as an eater, this is so confusing to navigate.

Linley Dixon 27:58
And I would say in the US, a lot of eaters throw up their hands and just think that they’re going to end up paying more for an overly marketed product that’s meaningless behind all these terms. And what is it that creates integrity behind a label? In your opinion, because it’s, there’s lots of labels out there. And some of them mean a lot. And some mean very little. And I’m curious for you over the long run, because Naturland’s been able to do this for 40 some years, maintain integrity, and what, what is it that keeps a label from being co-opted? In your opinion.

Nora Taleb 28:39
So like, just the first thing that came to my mind is that I think that would I would view that there’s two sides to integrity, one is related to the quality of the system. So in the sense, how well elaborated is the standard, how well does the inspection and monitoring system work? How rigorous is it, how, yeah, how, like maintaining a high quality of the standard,

Linley Dixon 29:04
The process.

Nora Taleb 29:06
The process, thank you, that is behind that label. And then the other side to integrity is probably the why. So why, why do we have this label? What, what is the, not only what is the narrative that this label is, label is trying to convey to the to the, to consumers, to eaters, to the public out there. But also who’s behind that label? And what was the process there also to create it? And, so yeah, sometimes I’m also wondering if, like this is very like, while I’m saying this, I’m also worried and feeling that this might be like my perception as being in this organic bubble. Like I care about all of these things. But I guess the issue that you’re bringing up is that a lot of people and eaters maybe don’t care to this degree about it. So how do we reach them?

Linley Dixon 30:02
I think they do. They just think they’re getting fooled. And they are, they can’t figure it out. They can’t figure out which ones are authentic and which ones are not.

Nora Taleb 30:09

Linley Dixon 30:10
And so it’s, it’s exhausting, really. And so I think this label fatigue that we were talking about, and this rejection of a label, it has concerns as well, because then it’s like, what, you know, what are we actually supporting unless you actually know, the person that is providing you your food, which is getting harder and harder to do. And it’s a beautiful thing, if you can, yeah, but, but right now, I just think it’s a little bit delusional to think we can grow past the 1%. And I desperately hope we do. But there are so many barriers to busy people just being able to find this really good food from local farms. And, of course, we have to break through that. But I think we also need to address the fact that most of the people get their food from restaurants, grocery stores, and you know, maybe cafeterias and things like that at schools, right?

Nora Taleb 30:59
But, like regarding the Real Organic Project, what do you, what do you think has led to, to help, like build integrity for the Real Organic Project? So besides the label, which has its own standard, and you go out and inspect the farms, I feel like looking at you, I feel like you have invested quite a bit in creating, like telling the story behind, behind the label and your story of how you came about,. Did you feel

Linley Dixon 31:22
But the brands do this too,. You know, I’m thinking of the Wholesum Harvest website, and they have this beautiful video of how their workers, you know, I don’t know if they like own part of the business or something, but the how well they treat their workers. And that’s like, wow, that’s convincing, too. So they’re really good about telling the story as well. And, and I think the key is this farmer-led aspect that, that Naturland has been able to kind of show us.

Nora Taleb 31:47

Linley Dixon 31:48
So maybe describe why you think that has been so important, for Naturland…

Nora Taleb 31:53
I think, yeah.

Linley Dixon 31:53
…to maintain integrity.

Nora Taleb 31:54
Yeah, it has been crucially important, because a standard is not good if it’s not lived, and if it’s not working on the farm. So what I’ve always liked about Naturland working there was that when we were redoing the standards, or further developing the standards, together with farmers, or with the latest, adding latest scientific research to it. And in collaboration with the advisors, because we had, like at Naturland and there’s, there’s a lot of advisors that are out on the farms daily with the farmers, there was always a very heated debate, because as much as maybe from a scientific perspective, or from a marketing perspective, we wanted to introduce something to the standard, there was a lot of veto if it wouldn’t work on the farm.

Nora Taleb 33:15
So it’s a practical standard that needs to work for the farmers and the brands that are that are certified and using this the standard. And another thing that came to my mind about that question is that, I guess our advantage in Europe was that we were not the only ones doing that. So since the add-on labels never went away, there was not so much education that needed to be done around the fact that there are farmer associations that are, that are developed and run by the farmers that want to have a say in the organic market. And this is their label. So it was starting from a different scene as you guys are now have started with Real Organic Project. So that’s more difficult, I guess, to build that understanding and knowledge.

Linley Dixon 33:28
Yeah, and that’s been able to really grow. Because one of the things that people say here is, well, we need to have a broader tent. Right, which means we might need to include something like hydroponics or confinement because that now we can feed the world organic. And I love the fact that while there is great integrity in Europe, the standard has I mean, what is certified under organic and organic farming in general has actually been able to grow faster than in the US where we have reduced the integrity here.

Nora Taleb 33:59
Yeah, maybe that also has to do like, I’m not too much into the numbers right now, but maybe that also has to do with the fact that Europe seems to be a little bit more sovereign with regard to the, providing ourselves with organic products grown in Europe. Where I’m understanding in the US a lot of organic products need to be imported.

Linley Dixon 34:19

Nora Taleb 34:19
And that you are exporting probably a lot of conventional product for feed also, like for, to the global market. Yeah. So but I’m just wondering, did, did COVID and the pandemic, and this whole being worried about local, local provision of food, did this not help like I’m like this should help…building.

Linley Dixon 34:42
It was a really weird thing where it was an April, when everybody like things kind of shut down and people were afraid to go into the big Safeway grocery store that has kind of the less integrity, like nameless organic stuff, as well as a lot of conventional stuff. People were afraid to go into that grocery store. And there was a mad rush for the farm stand up the road that sold our stuff. And you know, our farmers markets were so busy. And we it was perfect timing, because we had so many spring greens, and we had never sold them all, as quickly as we had. We were so excited. And it’s gone now. Like it’s back to how it was before. Yeah.

Nora Taleb 34:42
Yeah it’s crazy. How we all went back to normal, like after the like, in so many different ways and layers. We just went back to sleep again. I feel.

Linley Dixon 35:28

Nora Taleb 35:29
And in Europe. I mean, the situation has been made even more severe through the Russian invasion in the Ukraine that was interrupting a lot of European supply chains and making this question about local provision of food through local farms more important, more pressing. But it’s all messy right now I feel. We don’t like sometimes I feel like I’m missing like, there is great united policy and strategy in Europe, I can definitely see that and acknowledge that but, sometimes I’m wondering like, what are we doing? We all know that we need small local farms everywhere that are, that ideally produce organic, to secure our own food provision and the viability of the ecosystem. And it’s so hard to make it happen.

Linley Dixon 36:15
Yeah, maybe that’s the common ground. When you think about how do we get together with all of the people that you were meeting with that are not understanding, you know, the importance of, of an organic standard? Maybe the common ground that we have is that we do want to see these regional food systems that depend on many small farms more of a democratic way of producing food, maybe that’s where we can kind of come together.

Nora Taleb 36:38
Yeah. Yeah, that’s like…that’s to me the solution. This is where because it makes so much sense regarding social, social inclusion, social equity, local jobs, providing nurturing ecosystems in their local contexts. Yeah. This is really where, what it’s all coming down to I feel it’s not as sexy maybe, I don’t know. We like to always talk big picture and how do we feed 9 billion and but how do we feed 9 billion by providing like everywhere in those concrete local ecosystems and places?

Linley Dixon 37:16
With some resiliency, 9 billion with resiliency. Yeah.

Nora Taleb 37:18

Linley Dixon 37:19
And, and not so unequal in terms of power. And money.

Nora Taleb 37:23
Yeah, yeah.

Linley Dixon 37:25
So Vandana Shiva was someone who really influenced you, would you maybe, and she’s a supporter of our project, talk about how she’s influenced you and some of the ideas that you hold on to.

Nora Taleb 37:36
Yeah, in big ways. Because I was like, in my first career, or well, I’d actually never worked in that job. But I studied social work first, and I was into human rights. And then I stumbled across Vandana Shiva and her work, connecting human rights, the right to food, with environmental questions, environmentalism, and obviously this whole critique of large multinationals, Monsantos, out there that are really enslaving the farmers, robbing them of their sovereignty and their ability to save their own seeds, making them dependent of the agro, agro, what do you call it?Agro chemistry, agro chemical industry?

Nora Taleb 38:15
And I found that, that really fired me up, I thought it was so unfair, and I so love her for being so politically outspoken, like, she doesn’t give a damn like what people think about her. She’s not trying to be nice. So I feel we need voices like that in the world. And that’s why this made me find my way into agriculture. Because I felt like I really want to support this cause helping farmers to be sovereign, so that they can just do the job that they want to do, and that they get good prices for their produce.

Nora Taleb 38:48
And they are to me, like farmers are my personal heroes. And this is why I’m so happy to know you and be here. Yeah, we all, they really build the backbone of our society. And they have an, in the food system that has the greatest potential, I personally see for ecological healing and more social equity in the world. And we are all connected through food, like we all need to eat. And food to me also makes us realize that we are part of nature because we, like by eating food, we internalize parts of the living world that we perceive as outside of us into becoming part of, part of who we are. So it’s…it’s so potent. It has so much potential, agriculture, to be part of the solution to a lot of, a lot of trauma, I feel that is going on in the world.

Linley Dixon 39:42
Well, and there’s such a disconnect, I think, between what happens on an organic farm and, and policy. And I went to Washington, DC this last March to lobby for organic farming to be more included in the Farm Bill and the response from everybody I met with in Washington was organic farmers till, they cannot be climate smart. So it is such a lack of understanding of farming practices and what no-till is.

Nora Taleb 40:11

Linley Dixon 40:12
And so that’s why I feel like farmers are so essential to be part of this process. And I was even, you know, talking with you about the non-GMO implications for increased herbicide use because of its ability to be a desiccant. And how, how much education has to happen in the marketplace for an eater to understand that the non GMO-label may and most likely does have more herbicide on it than a conventional product. And, so that’s, that’s why I’m, like so insistent that this is a democratically farmer-led movement, because many of us got into this just because we wanted to do good, right?

Linley Dixon 40:57
And I mean, you’d have to be crazy to kind of, if you look at the farm that we’re sitting at, and the level of handwork that’s done, right. So you have to believe in what you’re doing, because it’s a lot of just kind of hard work on your hands and knees in the sun. So if you didn’t do this for other reasons, besides just producing cucumbers, because it’s so easy to go get a cucumber from the store, right? So I guess my point is, the farmer-led aspect is so important to me. And meeting these pioneers, yes, many of them are white men, but they have so much integrity. And, you know, I don’t want this story to be lost.

Nora Taleb 41:41
Do you know, one other aspect that just came to my mind is…this question about dogma, in finding solutions, and I sometimes hear that organic is too dogmatic in the sense that, yeah, there’s too much like rigor and principles, you can use herbicides and synthetic fertilizers and stuff like that. So and then, and that comes regenerative that that produces this rational, I guess, non-dogmatic approach, where it’s not about the values, it’s about what works. So it’s about measurable effects, they say, measurable effects on the land. But some, I mean, dogma is just a, it has a bad connotation to it. But to some extent, I feel like so what’s so bad about the dogma about saying we don’t, we believe that it is possible to produce without any synthetic fertilizers and chemicals on farm.

Linley Dixon 42:43

Nora Taleb 42:43

Linley Dixon 42:45
It’s just, it’s an anathema. You know, like, I would never think about going to get a spray and putting it on something that I’m going to feed my child and myself. It’s just like, No, unheard of right? And that’s the way it is for all these organic farmers. Like, there’s no excuse for it. There’s no need for it. We know this works. We know how to do this. No, you know? And I think that we’ve lost that.

Nora Taleb 43:11

Linley Dixon 43:11
And maybe there’s not, of course, there are health implications of eating it for the consumer, or the eater. But what about the worker that is exposed to it directly? Right, we don’t want to have that kind of high exposure level.

Nora Taleb 43:24
But I’m also thinking that, I mean, a challenge that the organic industry has is that there’s a lot of mistrust in the organic system as well. Like I often hear people say, that organic is fraud too, and that it’s not actually well done, like the system is not working. And I think this is another challenge that we kind of have in that industry.

Linley Dixon 43:45
But won’t there be fraud in anything? Right? Like there are going to be people that are going wherever there’s money to be made that are going to, so if you have a standard or you don’t there’s going to be people that cheat it.

Nora Taleb 43:56
So, how do we, so how do we regain the trust what we are after?

Linley Dixon 44:01

Nora Taleb 44:02
And what, what you guys are doing with Real Organic Project is basically about renourishing the trust that has been lost in organic and in the food system. And offering a label is one aspect to it, but it’s probably not the only aspect to recreating that trust.

Linley Dixon 44:24
I think there has to be an authentic story that’s actually traceable. For every single part of that food that you’re eating. So I so I see, like, I’ll give the example of Vital Farms that they have some organic, they have some non-organic, some is pastured, whatever that means, some probably are some really good farms and for sure, some are not. And they have a little, you, what’s it called with a QR code where you can show show your phone, and then it’s show me a farm and you see this beautiful farm you’re like okay, I’m gonna get it and it’s probably one of the 1000s of farms that they sourced from, and it’s, of course, it is part of that product.

Linley Dixon 45:01
But it’s not the whole story. So I think what we need to assure people is that if we’re showing you a farm, that you see every farm that is in that product that you’re about to consume, and that we’re not, like kind of cherry picking the best farm. And that’s a huge problem. You said, this is a great way actually, to kind of wrap up our conversation yesterday, you said Americans are so good at marketing, and what was our response? Really good at fake marketing, I think. The greenwashing is insane here. And you were saying that’s not as prevalent in Europe, but maybe it’s coming or it’s there.

Nora Taleb 45:35
Greenwashing is definitely there, but you guys are just very good at marketing as well. Like we look up to Americans with regard to how to market and how to sell stuff in an effective way. And yeah,

Linley Dixon 45:45
But the problem here is it’s not always the truth. And so eaters are so jaded.

Nora Taleb 45:50
Hmm, yeah.

Linley Dixon 45:51
With the story, I think I do want to end with the comment that you made yesterday about how, I was saying, you know, I’m not sure how big our program can be, because, you know, we’re starting with USDA as a baseline, you have to be certified organic. And that automatically leaves out a lot of our movement, people that are farming organically and just choosing not to get certified because they feed people and tell their story directly. And that’s, that’s sad to me, because that’s our farm as well. So that’s hard for me to just acknowledge that. Okay, we we’re not a label for that farm. And so I was kind of wrestling with Well, I don’t know how many farms we’ll end up having, just because that’s the baseline for us. And well, so go ahead. Where are your thoughts with that now? And I’ll remind you of what you said yesterday in case you forgot because it really made me think.

Nora Taleb 46:43
I think I forgot probably.

Linley Dixon 46:44
I think you said something about how, And Paul Hawken has said the same thing to us that we have to think bigger. That, that has to like, that the people behind the Real Organic Project have so much potential. So I don’t know if that’s kind of sparked your response to my, Well, maybe it’s okay, that we are serving this need, which is to push the bar higher under the USDA Organic standard for the farms that need a label to market their stuff. And then your response was, but, you’re not okay with that, because there’s too much potential behind this label.

Nora Taleb 47:24
There’s so much potential. Yeah, this is what got me so excited when I started to check in with you in 2019. There’s so much potential I see in the Real Organic Project, precisely because you are a farmer-led movement. And you are bringing this question of social equity to the discussion. And, because you guys are the real deal, this is why also the name is quite good, I think. So in a way, I feel drawn towards loving the local approach, loving the small, big is not always better.

Nora Taleb 47:24
And at the same time, I’m also sensing great potential that I’m not sure if totally living out the whole potential that Real Organic Project has will mean it needs to be super big, it needs to be super well known, it needs to be everywhere. Or if unfolding the full potential, it could also mean something different. We are trained to think that big is better, it’s not only like the conventional guys that think that. We also think that way. Like if it’s not super big, it can’t be successful.

Nora Taleb 47:24
So I don’t, I don’t have an answer yet to that question. But I find it a an interesting question. What could it mean for the Real Organic Project to unfold your true potential, your true essence, because there’s so much essence and so much liveliness and beauty in your movement and what you do. How could you totally like share that with the world and unfolded it in a way that it’s truly authentic to you and I feel you are on a really good path on doing that.

Nora Taleb 47:24
But, there is more to it, like, I feel like there’s something yet that it’s gonna grow out of your movement. That is maybe there at the horizon, but it’s not fully explored yet. So there’s, I see huge potential. And I’m so curious if it’s going to mean bigger, or if it’s going to mean something else. And I would just like to invite all of us to think and reflect our own thinking that even as organic people, even as people questioning capitalism, we also think it needs to be big in order to be successful. Just how we all are trained, I guess.

Linley Dixon 48:59
Maybe we can circle back to the partnership with Naturland, how do you think that can help us kind of spread what we’re doing?

Nora Taleb 49:33
It, like this is a global question. We are all so connected through food. It’s not just about US farmers, this is about, this is about any single farmer out on the world because we will, we will get in so much trouble if we just let Big Ag take over and the multinationals rule our food system. There’s like, I can’t even begin to name all the problems that will come with that. So I’m very excited, I’m very excited about this partnership because it is a global, it’s a global question, as I said, and I’m just hoping that, that like Europe and the US can learn from one another and be stronger together and hopefully share resources, share ideas, and get some of the brands and processors and traders behind the movement.

Nora Taleb 50:21
So that it’s not only a story that the farmers are carrying on their own shoulders, but that it is a shared, a shared story, because it needs to be shared, we need not only the farmers to create a different food system, we need the brands, we need the processors, we need the supermarkets. They are all important to be there.

Linley Dixon 50:39
Yeah, because these farms that are grain farms or dairy, where they need a whole system that supports them to be able to get to the end eater to tell their story. And so it has to be like you said, the brands have to help us and…

Nora Taleb 50:52
…and they want. So this is one thing that I found that I’ve been finding very inspiring in my career in the last 10 years, I guess, I’ve worked with so many inspiring farmers that just made me like turned into a little groupie. But I’ve also met so great, really great brands that made me almost feel the same way about them. That really care about the farmers, about the workers, about offering or helping grow a different economic system too. Because it’s not only about what we do on the farm, it’s about how we negotiate, how we do trade. And there’s really amazing brands out there.

Linley Dixon 51:27
We interviewed Vincent Stanley recently for our book club, and he was part of Patagonia’s story, and I didn’t believe him. I was like, there are so few brands, you know, like the Dr. Bronner’s of the world that are just like actually really trying to, like an alternative type of capitalism that is for for good, right? And I didn’t feel like there were enough success stories to believe it.

Nora Taleb 51:51
But look how…

Nora Taleb 51:51
It sounds like you have more success stories.

Nora Taleb 51:53
…how successful they are.

Linley Dixon 51:56

Nora Taleb 51:56
Like with a very radical approach, I guess, being super on point super focused…

Linley Dixon 52:02
but what percent of the soap do they sell in the world? Right? It’s like, why aren’t there more stories like this, and I’m having trouble believing that…and I would… I would love for everybody to understand the difference between the authentic soap brands. And you know what I mean? The brands that really aren’t, aren’t doing anything that they say that they’re doing. So? Yeah, I guess I guess, maybe give me some hope with some of the brands like tell me their stories, the ones that you have met that you really believe and when you go to these expos like Expo West, there’s both there, right? There’s the fake stories. And then there’s some real brands, and how do you figure out what’s real and what isn’t in this confusing, natural products world.

Nora Taleb 52:48
I guess I’ve been lucky enough to meet the people behind the brands. And this helps a huge deal with believing them and knowing that they are actually doing the real shit, I guess. When you’re just like buying the stuff at the store, it’s much more difficult to distinguish. Yeah, but there’s, there’s a lot of great brands out there. I’ve just recently been at an event in Germany with the CEO of El Puente which is a company in Germany, they do all sorts of products from across the world, some from, some European, some international, and they do 100% fair trade with everything that they do they, and they, but but they have internalized this idea of social equity and creating a different economy into the way how the company works as well.

Nora Taleb 53:43
This is something that I find interesting. So they are actually a, a, you, it’s probably a cooperative model. I don’t know the English term right now. But it’s, so it’s not they don’t pay out to shareholders, for example, they keep all the money flowing, circling inside of the company, to fulfill the mission that they have as a company, which is to create more equity through trade and, and food. So yeah, and there’s, there’s many great, great examples. But I’m just loving now that we spoke about this. I’m loving the idea that if I think about these companies that I perceive as successful and radically doing something different, they are very consequent, usually in their approach.

Nora Taleb 53:53
And I mean, we could totally start to analyze what is it that makes them unique and successful. But they tend to be brands, that something would really miss in the marketplace if they weren’t there, because they are adding a specific narrative tone, story, that people, that we would miss if they wouldn’t be around. And I feel about, I feel like this about the Real Organic Project if you were to disappear from one day to the other. So what would happen to all these 1500 farms or how many do you have right now?

Linley Dixon 54:47
Yeah, about that. 1150 or something?

Nora Taleb 54:50
It’s, I think this is what’s to me this is what’s attractive and important as an organization, as a company, creating this, you could call it non displaceability, like, how, like we can’t live anymore without the Real Organic Project. And and there’s a lot of brands that I feel like they are adding an important value that makes them different from other organizations. And this is what creates consumer trust. This is what creates credibility. And yeah.

Linley Dixon 55:21
So there’s a real responsibility as an eater to become informed how, how best, do they do that?

Nora Taleb 55:21
Do you mean to inform them? How to…

Linley Dixon 55:22
How should an eater stay informed in this very confusing world?

Nora Taleb 55:35
Yeah, that’s a good question. Yeah.

Linley Dixon 55:37
We’ll leave it to them to figure out.

Nora Taleb 55:41
Sorry I don’t know the answer.

Linley Dixon 55:43
No, it’s good. I think that’s why education is such a component of what we do, you know, all of these podcasts and symposia. It’s trying to, you know, explain the why behind, as you said, like, we didn’t start out, knowing that we wanted to create a label, right. That wasn’t our origin story. It was a fight for political reform. And then it was, okay, I guess we have to do this because we lost.

Linley Dixon 56:07
So yeah, it’s maybe really understanding the stories. And even, you know, like you said, trusting the people, when we were dealing with the Danone, and the Horizon scandal, where they dropped all of those New England, small dairy farms. There was a really, I really liked her, like a public outward facing marketing person that we worked with at Danone and she was just assuring us that no, there’s no way that Horizon sources from these big CAFOs out west, you know, that you’re concerned about aren’t meeting the grazing standards, and that are draining the aquifers and that that is not what’s happening, we’re actually sourcing from larger New England farms that are closer to our processing center, and we’re just not going to drive all over the back hills of New England anymore.

Linley Dixon 56:53
And, she truly believed it. But when it came down to it, and we said, we need you to just be transparent about the farms that you’re sourcing from, just you know, let us know. So if you, if you’re saying it’s totally authentic, what you’re saying is true, you’re only sourcing from New England, show us, right? No, that’s confidential information. We have some Amish farmers, they’re not willing to share. Well, we certify Amish farmers with the Real Organic Project. And they, they have to share, you know, where they’re located and who they sell to. And it’s like, in the end, they’re just not fully transparent. And I think that’s what we are requiring of the food system now is complete transparency. And if you can’t do that, I’m sorry, we don’t believe you. You know, so I’m hoping that that’s what we can, we can get is to, just in general, a more transparent food system, so then you just understand, okay, if it’s non-GMO, it’s, it’s, there’s going to be some herbicide on it. And that’s not so confusing for the eater to figure out, you know, we’re just, we’re able to kind of open the barn doors and like, see what’s going on. So that’s my hope. I don’t know what gives you hope?

Nora Taleb 58:00
What gives me hope is, I feel that there is a…I’m hoping this is not just my bubble, but I’m sensing that there’s a new, there’s an awakening spirit of the interconnectedness between nature and people. And the realization that farmers are at the core of this, of yeah, of this idea that we actually all one and that we are all united. And yeah, what gives me hope is that I was talking to your brother this morning about when he goes in to sell at the local farmers market, and what kind of interactions he has with the eaters that buy the product. And he told me lots of stories, but he also said that, in general, people really do care, and that you guys always sell out, and that it’s great to have this interaction, and that people value and appreciate the food.

Nora Taleb 58:36
And I’m just hoping that we will all as a global community, have more appreciation for food and for what nature is gifting us with. What you guys the farmers are gifting us with. But this is maybe I’m being naive, I don’t know. But this is really what I’m hoping for. And what I, what I want to work towards.

Linley Dixon 58:00
Yeah, no, it’s true. I think that you know, we did a tally and one in ten people on a Saturday in this community, go to the farmers market, and that’s amazing.

Nora Taleb 58:46
That’s amazing, yeah.

Linley Dixon 58:47
So I can…

Nora Taleb 58:47
They can only go to the farmers market because you’re here.

Linley Dixon 58:50

Nora Taleb 58:54
You know, it’s as easy as that. If you if you can’t farm here anymore in this beautiful landscape, the way you do organically, then they won’t have a farmers market to go to and yeah, this is, I mean, I think you’re doing a great job with your farm like this, this little farm and with the Real Organic Project, it’s so necessary.

Linley Dixon 59:50
Well, thank Nora, I’ve talked to you probably to death. Are there any anything lingering in your your mind at this point? Shall we go see some of the colors?

Nora Taleb 59:59
Yeah, let’s do that.

Linley Dixon 59:59
Let’s do it.