Beyond Organic (part 3 – conclusion)

So you’ve got the purist natural foodies – the ones who will boycott before they’d except a corporate buy-out on their favorite natural/organic product – they inspire innovation within the industry. Then you’ve got the moderates – the one’s who have tended to go with the flow as they stay on the look out for simple, affordable, approachable ways to support they and their family’s good health – they inspire growth and accessibility within the industry. It is true that this has all helped the organic food movement thus far, but you see, both of these camps are still pitched around largely personal notions – i.e. what you do or do not personally choose to put in your body, what you do or do not personally choose to support at any given time as is dictated by what conveniences and/or “sacrifices” you choose to abide by.

It makes sense that a movement would have to start with the value of appealing to the individual and those they care for, nothing is quite as motivating as the preservation of self and one’s progeny. The flaw with the self motivated approach, despite it being a good and necessary launching point, is that it still ultimately leaves a narrowed view directing the market and global impact. With this view it doesn’t really matter if polluting chemical giant Clorox owns Burt’s Bees so long as Burt’s formulas stay essentially true to their nature and thus clean and “safe” in the view of the consumer. (Though I will note, I’ve been in the industry long enough to see that when such companies do change their formulas, while not necessarily always getting less “natural” with their ingredients, they do have a tendency to “water down” their ingredients – using more of a base ingredient and less specialty ingredients – in order to drive their manufacturing cost down. The problem is then consumer is often getting a less effective product, or certainly no longer a premium product befitting the price tag typically associated with it.)

The point is, if we just keep on keeping on with this pattern we will only continue to see small innovative companies get consumed by larger companies and then a general status quo maintained. Things flat-line and don’t get any better. Meanwhile we are still persistently losing acres of rainforest to the unsustainable growing of soybeans and corn to feed livestock. We’re losing biodiversity in our food crops due to only growing certain varieties to the exclusion of all others. We’re polluting rivers and groundwater from concentrated animal feeding operations and over use of herbacides, pesticides, and antibiotics. We’re killing all of the life in our soil – making crops harder to grow, less resistant to pests and disease, and less nutritious for us. We’re creating ever more endangered plant and animal species through habitat loss, destruction and/or disruption. I could go on but I’m not just trying to be all doom and gloom. The bottom line is that only thinking of what is healthiest for ourselves and our families still doesn’t get to the root of the issues and industry that contribute to so much of the worlds problems to begin with. The “not in my backyard” mentality that can turn a blind eye to suffering in another part of the world so long as their organic strawberries get delivered to the local supermarket on time is not any healthier for the world at large, and it will, and it does, contribute to issues we face today, especially in this increasingly globally connected world.

I briefly worked with a gentleman who was one of the brains behind a campaign Whole Foods Market tried to launch a few years ago. They called it the “Responsibly Grown” campaign. The idea and initiative behind the whole thing was to design a ratings system for the produce department that would rank the sourced product on a scale of how “responsibly” it was grown. The judging criteria included such things as water management and conservation practices, ecosystem protection and/or development, pollinator protection and/or habitat creation, soil protection and revitalization etc… This was bold, this was brave, this was a growing industry leader trying once again to use its influence in the industry to push for sweeping changes regarding practices in the natural/organic industry as a whole. After years and much money spent planning, developing, and preparing to launch the initiative, including releasing all kinds of marketing materials to all of the stores and appearing to roll the program out, the campaign fell flat. It quickly became no longer pushed or really discussed. Signage remained up in stores for a little while, but the actual application of linking the produce in stores to the signage or a practiced ratings system barely ended up happening. Unlike the company’s successful 5 Step Animal Welfare rating program for their meat departments, or their marine stewardship council ratings system for their seafood, the produce department was to be left out.

You can still find articles about the campaign and the intention behind it, but it is not marketed, pushed, educated or practiced in any stores any longer. If you try to go to the original web page about the campaign it now redirects you to information about their “Whole Trade” program – which, while still being a good and important initiative within the industry, isnt serving quite the purpose that was intended with the responsibly grown program. And here’s the kicker, if you’re curious as to what helped kill this pioneering industry campaign (this all happened pre-Amazon buyout of Whole Foods), it was actually organic consumers associations and certified organic growers! They filed complaints about the initiative and didn’t stop until Whole Foods pulled support of the initiative, and then finally pulled out all traces of the idea of it from their stores. I do not know specifically why as I was not a fly on the wall. From what little I did learn via some association, and what I can surmise, its that such an initiative by this niche market grocery store would, in the minds of the organic-movement lobbyists, make things potentially more confusing for the customer, possibly tarnish the image of “organic” which could then hurt their livelihoods. Sounds like a fair enough argument, except for the fact that if the organic growers were being responsible in any of the ways on this rating scale it would have actually served them, their business, and their environment all the better, so why fight it?

We would like to think that organic = better. But certified organic farmers are still allowed to use certain chemical agents to certain degrees and application within whatever limits the USDA has ruled as acceptable (and we all know the government is not infallible). Organic farmers can still operate with practices that deplete the soil, waste water, damage habitats, or inflict cruelty to animals. The requirements for being “organic” for the consumer’s health benefit does not inherently extend to thinking about the non-human life, or even the human life (in laborers), that is impacted by any agricultural endeavor.

So we need to go beyond organic. We need to start thinking past our own plate and convenience. If we really want things to keep getting better then they must get better on a broader scale, and then we will reap the benefits in a domino effect of resilience. For those in the purist camp – If you’re getting frustrated by industry shenanigans, if you’re looking for a torch to pick up, start campaigns like the “responsibly grown” idea to try and educate about the importance of everything that is linked in the chain of the circle of life that agriculture and manufacturing is a part of. If your favorite thing was bought out and now associated to something you don’t feel is ethical, then perhaps you should start your own business and launch a version of your favorite thing and NOT sell it out – and then educate people as to why. Or in the very least encourage others around you to support the brands that do take larger, globally mindful matters into consideration.
For those in the more moderate camp – Keep voting with your dollars, as it has indeed helped. If you find your favorite natural/organic thing has escaped the natural food store aisle and crept over into big-box-conglomerate land perhaps you’ll buy it there now and then because its convenient, but please dont forget the little guys, the independent stores and niche grocers that helped get these products to market in the first place and STILL remain pillars within the industry for innovation and integrity. Remember and educate yourself on the fact that there are still independent brands that are bastions in the industry and they need support as well – and are more deserving of it than the Nestle’s and ConAgra’s of the world – so when you have an option to purchase from those brands over another, I encourage you to do so.

The long and persistent push that was used to propel the word “organic” into our more common lexicon can be the same for going beyond it. We’ve gotten this far, why stop now? Clearly change is possible. In fact, change is truly the only constant, so we may as well take an active and thoughtful roll in how we wish to continue influencing the change around us.

Beyond Organic (part 2)

Annie’s Homegrown, Honest Tea, Applegate Farms, Toms of Maine, Cascadian Farms, Green and Black’s Chocolate, Kashi, Naked Juice, Seeds of Change, Ben and Jerry’s, Lara Bar, Epic Provisions, Earthbound Organics, RX Bars, Frontera Foods, Evol Foods, Smart Balance and Earth Balance, Gardein, Udi’s, Glutino, Dagoba Chocolate, Justin’s Organic Nut Butter products, Sabra Hummus, Kevita Kombucha and Coconut Kefir drinks, Zico coconut waters, Alexia Foods, Skinny Pop, Oatmega Bars, New Chapter, Burt’s Bees, Kettle chips, Late July, Muir Glen, Immaculate Baking Co., Garden of Life, Erewhon, Peace Cereal, Bear Naked, Tribe, Van’s, Suja juice, Back to Nature…

What is the going rate for one “organic” soul?

What do all of these “natural” food, body care, and supplement companies have in common? These are just some of the pioneering, independent companies that have been bought out by mega-food conglomerates since the year 2000. Many of their acquisitions have actually happened just within the past 3-5 years, and the rate is increasing because all of the industry power-players have seen there is money to be had by investing in natural, organic, non-gmo etc…
A tell-tale sign these mergers were occurring is how much more readily available many of these brands became in the mass market. No longer do people have to only go to the local health food store, or even the natural grocery chains, instead they can just buy much of it at whatever typical grocery is in their neighborhood.

Now I’m going to say something that isn’t a terribly popular thing to say or hear among die-hard natural health advocates – But make no mistake, these mergers/acquisitions are, in a way, a win!

*gasp*, *shock*, “Why? How?” you might ask…
Well because it demonstrates a few important things – For starters it shows that voting with our dollars can promote large-scale change! With increasingly more people over the past decade expressing some degree of interest in eating healthier, cleaner, simpler, more organic, more “natural” foods, the demand necessitated increased supply and availability. These industry giant companies like Kellog’s, Campbell’s, ConAgra, Hershey’s, Nestle, Clorox, Colgate, Kraft, General Mills, Post, Hormel, Tyson, Pepsi and Coca-Cola etc… (who already were used to acquiring smaller brands on the regular, regardless of their “natural/organic” status), were not about to lose a major chunk of the market share. Then, with the industry scale power behind these brand buy-outs, suddenly the brands could be propelled to increasingly more market venues – and the more consumers see something, hear about something, and have access to it, the further it can continue to spread.

Do you want Kale fries with that?

Now we live in an age where White Castle, McDonald’s and even Burger King have gone out on a limb to offer vegan/vegetarian options on their grill menus! What is this world coming to? Glass half full = hooray! This means more access to alternative food/dietary options (perhaps your “weirdo” vegan cousin doesn’t have to keep being the black-sheep of the family anymore?). Hopefully this can further create access to healthier options made with less artificial ingredients. It certainly helps people be more open minded to these things being incorporated into their own lives and the lives of their families. However incrementally, it is changing the dinner table discussion towards health, and it is normalizing thoughts, concerns, palates, and dietary lifestyles that used to be considered “fringe” by dominant culture.

However, before you go feeling quick to accuse me of too much boot-licking of the food industry empire, I do feel responsibility to share the glass half empty side of this story as well. Or maybe not so much as being negative with a glass half empty, but more like being a pragmatic realist.
Industry titans – whose primary modus operandi is profit above all, and who have perpetuated themselves for a generation now by seeking “the big fish eat the little ones” dominance (as prescribed by the practice of absolute capitalism) – do not have you and your family’s best interests at heart. I hate to break the news to you, but we are all just walking dollar signs. Asking or expecting companies who simultaneously fund initiatives to fight against GMO labeling requirements, and that just as easily utilize artificial and unhealthy ingredients in the 50 or so other “conventional” brands under their belts, to in turn carry on and uphold the full natural/organic standards that their acquired brands may have originally been founded on, is not unlike asking a fox to guard your chicken house. (They can’t help it, its just in their nature.)

Sure, they show good faith in changing with the times and providing more of these things people are wanting, but they change/adapt to the times in order to stay on the top of the heap. So yes, things change, even for the better, but that doesn’t mean its all stemming from some sort of benevolent intent. Its more like “business as usual”.

Now we see a fissure of sorts, in the dedicated natural products brands and the industry’s customer base. On the one hand you have the purist’s camp – some of whom have even been die-hard purists since this organic food movement really started to get its legs under it in the 1960s. These folks may find out that some product they liked got bought by an industry titan with some questionable ethics, and they would rather disavow any further use/consumption of said product than support such a brand merger. They will find an alternative source now for the thing they liked, or they will make it from scratch themselves, or they will go without it.
On the other hand you have the moderate’s camp – the most common, average, and well meaning people, many of whom sort of drifted into the natural/organic foods stream within the last decade or so, perhaps somewhat out of happenstance (i.e. they heard it was good for them and figured it didn’t hurt to give it a try. They tried something they liked and were happily surprised that something healthier for them could taste good. They saw a more natural/organic equivalent being made of a product they already loved so they felt compelled to make the switch. Or perhaps they found natural and organic things to be more available where they shopped and increasingly more affordable – and convenience is king.) These folks are happily embracing the market growth of convenient, healthier, more organic, more naturally based products. These folks are the reason there ultimately has been the industry growth at all. These folks are the primary driving force of the mass-market changes. But they are not the pioneers and initiators, they just got on board once the purists had pushed hard enough, long enough, to garner a significant amount of recognition and tip some scales.

The moderate, average consumer happily rides the wave. They go in to health-type stores now, and buy certain kinds of products, when 10 years ago the thought might have never crossed their mind. They still may not eat a fast food conglomerate veggie burger, at least not often, because they know heavy consumption of any kind of “fast food” isn’t terribly healthy in general. But they also might not think twice about indulging from time to time.
This is most of us.

The purist sits back a bit dumbfounded that their next most favorite “natural” treat or staple just got assimilated by a company they tend to conclude is like the devil incarnate. They wring their hands and start the hunt for whatever small, private and local brands still exist which they can morally support and source their sustenance from. When feeling inspired to keep pushing the envelope they’ll call for boycotts, and make flowcharts of which brands have swallowed which so that others can stay in the know and make informed decisions as they see fit, and they may change their shopping patterns and make sure that everyone around them hears why, loud and clearly.

If real, honest and substantial change for our betterment is what we’re after, I believe that neither of these above approaches is quite going to get us there.

Stay tuned for part 3 of this article series for a proposal on the next steps we can take to further integrity in the industry for our best interests…

Beyond Organic (part 1)

In my home I have an antique Hoosier cabinet which I use as storage space for all of my DIY homestead canning, fermenting, and herbalist supplies. It is from a company that was in business in the late 1930’s early 1940’s, and on the inside of the cabinet doors, yellowed and made brittle with time, is still some of the original tacked in “helpful kitchen tips” for the housewife circa it’s era.

Konvenient Kitchen Kabinets brand Hoosier cabinet insert.

This information speaks of what foods people could plan to eat in their diet to obtain certain vitamins – A, C, and B… and that is it. No others were known. The 1930s were the heyday of scientific proof in the discovery of vitamins. The studies leading up to their discovery had only just begun in the 1900s, so just barely over 100 years ago! What I am getting at here is that, all things considered, nutrition, as a science, is still very much in its infancy. I have found I do well to remind myself of that fact any time I might feel frustrated at the seeming lack in any medical establishment’s connecting the dots between what we put into our bodies and the results we then get in effect.

The growing interest, science, and concern over the concept “you are what you eat” vs. the question “are you what you eat?” has led to the divide we see today in modern, industrial, agro-chemical heavy farming of our foods, and the organic food movement. The funny thing about the word organic is that by its base definition there is no way for any food substance to not, both scientifically and literally speaking, be “organic”. But setting semantics aside for a moment lets consider the “organic foods movement”, brought about by citizens who expressed concern about putting chemically sprayed and engineered foods into their bodies, especially considering that long term ramifications of such exposure is still largely unknown. With each passing generation, post WWII and the mass spread of agro-chemicals, the general population has essentially been the lab rats in what remains to be seen of one of the greatest unwitting world health experiments ever conducted by our species on our species.

Through advancements in medical technology, biological science, hygienic practices, life saving pharmaceuticals, and nutritional discoveries, we have largely eradicated many of the risks and causes of death which greatly impacted the generation just a century ago. That generation came from a time when average life expectancy was only 40-50 years old or less, now we generally call that merely “middle aged”. It is absolutely an amazing achievement that we have nearly doubled the average lifespan in this amount of time.
However, many contributing factors to our modern culture’s development, our “progress”, and lifestyle, have created impediments to optimal health. Yes, we may live longer, but how many of those years are spent dependent on a host of medications, medical device apparatus, living with chronic degenerative conditions, persistently suffering to some degree or another, racking up medical bills and possibly barely affording to live, while not enjoying much of the life we have? Why do we accept this as the norm and not stop to question more of “why is it this way?”, “does it have to be this way?”, and “could there possibly be some ways to better mitigate the inevitable entropy that is aging?” Shouldn’t quality of life be as equally important, if not more important, than quantity?

“Grandma” being made fun of by a young whipper-snapper who doesn’t know what’s good for’m.

Grandma was eating “organic” foods before it was cool. Back then it was just simply called “food”, and most of it for American families was largely grown in their own back yard, or in the very least just down the street in a neighbor’s back yard. For many parts of the world this is still the case today. But as previously discussed, other lifestyle and time period factors stunted life expectancy over a century ago, so at that time there was not much critical exploration into whether it may or may not be important to consider what went into the process of producing the foods we consume.

With little regard to regenerating our environment, we farmed much of America’s heartland to the point of stripping its topsoil down to next to nothing, this contributed to dust-bowls and severe drought conditions making it a nearly impossible challenge to produce enough food crop. It is no wonder that with the industrial boom and introduction of agro-chemicals it looked like the future for feeding the world was merry and bright – “Better living through chemicals” as the corporate slogans said. Perhaps we thought nature had failed us, whereas our own products – all within our own control – would surely save us? Nevermind the thought that perhaps it was we who were failing nature.

Severely eroded farmland during the Dust Bowl, circa 1930’s

The natural vs. unnatural, organic vs. conventional debates aimed to go beyond just what’s sprayed in the fields or baked into our crackers. The organic and natural foods movement tried to press for a return to simplicity even in food product formulation. For example, why should you have to eat a loaf of bread with an ingredients list a mile long when historically “bread” is one of the most simple food creations – flour, water, salt, yeast…

The tides tend to turn as the market demands. Just within the past decade enough people considered it valuable for their health, the health of their families, the health of their communities, the health of the ecosystem etc… or whatever drove their interest, to the point that collectively our culture’s investment in “organic” and “natural” products turned heads at the mega-corporations. These companies began to find ways to filter “organics” in to their own retail aisles because to them it looks like dollar signs. They also took noted interest in successful brands within the pioneering “health food” industry and began buying them up in order to snag a piece of the pie for themselves. There is really no surprise in this – it is capitalism operating business as usual.

Does it really matter if the wholesome, family owned and personally inspired, “organic” food product you love is suddenly now under the umbrella of General Mills or Coca Cola? If they’ve not changed the formula of the product you love, if they don’t seem to have sacrificed any quality or purity, why should it matter? Can’t we have our proverbial cake and eat it too?

This is the conundrum that rises before us in these times. It is a topic that generates the thought that perhaps, its time to move beyond “organic” in our reasoning and choices. To find out more about where we are now so we can better plot a way forward stay tuned for part 2 of this article…