In May I made my annual pilgrimage to the land of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal nation nestled within a rock-strewn forest in Connecticut. An unlikely tower rises up from the rolling foliage, Foxwoods Casino, a cathedral to craps, blackjack and slots. It’s also the lively venue for the annual UNFI New England Tabletop Show, a festive place for vendors to display their wares to hungry retailers ready for a bite and a deal! As I sampled my way through the booths, I was reminded time and again that organic has a long way to grow beyond 5% of food and 1% of agriculture. There are several foxes we must shoo out of the house if we are going to grow our organic flock.
Organic supply just isn’t meeting demand
I like to walk slowly down every aisle, cutting past the sharp cubes of cheddar, rolling around the bends of coconut-chocolate bars, kicking by the kimchi, Gone Crackers and barbecued dragon fruit meat! What an assortment of varied foods and flavors. Before my certain indigestion set in, I was mindful enough to query the booths’ inhabitants about their organic status. Many where certified organic, members of the Organic Trade Association, true blue aficionados of the organic house – free range constituents with access to the great organic outdoors!
Yet there were quite a few suppliers still scratching for 100% organic status. Let’s take the kimchi maker for instance. Three of their piquantly salted delights were 100% NOP certified organic. They stood proud of their accomplishment to source 100% organic ingredients for this living food. However four of their traditional stoutly brews could not be certified because they couldn’t find a yearlong supply of organic Napa cabbage and other key ingredients. If only an organic farmer or two were there.
I heard the same ruffled story repeated at many a booth: A dearth of organic almonds, not enough organic corn, can’t locate the organic oats, where to buy that organic pepper, flavor or binding ingredient?
We desperately need to help farmers transition into and begin to farm with organic methods. The fox, in this case, is our lack of funding for technical training, cultural practices and access to land for beginning organic farmers. That fox could be chased out with the help of an organic check off such as is proposed in GROOrganic. In the meantime “my, what a big appetite he has!”
Natural is enough – consumers don’t know the difference
As I sampled my way down more aisles bumping into jerky-festooned giants I came upon a bevy of brands that just weren’t interested in organic – period. What utterances did I hear? “Organic ingredients are too expensive and hard to get. Retail price points can’t be met and the Natural label is making my sales fly high.” Why go to the trouble when consumers trust more in the Natural label over organic? A recent Consumer Reports National Research Center nationally representative survey of 1,000 adults found that “more people purchase ‘natural’ foods than organic foods—73 percent versus 58 percent.”
Once again a funding mechanism like GROOrganic would help consumers realize the difference between organic and natural. The USDA organic regulations are the most transparent, heavily enforced and liberally debated food system on the planet. The fact that organic consumers don’t realize that is indeed a predatory force to be reckoned with.
Organic traditions must stay the same
As I trotted by the Tunisian olive oils and plump pistachios, I queried captives at other booths. What do you know about GROOrganic and do you think it’s a path forward? Some had heard clucks and chirps from certain consumer groups that it was a bad idea: corporate organic power run amok!
“If I am selling my pistachios ten times over why should I care about consumer education or new organic farmers?” Many had not taken the time to understand or even cross the road to read the proposal. Did they understand it “no,” did they want to “no,” because someone had said so. I turned their attention to read the details.
The last fox who needs to get chased out is the notion that organic must remain just as it was and always will be… where it started in the 60’s, morphed into law in the 90’s and then solidified into regulations in 2000. No change, let’s stay small, local, no matter that we are underfunded. These are the traditional radicals, the organic forefathers and so shall it be forever and ever more – amen!
A tradition that stops evolving becomes no longer a tradition but a fossil
If there is one thing we must do as a community, it is to open our minds to evolution and change. Things don’t stand still. Conventional agriculture is strong and adapts easily. They are not devoured by their own circular firing squad. Organic must evolve and grow.
Foxwoods gave me good reason to ponder the foxes in our organic hen-house. I hope we thrive to lay another organic golden egg for future generations.