The average consumer isn’t always aware of what’s behind the organic label. Some don’t realize the USDA organic seal is backed with regulations and standards that are strictly enforced. With so much consumer confusion, is it wise to thrust another label into the already crowded market?
Kashi’s Certified Transitional program aims to help farmers and fill cereal bowls one acre at a time.
We need more organic ingredients, crops and farmers in the US.
The demand for organic products continues to grow by double digits every year, far exceeding the domestic supply of organic ingredients. Organic now represents about 5% of food, but less than 1% of farmland in the U.S.
The real squeeze is in the grain sector where there aren’t enough domestic supplies to fuel demand. Imports of soybeans and corn from places such as Romania, Turkey and Ukraine are filling the gap. These imports create complicated market conditions for our domestic grain producers.
The average farmer experiences huge barriers transitioning their land into organic production.
Consider the Midwest corn grower. She may want to “go organic” because prices are good, but she doesn’t have the technical know-how or support from anyone around her on how to go about it. The local “advisors” only want to sell her the latest herbicides and synthetic fertilizers.
Once she jumps into production, it’s likely that her soils are depleted from years of chemical abuse and yields will be low while she rebuilds the organic matter in the soil. She develops an “organic systems plan” copiously documenting protocols, materials use and seed purchases. She spends time and money with a third-party certifier to verify her diligence. For three years, she grows crops using organic methods that are in strict adherence to the USDA regulations but doesn’t get paid organic prices.
The three-year transition period is the biggest hurdle of all.
Despite this investment, she cannot sell her crop as organic for three years, so she continues to be paid conventional prices. It is hard to stay financially afloat as organic requires more time and upfront investment and the benefits aren’t realized for a number of years. Many give up or don’t even try.
Kashi’s answer to the three-year dilemma is a Certified Transitional program.
To date, Kashi has paid farmers who want to switch to organic production more than $1 million in premiums for their crops as part of its Certified Transitional program. In 2018, Kashi will source Certified Transitional ingredients from more than 4,200 acres of farmland across the US, which is a 400 percent increase since the inception of the program in 2016.
I was lucky enough to catch up with Tina Owens, Supply Chain Director at Kashi, to learn more about the program.
Melody Meyer: Describe some of the market conditions you experienced that led to your bold step in creating this program.
Tina Owens: People are demanding more organic food – sales reached a record $43 billion in 2016 and continue to rise. But today, less than 1% of U.S. farmland is organic. For example, there are not enough organic almonds grown in the U.S. to meet even Kashi’s needs.
We were inspired to seek solutions that meet the needs of both aspiring organic farmers and increase the availability and accessibility of organics for consumers. We wanted to use our scale to do something powerful to promote sustainable agriculture – for everyone, and for the long term. Certified Transitional was our answer.
In 2016, we launched our first product sourcing Certified Transitional ingredients – Dark Cocoa Karma Shredded Wheat Biscuits. Since then, we have grown the Certified Transitional portfolio to eight products, including six flavors of Chewy Nut Butter Bars and our new Cinnamon French Toast cereal.
MM: How did you develop your Certified Transitional portfolio of products?
TO: We engaged Quality Assurance International (QAI), a third-party organic certifier, to help develop the certification and initially partnered with Healthy Food Ingredients (previously Hesco/Dakota Organic Products) to identify farmers transitioning crops from conventional to organic.
This approach makes sure Kashi’s needs are met and creates an open-source solution to support any farmer transitioning to organic while enabling farmers to maintain ownership of their land.
MM: How were you able to educate your consumers about the Certified Transitional Program to gain their support?
TO: We believe that Kashi has a role to play in promoting dialogue with people about the need for more organics. Our research has shown many consumers want to support increasing organic acreage in the United States and are interested in understanding the role transitional products play. We use the Certified Transitional mark on our products to make it easy for consumers to identify products that are supporting farmers during their transition. We also feature stories on our packaging and in social channels of the farmers in the program to share how Certified Transitional has helped them in their goal to transition to organic and make a closer connection between the farmers and our consumers.
Consumers have already begun to vote with their dollars. Our Dark Cocoa Karma cereal and Chewy Nut Butter Bars were the best performing product innovations in their categories for Kashi in over five years.
MM: In terms of the program itself, how do you assure that farmers don’t go in and out of the program and stay perpetually transitional?
TO: Fifteen farmers have participated in the program since we launched Certified Transitional in 2016. These farmers are in various stages within the three-year process of transitioning to organic, so our hope is that farmers eventually graduate from the program – meaning they have achieved USDA Certified Organic status. So far, one farmer has graduated out of the program.
Our intent is for Chewy Nut Butter Bars, Dark Cocoa Karma, and Cinnamon French Toast to be Certified Transitional products for as long as they are in the Kashi portfolio, so we will continue to work with existing farmers and find others as they graduate to source ingredients for these products.
MM: Who certifies the program and is it recognized by the USDA?
TO: Interested farmers work directly with QAI for certification. QAI administers a diligent assessment process based on the certification requirements and verifies transitional farmers are meeting the measures and processes required to achieve organic certification after three years of transition.
The Certified Transitional protocol is not formally connected to USDA’s organic regulation. However, QAI is a USDA-accredited certifying body approved to provide organic certification in accordance with the USDA’s National Organic Program.
MM: Why is the program important for Kashi beyond the immediate supply chain challenges you face?
TO: Since Phil and Gayle Tauber founded Kashi in 1984, we have been on a mission to change the way we eat. We believe people and planet health are connected, and Certified Transitional is just one example of how we are determined to improve how food is grown in the U.S. and bring people closer to the farmers who grow their food.
We believe supporting farmland and farmers in transition will improve the accessibility of organic food over time and support a healthy planet for everyone. Our hope is that the collective use of the Certified Transitional protocol – across multiple companies and industries – will speed the switch to organic at a much larger scale than Kashi could accomplish alone.