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As Organic Chasm Deepens,
A Solution Is Offered

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, August 18, 2006

There is an undercurrent of unhappiness in certain parts of society, not only with supermarkets but also with the entire food production and distribution system. Whole Foods, Wild Oats and similar concepts are one response, but to the extent they become large and national companies, dependent on national suppliers, even these concepts are not responsive to the arguments raised by people such as Michael Pollan in his influential book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Although by objective standards, companies such as Earthbound Farm and Horizon Organic should be the heroes of the organic world — as it is their ability to produce fresh organic product on a mass scale that has made it possible for countless millions of people to eat and drink organic and do so regularly at an affordable price — in fact the hard-core organic advocates are not satisfied.

To the hard-core organic advocates, the word “organic” does not mean simply that a product follows the rules required in the USDA’s national organic standard or rules allowed by the National Organic Farming Act. Depending on whom you are talking to, it can mean local, it can mean small scale, it can mean truth and love and peace on earth. It is a lot of weight for a bag of salad or quart of milk to carry. I discussed the issue in a highly controversial column I wrote for PRODUCE BUSINESS.

In produce, the advocates want fruits and vegetables to be not only organic but also locally grown by small-scale farms. There are real substantive issues here on what is better for the earth. Indeed non-organic farmers located near population centers are now arguing that the environment would be better off if people bought produce from their non-organic local farms than from an organic farm far away, requiring extensive trucking, refrigeration and what not. However, so far, the debate in produce is confined to what is desirable, not what is required by law.

In contrast, in dairy an activist group called The Cornucopia Institute has filed a complaint with the USDA against Horizon, and Horizon issued a statement in response. The gist of all this is that Cornucopia makes vague charges, with virtually no evidence included in their filing, that Horizon is violating vague standards such as the amount of time in pasture that is required for dairy cows.

Although I didn’t think its justifications stood up to scrutiny, I have more respect for Whole Foods’ decision to stop selling live lobsters, which we analyzed in the very first Pundit. At least Whole Foods made a decision for itself and how it wanted to conduct business. It didn’t pretend it is law everyone should follow.

It is quite clear that if the USDA, a judge or an independent certification agency investigates the Cornucopia complaint and finds Horizon in complete compliance with the law, Cornucopia and similar advocates will not be satisfied at all. They are not concerned with following the law; they are concerned that the law should be twisted to read the way they would like it to read.

To put it another way, what these people should be doing is one of two things: they could buy a dairy and adopt whatever standard they choose — grazed eight hours a day or never fed anything but growing grass, etc. — then they can market the product under a trademark and try to convince consumers it is worth buying at whatever price they choose.

Alternatively, they could do the hard work of lobbying the legislative branch, building political support on a grass roots level to change the National Organics Standards to require whatever it is they actually want. But that involves persuading people and a lot of work. How much easier to file a complaint and hope some bureaucrat or judge will do what you want by fiat.

In the meantime, it helps their fundraising and they do real damage as when PCC Natural Markets decides to not carry Horizon products while making cryptic charges that “…there are a lot of other things that have been alleged that need to be investigated…” although, apparently, PCC doesn’t think that it should wait for the results of any investigation to act.

Once again, you would have some respect for these people if they would just say they choose to sell dairy products that meet a different standard than what is required by law, rather than making vague and unsubstantiated allegations that Horizon is in violation of the law.

This issue will be coming up again and again. On beef you will see the same pasture argument; on poultry you will see the same argument for access to the outdoors.

And behind it all is Wal-Mart, which wants to lower organic food prices. Of course, the organic advocates are opposed to any attempts to lower organic food prices, because they want to use higher food prices as leverage to achieve the regulations they favor.

If the advocates go to the legislature and ask to tax everyone so that development rights on local farmland can be purchased so as to keep it in agricultural use, they may get shot down by the people’s elected representatives. But if they can get the regulations they want through bureaucrats or judges, the advocates will achieve the same goal without democratic consent, and the tax will be in the form of higher food prices.

Since Wal-Mart wants to lower food prices, it is, inherently, working at cross-purposes with these advocates no matter that it or its suppliers may scrupulously follow the law.

I buy plenty of organic perishables and have great business relationships with organic producers. I think it is terrific that Wal-Mart and Costco want to sell more organic produce, and I want organic products to be economical enough that large numbers of people can consume them.

So what’s the solution?

I do not believe there will be any reconciliation with the hard-core organic advocates, but there may be a chance for co-existence. In the UK, Sainsbury’s and Tesco are each launching “organic vegetable box” programs.

These are similar to the many farm-direct programs that exist where consumers contract to buy a box of produce each week or two from a particular farm. Farm-direct programs are problematic, though, as consumers must identify a farm and travel to pick up the produce, plus they must commit in advance and wind up owning produce they don’t need when they are on vacation, etc.

Basically the idea is to shift the difficulties to a retailer, which can source the product, sell it conveniently alongside the shoppers’ other groceries, and the retailer makes the commitment needed to the grower.

Don’t misunderstand me; nothing large supermarkets do will satisfy a certain group. When these programs were announced in Britain, a woman named Sandra Bell, who has a job called “Real Food Campaigner” at an organization called “Friends of the Earth”, immediately declared: "It will be a threat to the smaller, very genuinely local businesses that are running successful box schemes because Sainsbury’s and Tesco will be able to undercut them, which could put local farmers out of business."

This is predictable.

There are people who simply want to use their food dollars to support local, organic agriculture. In the US, that audience is played to with occasional specials on “locally grown sweet corn” or some support for a state promotional program.

I think it would be a brilliant strategy for retailers to offer each week a pre-selected box of locally grown product, with an assortment that would change regularly as the seasons progress.

One could see this as a competitive response to farmers markets, farm box cooperatives and even organic/natural food stores. But I think it is in line with the mass market tradition of offering consumer choice.

Wal-Mart has kosher meat sections in regions where local customers want it. This box program is a way of recognizing that some people segment themselves philosophically when it comes to food, just as they do based on religion or income.

I can imagine supermarket buyers groaning. Locally grown programs are among the most difficult to implement in retailing today because they sometimes need to hook up 100 different local corn growers to have the volume to support the locally grown corn promotion.

Yet in many ways, this is easier. The chain would select a city and partner with dirt farms that can grow a biologically diverse selection of organic product. Then we’ll see who really cares.

There is a market. It may not be everywhere. It may not be very large, but it is there. In time the offering could be expanded to have organic, locally raised meat, poultry, dairy products, juices and more.

It certainly would allow mass marketers to seize the moral high ground as they offer an alternative to those who attack their core offer. And, who knows, it might even be a business?

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