Ronnie Cummins, a tailgating activist who became one of the country’s leading organic food advocates and a leading critic of genetically modified foods, died April 26 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where he lived and worked part-time. He was 76.
Rose Welch, his wife and founding partner of the Green Consumers Association, an advocacy and information organization, said his death, which was not much talked about at the time, was caused by bone and lymph cancer.
Mr. Cummins was a lifelong activist and protester, starting with his opposition to the Vietnam War and nuclear power. He settled into organic food activism in the 1990s after being hired as a company director Clean Food Campaigna lobbying group that sought to raise awareness of the dangers of genetically modified foods while pushing for responsible labeling and government testing.
Mr Cummins worked on the ground for the campaign, raising the alarm at rallies and supermarkets about the dangers of food using genetically modified ingredients. As a spokesperson for the campaign, he handed out flyers, wrote opinion pieces and answered consumer questions.
He also worked for the Beyond Beef campaign, aimed at reducing beef consumption and promoting safer methods of cattle production. Both campaigns were founded by an environmental activist and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin.
Mr. Cummins “was a tough guy who could be an activist and also step back and do the intellectual homework behind what we were doing,” Mr. Rifkin said in a telephone interview.
“Too often activists burn out after starting out with high expectations,” he added. “But Ronnie could write, research, reason and be open to all points of view.
One of Mr. Cummins’ frequent targets was recombinant bovine somatotropin, or bovine growth hormone, a genetically engineered hormone produced by Monsanto that stimulates milk production in cows.
On the first day farmers were allowed to sell milk from cows injected with the hormone, in 1994, Mr. Cummins told The Associated Press that “if we don’t slow down the technology of change with genetically modified additives, we will be making a very fundamental mistake in terms of human health, health animals and the survival of family farms.’
He continued to question the milk produced by hormone-treated cows after he and Mrs. Welch began Association of Ecological Consumers, based in Finland, Minnesota in 1998.
“Recombinant bovine growth hormone is bad for dairy cows, literally burning them out in three or four years, causing terrible physical stress and a long list of health problems, including reproductive complications,” Mr. Cummins wrote in The Fresno Bee in 2008.
He enjoyed fighting the big brands. In 2001, he cast doubt on Starbucks’ promise not to use hormone-laced dairy products by asking to see its promise in writing. (The company finally complied in 2007.) He he warned about “a sneaky attack created by the likes of Kraft, Dean Foods and Smucker’s.” To pressure companies using modified beet sugar, he endangered protest against Hershey.
Although there are unresolved questions about the effect of genetically modified organisms on biodiversity, there is almost universal agreement among scientists that genetically modified foods are safe to eat.
Most consumers do not share this view, but the skepticism is largely due to the efforts of activists such as Mr Cummins.
The safety of genetically modified foods “is like global climate change, where 99 percent of scientists believe in it,” Pamela Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis, told The Roanoke Times in 2013.
She added: “You have scientists all over the world saying GM crops are safe to eat – and then you have Ronnie Cummins.”
Mr. Cummins was born Adrian Alton Abel on Oct. 28, 1946, in Jefferson, Texas, about 20 miles from the Louisiana border. His father, Jack, was an accountant for Gulf Oil in Port Arthur, Texas, the heart of the state’s oil industry. His mother, Elise (Stout) Abel, was a housewife who died by suicide in 1951.
In his 20s, Adrian changed his name to Ronnie Cummins, the name of a boy who was also born in 1946 and died in 1954. Ms Welch said he changed his name because he feared reprisals from the Ku Klux Klan for his anti-war activities . from Rice University in Houston, where he majored in English and philosophy, graduating with a BA in 1969.
Mrs Welch said she did not know why her husband had chosen the boy’s name Cummins. She said he told her he had no criminal record to try to hide with the new identity. His brother Jack Abel Jr. he said by phone that the story behind the name change “is so personal that I can’t share it.”
In addition to his wife and brother, Mr. Cummins is survived by his son, Adrian Cummins Welch; and his sisters, Molly Travis and Bonnie Abel.
Adrian grew up among refineries and later recalled catching oil-tainted fish. But he also spent idyllic years on the farm of his maternal grandparents, where he took care of animals and collected eggs.
“My life experience has taught me that money rules and power corrupts, and that putting profits over people and environmental health is not only wrong but deadly,” he wrote in his book, “Grassroots Rising: A Call to Action on Climate, Farming, Food”. and the Green New Deal’ (2020). “Organized grassroots power can make a big difference,” he added, “whether we’re talking about public awareness, market pressure or politics and public policy.
As a career, activism didn’t pay the bills, so he made ends meet over the years as a newsstand owner at the University of Minnesota, director of a food co-op in Burnsville, Minneapolis, outside of Minneapolis, and a house. painter. Mrs. Welch waiting tables.
“He was pretty much a hippie,” she said in a phone interview.
Both went to work for Mr. Rifkin in the 1990s, Mr. Cummins as director, Ms. Welch as campaign manager. They left to found the Organic Consumers Association, which supports enforcement of USDA organic food standards, produces educational materials for organic consumers and businesses, and supports public pressure campaigns on organic food issues.
“Hippie” was finally earning a real salary – $112,900 in 2021.
The OCA singled out two organizations: iVia Orgánica based in Mexicoagroecological agricultural school and research center, in 2009 and in 2014, international regeneration, which develops ways to develop agricultural practices that restore degraded land.
According to André Leu, international director of Regeneration International, Mr Cummins stood up to “a powerful elite that has monopolized power and wealth” and “undermined democracy, fair wages, healthy food, peace, the climate and the environment.”
Mr Cummins’ long-term aim was for the government to require labeling of genetically modified foods. He has campaigned for ballot initiatives in several states and won his first major victory in Vermont in 2014 when became the first state to pass a labeling law.
Faced with the prospect of a patchwork of state laws, Congress passed sweeping federal labeling law in 2016.
But Mr Cummins did not see it as a victory.
The law, which replaced stricter Vermont legislation, gave companies the option to use an icon or a scanned QR code to direct consumers to a website instead of having to write the information on the packaging. And some foods, such as highly refined sugars and oils, have been exempted from the labeling requirement.
mr cummins in an article on his websitehe called brands like Organic Valley and Stonyfield Farms “organic traitors” and accused the Food Producers Association, supermarket chain Whole Foods “and a cabal of sellout nonprofits” of giving in to “Monsanto and corporate agribusiness” by supporting the legislation.
“Normal, in other words,” he added, then used a buzzword for genetically modified products – “Shut up and eat your Frankenfoods.”
Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.