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Can Ecology and Commerce Coexist?

A new movement called "beyond organic" aims to save land and communities. Is it the next ecological and social revolution or just another marketing tactic?
 
 
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Our small boat bobs along the unimaginably wide Amazon River, then heads up a fast-flowing tributary the colour of tea with cream, and finally turns onto a stream leading into the heart of the rainforest. Monkeys scamper in the trees above us as the motorboat chugs more and more slowly until the stream becomes too narrow to travel. This is where José Luiz de Oliveira and his 17-year-old son Alex live on a small farmstead alive with bird calls. Piglets frolic in the cool mud below their dock while ducks march in formation.

In many ways this boat ride feels like a trip into the past. The forest is largely untouched here except for the sunny clearing around the house (although we did spot an illegal lumber operation downriver). The de Oliveiras live as people have for centuries -- drawing their daily meals and livelihood from the land, the river and the livestock. It's an enchanting place if you can get used to the mosquitoes. Yet beauty and peace do not translate into prosperity. The tiny house has no electricity, no telephone, no fans, no screens in the windows.

The great debates about sustainable development being waged in government assemblies and at environmental institutes, corporate headquarters and street protests around the world are really about this place. Is it possible to bring the de Oliveiras some of the advantages of modern life -- like high school and shoes for Alex -- without destroying other valuable things in the process? Valuable things like the Amazon rainforest itself, which is crucial to everyone on the planet as a source of ecological balance and potential new medicines.

José invites us to sit under the thatched palm shelter at the end of their dock and we pass the time telling stories and spouting opinions. For them it's a welcome break from working in the heat as well as an opportunity to show off baskets of freshly picked açaí, which they gathered from the tops of palm trees surrounding their home.

Açaí -- a fruit slightly larger than a blueberry with a similar colour -- is the reason we have come up the river. It has recently been discovered outside the rainforest as a "superfood" -- a nutritious bundle of amino acids, fibre, essential fatty acids and more of the highly coveted antioxidants than either red wine or blueberries. People often report feeling a surge of energy after eating it -- I certainly did when gobbling some after a long day on the river without lunch. Now that açaí (pronounced ah-sigh-EE) products are beginning to appear in health-food stores around the world, this berry offers new hope that development in the Amazon can become something more than a sad choice between environmental ruin and continuing poverty.

My boat mate, Travis Baumgardner, a 31-year-old Texan who came to Rio to study environmental geography and now runs Brazilian operations for the U.S. company Sambazon, believes açaí will prove to the people of the Amazon, in cold cash, that it's more lucrative to leave the rainforest standing than to chop it down to raise cattle or soybeans. That's why this boat ride is more than a trip into the past -- it's a journey toward a sustainable future.

Sambazon is part of a new wave of entrepreneurial companies seeking to promote ecological restoration and economic justice as an integral part of their business -- a concept known as "market-driven conservation." Together these firms -- which also include Guayakí (maté drinks), Manitoba Harvest (hemp foods), Adina World Beat Beverages (fruit drinks), Jungle Products (oils from tropical plants) and others -- hope to push the natural-foods industry "beyond organic." Rather than simply rejecting dubious practices like chemical pesticides and genetic modification, they are seeking to create products that actually make a positive contribution to the environment and local communities as part of how they are harvested and manufactured.

Launched in 2000, Sambazon sells açaí throughout North America, Europe and Brazil in the form of ready-to-drink smoothies, frozen packets, powder and capsules. The company was honoured last November with an Award for Corporate Excellence for U.S. businesses operating abroad by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The other winners were General Motors and Goldman Sachs. But Sambazon operates by quite a different set of principles than do most corporations. Company executives are proud to declare they purchase açaí from co-ops and growers at higher prices than those paid by the usual brokers and they pay workers at Sambazon's new fruit-processing plant in Macapá, near the mouth of the Amazon, three times the prevailing local wage. The firm also makes special efforts to help small farmers become certified as organic (an expensive and complicated ordeal for poor people unaccustomed to paperwork).

Sambazon founder Ryan Black, 32, a former professional U.S. football player for the Minnesota Vikings who first encountered açaí on an off-season surfing trip to Brazil, sees market-driven conservation as the next logical step for the booming organic industry. "We want to give something back as part of the production process. We want positive change to be engineered in how we do business."

He believes this can help bring democracy to the marketplace. "It means giving people what they want -- a chance to vote with their dollars. People can become policymakers, spending their money on the future they want to see."

That's an ambitious mission for any company, let alone one run by people who were not even born when Earth Day first dawned in 1970. But they are winning the support of respected figures in the fields of ecology and business. Meindert Brouwer -- a consultant working with the World Wildlife Fund and Hivos, the Dutch sustainable-development institute, who is the author of a forthcoming book about rainforest initiatives, Amazon Your Business -- says, "Sambazon is doing a great job. The açaí is harvested in an ecologically sound way. When they started they involved local NGOs, which has helped the local producers. These guys are quite young, and are an example of young entrepreneurs who are doing things differently. They represent a new generation of business."

Brouwer foresees this emerging "beyond organic" movement will become influential because it fits directly with a number of other business trends that he observes:

  • A growing emphasis on transparency throughout the international business world
  • Mounting influence of ideas about corporate social responsibility
  • Consumer demand for authenticity in the products they use
  • Increasing global calls to eliminate poverty
  • Increasing pressure for the protection of nature
  • A new concern among corporate leadership about diminishing natural resources

Jan Oosterwijk, a trailblazer in the socially responsible business movement who launched operations for both The Body Shop and Ben & Jerry in the Netherlands and other European countries, is another champion of the "market-driven conservation" approach. He's an investor in Sambazon (also, for full disclosure, in Ode magazine) and is considering putting capital into Guayakí, which he believes has gone the furthest in creating a new paradigm for organic businesses.

Guayakí markets maté, a tea-like drink from South America made from the yerba plant, which is grown in large fields in the usual manner of industrial agriculture. But yerba maté (pronounced YUR-ba MA-tay) can also be grown in the shade, like coffee, and Guayakí pays a premium price for organic yerba cultivated in the rainforest. The company offers growers a better deal for preserving their trees than they could get cutting them down to make way for cattle, lumber or conventional yerba. Oosterwijk sees that Guayakí is pushing the frontiers of organic agriculture with one project that supports farmers planting trees native rainforest trees in the middle of their yerba fields. Rather than just avoiding unsustainable farming methods, he notes, the company is pioneering new practices to reverse environmental destruction.

"They show how business can be more of a force of restoration," Oosterwijk says about both Guayakí and Sambazon. "To save wildlife species. To promote fair trade for workers. To restore the Earth."

This emerging "beyond organic" movement (the origins of which can be traced to The Body Shop's and Ben & Jerry's earlier efforts to market products made with sustainable ingredients from threatened rainforests) is met with skepticism by some, who point out that these companies are selling products far out of the mainstream. Agribusiness giants are not up late at night worrying about being left behind in the açaí, maté or hemp markets.

"New products can be like an icebreaker in frozen waters," Oosterwijk contends, "and then the big boats follow. They can show the way for other companies."

After all, gourmet ice cream, sustainable outdoor wear, and natural body care products -- all huge markets now -- were seen as niche products when socially responsible firms like Ben & Jerry's, Patagonia, The Body Shop and Aveda rose to prominence in the 1990s. Indeed, the influential U.S. market-forecasting firm Mintel named "Amazon superfoods" (including açaí) No. 1 among its top 10 supermarket trends for 2007, with ethical business practises ranking second.

These new "beyond organic" initiatives are emerging at an interesting point in history. The future of the organic industry and the whole idea of socially responsible business seem up for grabs. Many people are shocked at how leading natural-product companies have been snapped up recently by huge corporations, including The Body Shop (L'Oreal), Tom's of Maine (Colgate-Palmolive) and Green & Black's chocolates (Cadbury Schweppes), joining earlier sales of Stonyfield Farms (Groupe Danone), Aveda (Estée Lauder) and Ben & Jerry's (Unilever). Concerns are also being voiced in many quarters about what happens now that huge firms like Kellogg's, General Mills and Heinz and mega-retailers like Wal-Mart have entered the organic market.

"I see that industrial organics will only get bigger," says noted environmental author Michael Pollan, whose 2006 bestseller The Omnivore's Dilemma examined both mainstream agribusiness and the organic food production. "The farmers who realize they can no longer compete in that environment realize that they can grow food better for new channels of distribution. There is room for both. Some will be selling better social values, some more humane treatment of animals. There are all kinds of ways to align the market with nature, and that's especially true with food. "Industrial organic is not the last word in food," Pollan continues. "There are issues organics don't deal with. When they were formulating organic rules, they focussed on a number of concerns mostly having to do with chemicals. They ignored social-welfare issues, they ignored labour; they didn't insist on animal welfare. There are many issues they don't deal with, like energy use. It's not clear, for instance, that organic production by itself will make any difference on global warming."

Ronnie Cummins, founder of the Organic Consumers Association, a U.S.-based network of 850,000 socially responsible shoppers, notes, "The good news is that organic foods are growing so fast that no one can keep up with the demand." But he urges consumers and businesses to expand the scope of what it means for a product to be called organic or sustainable. "Fair-trade products are growing even faster than organic in Western nations," Cummins adds. "And another trend that is very big now is to buy local. There's real synergy now with these ideas and the organic movement. We have a perfect storm of massive marketplace interest in new ideas."

One further idea that now inspires many socially conscious shoppers is supporting small-scale family growers instead of the factory farms that produce an increasingly large share of organic products. Jim Slama -- founder of FamilyFarmed.org -- is about to introduce a new label that will identify food as not only organic but grown by small farmers. "The bottom line is that organic consumers are driven by core values and want companies with those same values," he says. "Corporate organic doesn't do it for many of them." Cummins identifies a number of North American companies he considers "beyond organic":

  • Dr. Bronner's, a personal-care products company committed to buying certified organic olive oil for soaps. Its suppliers are Palestinian farmers in the occupied West Bank, who tend 1,000-year-old orchards that have never been sprayed with pesticides, and workers on an Israeli kibbutz.
  • Organic Valley, a dairy co-operative based in Wisconsin that has made regional production central to its business. Organic Valley milk, butter or cheese bought in the U.S. Midwest, New England, Pacific Northwest, California or Texas comes from family farms in that area.
  • Intelligent Nutrients, the new company from Aveda founder Horst Rechelbacher, which applies rigorous organic and fair-trade standards to all the ingredients used in the body- and hair-care products, nutritional supplements and foods it sells.
  • A growing number of organic fair-trade coffee importers, including Equal Exchange, Peace Coffee, Dean's Beans and Higher Grounds Trading Company.
  • Eden Foods, a stalwart of the organic industry with a wide range of products, which has always supported family-farm producers and upheld strict standards for organic labelling.

Adina World Beat Beverages offers the clearest case of how today's "beyond organic" companies differ from earlier socially responsible entrepreneurs. It was co-founded by Greg Steltenpohl, who played a high-profile role in the first wave of natural-food companies as founder of Odwalla, the well-known juice company.

In launching Odwalla in 1980, Steltenpohl had a simple aim: to promote good health by offering a tasty alternative to sugary soft drinks. He succeeded at that, in part because his company was taken over in 2001 by Coca-Cola, which has access to nearly every corner shop and convenience store around the world.

Adina has a similar but broader mission. The idea came from co-founder Magatte Wade-Marchand, who on a trip home to her native Senegal noticed that American soft drinks had completely wiped out the healthier fruit-based drinks people once enjoyed. Drawing on drink recipes traditionally served at street stands in Senegal, Jamaica and Cuba, Adina brews juice drinks spiked with nutrition-charged herbs and supplements such as ginseng, astragalus, spirulina and sea buckthorn. Everyone at Adina strives for all the ingredients to be organic and fair-trade -- working more than three years, for instance, to get organic certification for the Senegalese women's co-operative supplying them with hibiscus.

"In the past, organic and natural foods were about personal health," says Steltenpohl, "which is why they have become mainstream today. And that's very important. But it's impossible to separate the organic movement from environmental and social-justice issues.

"The idea now is to make the whole process of what you do," he adds, "the thing that does good in the world."

Guayakí was founded by Alex Pryor and David Karr, two students at California Polytechnic State University, in 1996. Pryor is a native of Argentina, where yerba maté outsells coffee 7-1, and he brought a big supply with him to school. While delivering a caffeine boost, maté contains far more nutrients than coffee or tea, which many drinkers (including me) report leaves them with a smoother feeling. Pryor's friends at college all started drinking maté during finals week, surprised at how they could study all night without the usual coffee jag. That convinced Pryor to undertake a class project marketing maté around campus, and things just took off from there. He soon invited Karr, his best friend and confirmed maté fanatic, to join him in introducing the drink to North Americans.

Pryor is now back home in Buenos Aires, running Guayakí's South American operation, while Karr oversees the business in North America, which sells yerba maté in tea bags, loose leaf packets and ready-to-drink beverages. Guayakí's yerba supply comes from the Ache Guayakí indigenous people (hence the name) in Paraguay who cultivate the crop beneath trees in their rainforest preserve, as well as from Argentine farmers who are preserving or reforesting endangered subtropical rainforests and a Brazilian farmers' co-op that harvests one of the remaining stands of wild yerba.

"We want to be a bridge between consumers looking for health products and growers who want to take care of the Earth," Pryor tells me as we finish lunch in the well-tended garden that separates his home from Guayakí's office in the backyard.

His English is quite good, but Pryor looks concerned, as if he hasn't made his point as forcefully as he would like. He jumps up and hurries into his office, bringing back a picture off the wall, which he hands to me. It's a photograph of a forest. I look up at him, a bit perplexed. "I went up in a plane to get this picture," he tells me. "It's one of our yerba maté fields in Paraguay."

It's a steamy spring day in Iguazú National Park, one of the last remnants of rainforest in northeastern Argentina. Only 5 percent of the original subtropical Atlantic Forest in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil still stands. The rest has been chopped down for timber and agriculture, including plantations growing yerba for maté, which Argentines drink all day at work and home. Just outside the park boundaries, Alfonso and Gladys Werle give me a tour of their yerba fields, which look noticeably different from those I stopped to inspect along the highway a few miles away. The leaves are much greener, which Alfonso says is because he farms organically -- still a rarity in Argentina. He also claims organic maté tastes sweeter because it contains more of the vitamins, minerals and amino acids that gently balance the drink's caffeine kick.

But the most striking difference here is the trees, 14 different varieties such as cancharana and lapacho native to the Atlantic Forest, which Alfonso and Gladys have painstakingly planted throughout their fields. Their dream, and the dream of Guayakí, which buys their crop, is that in a few years this field will become a natural extension of the park's rainforest while still producing top-quality maté. Their farm already serves as an important wildlife corridor that allows jaguars and other threatened species to move freely between Iguazú and another national park in nearby Brazil. Alfonso, Gladys and Guayakí hope this land -- which also grows organic bananas, lemons and pineapples, and rings with the sound of birds, cows, pigs, chickens, dogs and children -- will become a showcase, proving that the Atlantic rainforest can be restored while offering farmers a secure livelihood and providing the world with ample food.

Alfonso suddenly strides into the centre of the field to examine one of the trees they planted. He looks at intently and then turns back toward us with a smile. "This is redesigning agriculture," he shouts.

Jay Walljasper is the executive editor of Ode Magazine .

 
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