Edible Nation

The Next 20 Years of Organics

By Gary Hirshberg 0

This article was originally published in the GreenMoney Journal (Summer 2012 issue). For more information go to- www.GreenMoney.com


When thinking about our future, I can’t help but think of the past. I often joke that back when we started Stonyfield in 1983, you couldn’t even use the words “organic” and “industry” in the same sentence. With just seven cows and hardly any consumers understanding “why” it made sense to eat organic, we had no supply, and no demand. Today our annual sales are over $360 million, and the rest of the organic industry has continued to grow right alongside us. In the U.S., sales of organic food and beverages have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to over $31 billion today. Even during the recent economic downturn the organic sector grew at a much faster pace than the conventional food sector. Organic food sales now represent about five percent of all U.S. food sales. The organic industry grew by nine percent in 2011, adding new jobs at four times the national average. Organic is a growth engine for the economy.

What’s driving this continued growth? The simple answer is the public . Every day more people are deciding they want to take control of their health by taking control of their diet. Hardly a day goes by without another story breaking about a food supply scare. Pink slime in our burgers, antibiotics in industrial livestock production leading to antibiotic-resistant superbugs, arsenic in our chicken, salmonella on our cantaloupe – the list goes on.

For others, it can be a more personal life event, such as a pregnancy or a diagnosis of cancer or diabetes, that leads people to a new awareness of how the food they eat affects their health, or the health of their unborn children. In recent years we’ve learned that prenatal exposure to pesticides can result in lower birth weight, delayed cognitive development, ADHD diagnoses and even lower IQ. It’s been shown that we can avoid many of these risks by eliminating our exposure to pesticide residues in our diets. As columnist Nicholas Kristof reported in The New York Times two years ago, “The President’s Cancer Panel is the Mount Everest of the medical mainstream, so it is astonishing to learn that it is poised to join ranks with the organic food movement and declare: 'chemicals threaten our bodies.'” Four out of every 10 Americans will have cancer in their lifetime, the report stated. The 2010 panel, whose members were appointed by the Bush administration, recommended limiting your exposure to chemicals by eating foods produced without pesticides as one way to lower cancer.

With cancer, diabetes, obesity and allergens on the rise, people want to know more about their food. At Stonyfield, we hear from people 24/7 asking about ingredients, where they’re from, and how they’re grown. Often they are overwhelmed with contradictory information. There is considerable confusion over the difference between organic and natural, for example – and whether there is any difference at all. Unscrupulous companies have led consumers to believe that ‘natural’ products offer all of the benefits of certified organic for a more affordable price. With the rise in public confusion comes increasing consumer distrust. In response, agribusiness launched a $30 million PR campaign to build trust through a new US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. The Center for Food Integrity, a non-profit created by Monsanto and other agribusiness interests, is dedicated to “build consumer trust and confidence in today’s food system.”

Americans’ insistence on knowing what is in their food gave rise to Just Label It (JLI), the national campaign to label genetically engineered (GE) food. The National Organic Standards prohibit organic growers and food processors from using GE, but it is now in widespread use on non-organic farms throughout the U.S. A relatively new technology, GE has raised a host of health concerns and led to an explosion in herbicide use (herbicides made by the same companies manufacturing the GE crops designed to resist those herbicides). Despite the risks, the FDA has declared that because GMOs don’t smell, taste, or look different from their conventional counterparts, consumers don’t need to be informed about whether their food contains GE ingredients. Last October, the Just Label It campaign petitioned FDA to require mandatory labeling on GE foods, already required by more than 40 countries worldwide, including all of Europe, Japan, Brazil, Russia and China.

More than 500 diverse organizations – farming, parenting, religious, health, consumer, environmental, and business groups – joined the JLI coalition as partners. Though they held different views about GE technology, they united behind the common belief that we have a right to know about our food. Consumer support for GE-foods labeling in the U.S. is nearly unanimous, according to the political opinion survey on GE food labeling conducted by The Mellman Group on behalf of JLI. Pollster Mark Mellman said that only topics like motherhood and apple pie muster over 90 percent support, but labeling GE-foods is among them. His survey found nearly all Republicans, Independents and Democrats in favor of labeling. No wonder then that JLI met with groundbreaking success. In just 180 days, it generated more than 1 million petition comments – over twice the number on any food petition in FDA history. This extraordinary win is just part of a much broader push toward transparency in the food system.

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