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.

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