Consumers Want To Know
But Do They Know What They Want?
And How Much Do They Care About Lunch?
Michael Wilde And Steve Savage
Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, February 25, 2015
It wasn’t long ago that we received this notice:
Louis Ruissen apples no longer anonymous
Dutch biodynamic apple grower Louis Ruissen is proud. Finally, European consumers who enjoy his apples, can find out exactly who the grower is behind the fruit. Earlier this week Louis received his first personalised Nature & More carton. By entering his code (621) on the Nature and More website (natureandmore.com), consumers can learn more about Louis and his fabulous orchard.
Ricardo Montoya, product manager at Eosta, presented the first personalised carton to Louis. Montoya: “Louis owns a fabulous biodynamic orchard which has been certified organic for more than 15 years. The orchard is full of life and vitality and this can be tasted in his apples. His Santana apples for example are exceptionally red ... the perfect Christmas apple!”
Louis Ruissen explains why it is so important for him to be able to supply “personalised fruit”: “Trees and growers are not objects or factors of production but living organisms. In the stores, our fruit is usually completely anonymous; that is why I am happy that people now can clearly see that I am the grower of the apples … that makes me proud.”
We confess that it is not obvious to us what it means to say that one can taste the life and vitality of an orchard in its apple production. Or how this makes apples more red.
Certainly, though, many believe that consumers want to know more about the production of their food, thus Wal-Mart’s full size cut-outs of local farmers.
So we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:
Manager Communications and Sustainability
Nature & More
Waddinxveen, The Netherlands
Q: Your personalized Nature & More grower program highlights the individual sustainability stories of your organic farmers and aims to provide transparency at both the consumer and retail levels. Tell us about your company and how this initiative fits within your sustainability platform.
A: We are an international company that sells organic and fair trade fruits and vegetables mainly in Europe, but also in the United States, as well as Asia — Hong Kong and Singapore. We’ve been around for 25 years, and we’re a market leader in Europe certainly when it comes to organic fruits and vegetables. Our customers are supermarkets — retailers emphasizing organics such as Whole Foods — and smaller organic store formats, plus wholesale.
When we set up 25 years ago, we realized there is no such thing as sustainable without transparency. Consumers, whether in the States or Europe, are very much aware of the big issues facing the planet. They’ve seen greenwashing of sustainability claims and have become skeptical of businesses. If a company says, ‘we are green, we are sustainable’, at the end of the day, many consumers won’t believe it.
Q: Since sustainability encompasses environmental, social and economic impacts, isn’t there some subjectivity in prioritizing and balancing those considerations? In fact, some retailers, including Whole Foods, with its Responsibly Grown program, and Wal-Mart, with its sustainability index, have started to rank produce suppliers on internal sustainability scales, which has fueled some debate due to the subjective weight placed on the different components... [Editor’s note: you can read some of our coverage here and here.] What is your view on this?
A: It’s important to give consumers all the information so they, themselves, can make balanced purchasing decisions based upon all the facts. That’s a main reason why Nature & More has been around for so long because that’s been our philosophy from the start.
We set up a transparency “trace and tell” system that uses an integrated sustainability model, which is important. The other thing that is important to mention is that we’re a normal commercial company, but we have a strong ideology. We really want to make a positive impact on the planet, and the way we can do that is by working as much as possible with organic farmers, and to make sure there are more and more organic farmers on this planet. They will have a real effect. So we stimulate consumption, and in that way, we stimulate production of organic farming.
Q: Your comments are thought-provoking and generate many questions. Here are a few thoughts to consider as we continue our conversation: First, in regard to the evolution of consumer interest in organics, niche to more mainstream — could you discuss growth and future potential in relationship to product availability and cost? Second, is it necessarily a “given” that organic is always the more sustainable route? And do these issues play out differently in European markets versus U.S. markets? For instance, long before pesticides were on the radar with U.S. consumers, European consumers expressed widespread concern about pesticide use and residues, evidenced by product marketing on retail shelves…
A: We know the European consumer better than the U.S. consumer, although we are in close contact with our customer, Whole Foods, and there are also quite a lot of similarities. The way I compare consumers is historically. Years ago, consumers were very loyal to a company, listened to what it said and believed it to be truthful. The new consumer, particularly the one interested in sustainable product, is far more independent, listens to friends and family, and perhaps some NGOs, but is not as interested in branding by companies and what politicians have to say.
It’s changed from a very loyal consumer to a critical consumer. It’s happening on both sides of the Atlantic. In Europe, we’ve seen a lot of research showing a huge distrust of food. We’ve had a lot of food crises in Europe -- the bird flu, horse meat sold as beef, E. coli problems with eggs… and every time we have a food scandal, people are not just frustrated, but decide that they want to make their own decisions, they don’t trust anymore, and then feel more comfortable with organic.
Q: Yet, certain organic certification claims have come into question, and organic is not necessarily safer than conventional, some would say that the very use of compost opens the path to the use of improperly composted manure. Research shows that consumers don’t always understand what defines organic. For instance, they may believe that organic is pesticide-free...
A: This connects back to the critical importance of transparency, and educating and empowering consumers on all the issues so that they are able to make informed choices.
Q: There are two other issues I’m hoping you can address: in order to have widespread organic production, doesn’t it require a move from small farms to much bigger industrial agriculture complexes? This ironically is counter to some organic and environmental advocates, dedicated to promoting small local growing operations. Also, research shows that geographical land conditions place logistical limitations to the future growth of organic, regardless of demand. So even if you have an ideal vision of feeding the world with organic food, it may not be realistically possible. Could you discuss?
A: There’s a new study from University of California, Berkeley researchers titled: Can organic crops compete with industrial agriculture? It was just published in the Royal Society Proceedings B journal: Diversification practices reduce yield gap between conventional and organic. It shows it is possible to feed the world organically based on a long term vision. That’s not saying that everyone should eat organic. I wrote a blog about this, and never has this blog been shared so many times as my previous blogs. Much has been written about how organic is not a viable option to feed the world, but it actually is possible. The main problem also is directly linked to our campaign Save Our Soils. [Editor’s note: you can learn more about the global effort here.]
The FAO of the United Nations is saying the same thing, and large national organizations are following suit now, so we’ll see this shift toward organic.
The reason why people are bashing organic is because the agricultural chemical sector will have a lot to lose if people choose more and more organic products because they won’t be able to sell any more of their products. And so they’re trying to create this myth that organic is not feasible, and it’s just a niche thing for the rich. But that’s not the case.
Q: This raises issues that relate back to an intriguing Q&A piece with Dr. Steve Savage, agricultural scientist, published in the Perishable Pundit a few years ago: Organics, Crop Yields and Feeding the World. What does this UC Berkeley study reveal?
A: In the short term, organic production is not as productive as non-organic production. The UC Berkeley study results show that while before we thought it to be 25 percent less productive for organic, it is now only 8 percent less productive, much slighter than what people initially thought. But more important is the fact that organic farmers build the soil and feed the soil and the plants take out what they need from that soil. With conventional farming, there’s a lot of use of artificial fertilizers. And artificial fertilizers are good in the short term for plants because the plants get their food, but the problem is in the long term.
Q: In what way?
A: Artificial fertilizers contain salt. In soil there’s a lot of life —25 percent of all life forms on this planet are actually in the soil. As you probably know, salt and life don’t mix very well. Salt kills life. So at a certain point, depending on what crop, etc., the soil deteriorates and becomes dead. When you have dead soil, there’s not much you can do. You can’t keep adding more fertilizer. At a certain stage, it’s just not working anymore. It’s very prone to erosion, and you lose a lot of soil. With many of these conventional crops, you need to move on to a new piece of land, and that process can take 20 years. With the models we have now, we’re not taking that into account. We’re only looking at this year, next year, and perhaps in three or four years’ time.
We’re not looking long-term. Organic crops can stick on that piece of land for centuries. Growers can still farm on that piece of land for 300 or 400 years because they are feeding the soil, not just feeding the plants. This is one of the biggest issues when it comes to feeding the world. We really need to take care of the soil that we have. It’s like the skin around our bodies. If you break it, it takes a long time to rebuild and to become healthy again.
Q: With technological advances in growing techniques and alternative pesticides—such as biorationals or biocontrols, can’t the pathway to change include conventional crops? [Editor’s note: you can read more on this topic in the October issue of PRODUCE BUSINESS: Rationalizing Biorationals.
A: The other thing that comes out of the research is that 75 percent of the crops grown in the U.S. go to animal feed or biofuels. They don’t go to feeding people. So we must look much more carefully about how we use land, instead of looking at energy and putting calories into other animals, which are then putting calories on us. That would be another way of solving many of the problems that we have. And the third issue, which I’m sure you know, is that just as many people are dying of diet-related illnesses as are dying of starvation. So it’s also a question of how we operate to make sure what we grow on this planet is shared more equally with people who need it most. When we talk about how we can feed the billions of people on this planet, I think protecting our soil for future generations is a key in this whole discussion.
Q: Aren’t some of these issues beyond organic or conventional production?
A: From an organic perspective, it’s not that we should say everyone needs to be certified organic, but let’s look at feeding our soil more as opposed to the drip feed of a plow, which is the method now in much of the conventional agriculture sector.
Q: So you could be protecting the soil and not necessarily be certified organic?
A: Absolutely. It’s very important that we as an organic movement are not dogmatic, and say everyone should be certified organic. All we’re saying is take care of your soils. Instead of putting lots of chemicals on the soil, make a compost and look at feeding that soil, so future generations can still grow crops. It’s not necessary to have this whole certification process. There will be growth in organic and that will continue, but we don’t want to be rigid and say, our way is the only way. I think that would be a very dangerous attitude to have.
Q: What ways are you acting to be more inclusive?
A: Together with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, we have moved forward with the international year of the soil. We set up a campaign called, Save our Soils, and in the United States, we’ve got the support of the Rodale Institute and the Organic Consumers Association. We have 120 partners now from many organizations, who have joined the campaign, each of them to help share the very important message of soil, which is foremost.
We’re losing 30 soccer fields of fertile soil every minute. The second message of the campaign is that sustainable farming is the solution. And the third aspect is that we realize the campaign only works if people get involved. So we ask people to become “soil mates,” friends of the soil, and to talk about this and tell their friends. That every time they enter a store, they are casting a vote for the kind of world they want, so the planet is protected. We ask them to choose sustainable agricultural products. In this way, we hope to get the message of soil across, throughout 2015. There are all kinds of ways to get consumers more aware of this problem.
Q: Isn’t water a pivotal problem for the produce industry? How does this connect with soil issues and organic farming?
A: There’s a huge connection with water issues and soil. Firstly, you have the use of water. Because organic farmers use compost, it acts as sort of a sponge -- in some cases using 70 percent less water because the compost holds the water very, very well. But there’s also a huge water issue when it comes to pollution. Many of the artificial fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides are running off the water and having a big impact downstream. Organic practices alleviate this run off. Water is something that we will be focusing on in the future because it’s such a big part of agriculture.
Q: This takes us back to the three legs of sustainability: environmental, social and economic, and also to transparency. At the start of our interview, you highlighted transparency as an integral component of your company, so that consumers can make informed and balanced decisions based on all the facts. How are you accomplishing this? Tell us more about your personalized grower program…
A: Transparency is most important. Every company, whether sustainable or not, is using the word sustainability. There are many aspects of sustainability, but it comes down to what kind of planet are we leaving behind for our kids? The key is making the information transparent. If you go to the Nature & More website and enter the code of the grower, each grower has his own sustainability flower. In that flower, we’re not trying to define sustainability.
What we are saying is there are nine elements of sustainability that we think should be part of the discussion. We talk about soil, but we also talk about animals, and biodiversity; we talk about plants and energy and CO2; the social factors, freedom, justice and solidarity. Every single grower we work with has nine stories about sustainability. The most important thing there again is that not every grower has nine perfect stories because no one is perfect; no grower is perfect and no consumer is perfect. But we do tell the authentic stories of what’s going on. By doing that, people can read about the grower and then make their own decisions on whether they want to buy product from that grower.
And as far as local is concerned, obviously the most important thing is local organic products. I would prefer to buy organic products from another part of the world, and shipped in rather than flown in. If a farmer is using a lot of chemicals on his land, it could be local but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s sustainable because it could have an extremely bad impact on the environment and on the soil. So, firstly, I would say go for local organic seasonal product. And if it’s not available, look for products from other parts of the world. That’s more important than product poisoning the land, negatively impacting bees, the water system and the soil.
Q: You’ve mentioned nine different sustainability elements to consider and a range of evolutionary grower stories… do you think you need scientific research and measuring tools to provide accurate assessments? For instance, a conventionally grown Fair Trade product that is sustaining the livelihood and survival of impoverished families in Kenya may outweigh the sustainable attributes of an organically grown alternative closer to home? It’s all about weighing the different components…
A: But that’s exactly the point. We’re making it transparent. We import a lot of organic mangos from Burkina Faso and South Africa. We work with one company in Burkina Faso, and they work with 3,000 growers. The social impact that we have on those growers is strong because we import so many mangos to Europe and they’re getting a good price for them, in addition to the projects we finance through those sales. There is a lot of real good things happening on the ground, not just in their local market but also being able to sell products in the lucrative European market.
When you talk about importing mangos from Burkina Faso, most people immediately think, oh my, that’s not organic, that’s not sustainable. Firstly, transport is considered a big CO2 problem, but we explain that we are not bringing the product in by airplane, but by ship, producing far less CO2 than the box being transported by air. Then we can focus on the social impact. We share those stories on that sustainability flower and one consumer says, “I don’t think it is right to buy from another continent,” and another says, “I think it’s great because of the social impact.” It’s not on us to sit on the chair of the consumer. We have to let the consumers make that decision themselves, and that is why we have to make the information transparent.
Q: Do you have a way to track consumer interest in going to the site and taking the time to read all the details? With shoppers’ busy schedules, and the influx of information consumers confront on a daily basis, do you find your website tends to appeal to a dedicated niche audience? What feedback have you received?
A: We look at all the stats. We see tens of thousands of people going to the site. But what we also see is more interest from consumers on the social aspects of sustainability with products coming from the Southern Hemisphere, and more interest in the ecological aspects coming out of the Northern Hemisphere. For example, we have a lot of organic sweet potatoes imported from the U.S.A., and people in Europe automatically assume that if sweet potatoes are coming out of the Northern Hemisphere, social rights and fair pay are covered by national legislation, so then they are more interested in what is happening on the ecological side. And if the product is coming out of Africa, consumers want to know the social story, and making sure that people on the farm are not treated as slaves, and that women are not discriminated against.
There is more interest from consumers in finding out the source of their food, but we also have people who have checked out our site once or twice, and by making it transparent, they feel comfortable these products are OK to buy. That is an important element. Consumers appreciate transparency.
Q: How does that transparency with your grower partnerships translate to your retail customers?
A: On the retail side, we see supermarkets obviously listening to what consumers want more and more. Supermarkets are certainly selling more organic products, and that is going well. Some supermarkets -- let’s be careful -- are quite skeptical and don’t want the transparency of Nature & More. They make money by keeping products anonymous. For example, you have an orange supplier asking $2 a kilo for his oranges, but the supermarket is talking to 20 different orange suppliers so is able to get the cheapest one that’s able to meet its expectations.
If the supermarket says this orange is coming from a special-needs farmer with a handicap in a small town in Greece, etc., it may be that consumers will start demanding product from that grower, not only because they like the taste but also because they like the story. The supermarket no longer has the choice of who it buys from. It loses that buying strength and flexibility in the trade. It’s a big dilemma for supermarkets. On the one hand, they want to show they are sustainable and transparent. But on the other hand, they don’t want to give away the power they have in the supply chain.
Many are struggling with this, and we found a solution. For example, Whole Foods has its own store brand and is using the Nature & More system to strengthen it. It’s like buying a Dell system with the Intel processor inside. You buy a Whole Foods pineapple, but it has the Nature & More system inside. We are providing the Nature & More stamp but under the Whole Foods brand. In this way, the supermarkets are keeping control of their own brand and just strengthening their private label using our system.
Q: Could you provide more detail on the actual Nature & More system?
A: It’s simple. We work for about a year with the grower and build mutual trust and see there is a great way of working together. Then we bring them under the Nature & More system. That involves questionnaires that we send them. When our buyers visit our growers, they work through a whole list of all the elements of sustainability. There’s an interview, we do a video, take photographs, develop a special grower stamp, then when it’s up and running, we translate it in different languages — English, German, French and Dutch.
We go live with a presentation on our website, and we send out a press release. And the product going into the market has the stamp of the grower on the packaging as much as possible. That way we give the grower a podium as well. The growers are really happy with this because they’re proud of the products they grow with their team and of seeing them on the shelves of supermarkets around the world. It’s stimulating for them as well.
Q: Is the grower stamp on consumer product merchandised on retail shelves? Is there any in-store marketing to promote these grower stories?
A: Not as much as we would like. There are supermarkets that do their own packaging and don’t want the Nature & More labels. Sometimes when the apples are packed, you’ll see the Nature & More sticker on the apple, but it’s presented under the store brand environment.
More and more of these retailers want to show they’re transparent and doing the right thing for the planet. Then it’s easy to start working directly with us because it’s almost like sustainability in a bottle.
Q: When you’re partnering with these farmers on their sustainability initiatives, do you have a system set up to verify and monitor their programs, such as third-party audits? Do you visit periodically to check on their progress and update their sustainability flower on the website?
A: This is a very important question. Obviously we check if the grower says, “We’re supporting this charity with the local school in the village.” When the buyers or I visit, we take a look at the project. So we do that kind of verification. But it works much more along the fields of trust. They already have a good story of helping the planet and what we’re doing is giving that story a platform. It’s less about the hard facts of measuring CO2 and documenting a specific number, although we’re going much more toward that kind of auditing because more supermarkets are demanding that.
But our relationship with growers is based upon trust, not just a check list. It’s more of a showcase of “he’s mastering this, working on this, and struggling on this.” He hopes to have solar panels on the roof of his barn; that’s not the case at the moment, but he plans to have the finances to do that in five years’ time. And that’s what we’ll put on the website, following his progress. So it’s not a hard line like a GAP audit, but authenticity is the most important thing. We need to insure we always tell the truth, or the whole system falls apart like a house of cards, and that’s the last thing we want, but it’s not like we’re harsh auditors.
Q: How does this coincide with your retail customers’ stringent food safety requirements and other audit procedures?
A: We obviously must have organic certification at our base, but many of our growers also are GAP-certified and Fair Trade certified, and those are very strong audits that every grower has to adhere to. But what we’re saying is that there is so much more information than from an audit. These growers have beautiful stories about how they are helping the planet, and we want to connect them with consumers, who also care about the planet, and show that we can make a difference together.
Q: Could you provide perspective on the reach of your Nature & More program and projections going forward?
A: We have a company of 80 people here. Compared to other organic companies, we’re quite big, but certainly compared to conventional companies, we’re not big at all. One of the reasons for our growth is not just because of our system and who we are, but that more and more people are becoming aware of what they eat and increasingly discerning on the source of their food. That has certainly helped our momentum. But I think the way we’ve been successful is by understanding the importance of looking forward, beyond the current market, to where the market is going; to gauge the atmosphere and the things that are important. In that sense, we’ve been surfing on the growth in organics but we’ve also been making the right decisions along the way.
Much of this falls in the category we like to call, “interesting, if true.” For example, we know lots of growers and have visited lots of farms and don’t know any farmers in the West who are indifferent to the quality of their soil now or “in 20 years.” For most of these growers, land is their biggest asset and the growers think hard about how to nurture their soil and thus keep their land productive and valuable.
We also know of many acres of land that have hosted crops with various fertilizers for over 20 years, and that land is not abandoned – “salt” has not destroyed the soil.
Transparency is like motherhood and apple pie – no one can be opposed --but whether consumers are all that interested in transparency and are qualified and motivated to evaluate the information transparency provides is very much an open question.
Almost a decade ago, we wrote a piece in Pundit sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS, titled Organics Redux, where we started the article with two quotes, both from titans of the organic industry:
“This isn’t what we meant. When we said organic, we meant local. We meant healthful. We meant being true to the ecologies of regions. We meant mutually respectful growers and eaters. We meant social justice and equality.”
—Joan Dye Gussow, Teachers College, Columbia University, and former member of the National Organic Standards Board
“You have a choice of getting sad about all that or moving on. We tried hard to build a cooperative community and a local food system, but at the end of the day, it wasn’t successful. This is just lunch for most people. Just lunch. We can call it sacred, we can talk about communion, but it’s just lunch.”
— Eugene (Gene B.) Kahn, founder, Cascadian Farm
and charter member of the National Organic Standards Board
It is very nice that people can enter a grower code on a web site and learn about a farm or a farmer. And in fact, this is not the only system that can do things such as this. But what percentage of consumers is interested in doing this for hundreds of food items they may buy?
And even if they did it, how could they evaluate meaningfully the information available?
Plus, how will the consumer even know what he is being told is actually true? As Michael Wilde explains ”…it works much more along the fields of trust. They already have a good story of helping the planet and what we’re doing is giving that story a platform. It’s less about the hard facts…”
Though if this becomes a value producer, there will be tremendous incentives to cheat.
The study from UC Berkeley on organic productivity that was discussed is difficult to evaluate.
“I knew something was fishy,” says Willett. He requested a data supplement from the journal and noticed that the authors had pulled incorrect numbers from some of the original studies, including the long-running Nurses’ Health Study, which Willett helps direct. Willett also saw what seemed to him to be another problem: the authors had omitted important studies from their analysis.
In the organic meta-analysis, since the conclusion was the same – organics are less productive than conventional -- nobody has yet done this kind of line-by-line analysis of the study.
In any case, we have dealt with issues such as this before, and we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to go back to one of the most insightful commentators on the subject of organic productivity:
Mira reached out to Dr. Steve Savage to get further perspective…
Dr. Steve Savage
San Diego, California
Q: What is your assessment of a new study from University of California, Berkeley researchers: Can organic crops compete with industrial agriculture? It was published in the Royal Society Proceedings B journal: Diversification practices reduce yield gap between conventional and organic. The study concludes that evidence supports much greater growth potential in organic crop production as an alternative to conventional agriculture. Do you think the study provides new revelations since your thought-provoking Q&A piece in our online publication a few years ago: Organics, Crop Yields and Feeding the World? Combining your own research and analyses of these issues, what can you tell us?
A: The study seems to be well done — [comparing organic and conventional yields with a new meta-dataset three times larger than previously used (115 studies containing more than 1,000 observations] — although it would take a ton of time to evaluate the studies they included.
I think it is interesting that they basically found what others have found before — yield in organic is definitely lower. To me that was the conclusion. Their finding that crop rotation is better is sort of a “duh” thing — we’ve known for a long time and is in no way unique to organic. The finding that polyculture is better is really not that meaningful because it’s not practical except where a very labor-intensive approach is somehow possible.
Q: Yet, one of the key points of the study is that the difference in yield levels between organic and conventional crops is much less than previously reported. How important is this finding?
A: They go to extremes to spin it as “not as bad as in earlier studies.” The implication is that a 10% or 20% yield difference isn’t very significant. That isn’t how it works for a farmer. Often the only profit is in that last 10%-20%. I’m sure there was no way to evaluate the net economics because that sort of information isn’t usually captured in academic yield trials, but that is what matters.
Q: What are some of the other factors that need to be incorporated into the analysis?
A: The organic may have a significantly higher labor cost depending on the crop. They also may not have been measuring “marketable yield” or yield as it compares to the varying prices over time. Early yield is often worth a great deal more than yield that occurs during the peak of the season. They also didn’t measure differences in shelf life of what was harvested, and that can be a big issue for some organic commodities.
Q: Could you elaborate more on the issues of crop rotation and farming production techniques with organic farming compared to conventional?
A: The benefits of crop rotation have been widely understood since long before there was something called organic. What usually limits rotational diversity is land value. As an example, areas along the California coast that are good for berries, broccoli, spinach etc., are very expensive to rent or own. Crops there are definitely rotated (often more than one year) but the length of time between the highest value option may be shorter for conventional, because for organic, long rotation may be the only way to deal with some of the pests. Only the price premium can compensate for needing to plant some lower value crops in some seasons. In general, farmers rotate to the extent they need to and that differs by crop. Sugar beets and potatoes definitely need rotation.
Q: Are organic farming methods better for the soil and for preserving land over time?
A: The original insight of organic was the importance of building/maintaining soil health. People often make the mistake of assuming that pre-"industrial” farming was organic. It was not. Tillage-intensive farming definitely degraded soil quality leading to declining productivity and erosion issues (e.g. the Dust Bowl of the 1930s). The organic solution was a combination of using cover crops and importing very large amounts of organic matter such as manures or composts.
Q: What are the resultant impacts?
A: The organic method works, but is essentially dependent on conventional animal production and the conventional cropping that feeds those animals. Organic produce growers are allowed to use composted manure from conventional because without it there would not possibly be enough.
In developed countries like the US, soil health in conventional farming has been improving since the establishment of the Soil Conservation Service early last century, and particularly since the development of reduced tillage methods, which started in the 1960s and has been growing ever since. This is a much bigger deal in the hundreds of millions of acres of row crops where the real cutting edge on soil health is no-till with cover cropping. That is a far more scalable method, but is extremely hard to do without herbicides (e.g., for organic). In trees and vines the state of the art is to have a permanent cover crop in the middle and herbicide-based non-tillage of weeds in the row. Organic either has to use tillage, permanent mulch or commonly a flame-based weeder at 20+ gallons of propane/acre/year.
Q: This year there is an international campaign, Save Our Soils, which points to the idea that organic methods build and feed the soil, while in much of conventional farming, artificial fertilizers, certain pesticides and chemicals erode and kill the soil. Could you provide more perspective here?
A: Soil depletion and degradation are not significant issues in most of developed world agriculture. If that was still an issue, we would not be seeing the sort of steady yield growth that is typical of almost all developed world crops. There is always room for improvement (e.g., more use of cover cropping is a great trend now in row crops), but the place where there is alarming soil loss is in parts of the developing world and in parts of China. For instance, there is a global campaign by the ag company Syngenta called the Good Growth Plan, which includes a major commitment to address soil degradation. It is things like that, which have real potential in the developing world.
Q: What about the claim that certain fertilizers and chemicals kill the soil?
A: This idea that you can “kill the soil” is absurd to anyone familiar with soil biology. Over time, intensive tillage definitely decreases the populations of many desirable micro- and macro-organisms, but things like fertilizer or crop protection chemicals don’t have significant or long-term effects. Even when something like a soil fumigant is used (at hundreds of times the rate of normal ag chemicals), the microbial community comes back in rather rapidly.
The most important way that the soil biological community flourishes is by being fed by the roots of the crop and/or cover crop — something that happens in conventional as much as in organic. Soil health is also best served when the crop residue (the unharvested part) is allowed to break down on the soil surface the way it does in natural systems. Tilling in tons of compost will maintain/increase the soil biological community, but there is no analogous system in nature.
Q: You say, “The finding that polyculture is better is really not that meaningful because it’s not practical except where a very labor-intensive approach is somehow possible.” Could you explain further?
A: Unless farming operations (weed control, thinning, pest control...) is being done by hand, it is most efficient to do it with equipment that deals with many rows in each pass. That is efficient for the use of fuel and labor. True “polyculture” is something like having a different crop in each row or even mixed in a row. Because each crop will have its own particular needs and timings, there isn’t a way to use efficient, mechanized solutions. There are certainly parts of the developing world where that sort of labor-intensive farming is feasible, but even there, back-breaking hand labor isn’t a desirable thing.
Studies have shown that even when very poor farmers (typically the women and kids) have the ability to use something like an herbicide, they have far more time for things like school or home-based industries. In a country like the US, which lacks any sort of civilized guest labor program, it is absurd to think that a more labor-intensive system makes any sense at all from either a practical or ethical point of view.
Q: How does this connect back to the value of organic as a more sustainable solution?
A: I did think it was good in the study that they explained that organic and sustainable are not the same — that some aspects of organic are good from a sustainability point of view while others are not. I’m thinking of writing something like “Why We Need Something Better Than Organic.” I think everyone would be for farming systems that are “best for us and best for the environment,” but that is not what the organic rules actually do.
Q: So it’s not a question of organic versus conventional?
A: There are a number of “best practices” and highly desirable options that are either denied for the organic grower or which are impractical under organic limitations. I think the whole organic-versus-conventional argument tends to miss the point — we should just encourage the farmers who do the best things, and that is hard to capture in any set of rules, let alone rules based on a 100-year-old concept that only “natural” is good.
Q: What are some “best practices” that could be better than organic? For instance, does this involve different growing techniques and alternative pesticides — such as biorationals or biocontrols? [Editor’s note: Mira Slott authored a piece on this topic in the October issue of sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS: Rationalizing Biorationals.
A: I’m working on that post, but have a couple of talks to prepare as well. I’d be happy to let you repost it if you want to. I’ll be including several examples of where the “natural” dogma prevents the organic farmer from doing what is “best for us and/or best for the environment.” I’m doing a carefully worded introduction because I don’t want this just to be another round of the two sides yelling at each other. I really want to focus on the fact that the “natural” constraint actually prevents organic from full realizing the legitimate goals of farmers and consumer that are supposed to be embodied in organic.
Q: What are the key points that readers should take away from this discussion?
A: The advocates-for and marketers-of organic often tend to compare organic with what is usually an outdated or worst-case image of “conventional farming.” The truth is that through constant innovation and plenty of good motives, the bar has been rising for the safety and environmental aspects of farming. There are many state-of-the-art practices in “conventional farming,” which are very positive for us and for the environment. Typically, we are talking about the same farmers who grow the conventional and also some organic.
This is not any simple case of “organic is perfect” and “conventional is bad.” It is pretty clear that the yield of the organic is consistently lower — and this latest paper shows that is even true in experimental trials, which might or might not be using the best versions of conventional methods.
What looks like a small difference to an academic might mean a great deal when put in the context of a farmer’s real-world net economics. As a society, we would be better off focusing on what is truly best for us and best for the environment without the constraints that come from a 100+/-year old, philosophical preference for “natural.”
Like the Chinese pointing out that all answers were not likely to be found in the scribblings of Marx and Engels in the British Library, this piece reminds us of the great unlikelihood that a 100-plus year old ideology should contain within it the answer to all modern problems from food production to environmental sustainability.
Dr. Savage also reminds us that the goal is not to simply find the highest yield, but the optimal yield within the context of affordability and the economic pressures on a grower.
So it is charming perhaps to believe that a rich bio-diverse field will ultimately yield more, but in a labor-constrained environment, such information, even if true, may not be useful.
Besides what does sustainability mean? Is a labor-intensive world, where we expect people to do back-breaking field work, without the benefit of mechanization, actually the outcome we are looking for?
In a truly transparent world where consumers actually know and understand the implications of things, is that what they are really going to vote for?
We have our doubts.
Many thanks to both Michael Wilde and Dr. Steve Savage for talking us through this difficult topic.