Food of the Future
The overflow of people at the ECO-FARM conference was bustling with energy. Dr. John Reganold, one of the new heroes of the organic movement, had just presented findings from a study that compared organic, integrated, and conventional apple production in Washington State. The goal of the work was to compare the various systems and determine levels of sustainability, incorporating factors like yield, profitability, and environmental impacts. The compelling results led to a cover story in Nature, one of the world's leading scientific journals.
After a five-year period, the study determined that the yield of organic apples was comparable to the other systems, a significant finding when you consider the fact that naysayers regularly charge that "organic can't feed the world." In addition, the organic system produced sweeter apples, better profit margins, and impressive environmental benefits. Reganold, still beaming from the pride of landing a cover story, was animated in his discussion of the implications, saying "When you put all those parameters together -- soil quality, horticultural performance, economics, environmental impact, energy efficiency -- then the organic system gets first place."
There has been plenty of good news for organic advocates in recent years. Numerous studies have indicated the environmental benefits of growing food organically. It can improve biodiversity, protect wildlife habitats, and prevent the emission of vast amounts of toxic chemicals into our water, air, and soils. Some research has even indicated that the soil building process in organic farming stores significantly higher levels of carbon dioxide, thus providing a way to help reduce global warming.
Reganold's work went beyond the environmental benefits and began to explore other important elements that have been an intrinsic part of the organic movement for the past sixty years. For many farmers and consumers, organic represents the values that are most important to them. It is food with a mission -- representing care for the earth, compassion for animals, commitment to social justice, and support for local farms and communities.
In coming years, organic agriculture will embrace these values in a more defined way. This will occur through the combination of two other movements that are now picking up speed, the fair trade movement and regional food systems. Fair trade is a program that applies social justice criteria to a certification program for farmers and companies. Regional food systems encourage the production of food on a local level in order to minimize transportation and environmental costs, support local economies, produce safe and healthy food, and maintain family farms.
A system that incorporates certified organic food with fair trade labeling would go a long way to meeting the needs of consumers who want assurance that their food is produced with integrity. When combined with programs that encourage regional food production, a truly sustainable food system is in sight.
Agriculture as a Public Good
Ten years ago, most ag circles considered organic farming a joke. Its status was best summed up by an oft repeated quote attributed to Nixon era Agricultural Secretary Earl Butz: "When you hear the word organic, think starvation." Butz was part of the old school of agriculture. He and his cronies believed in "better living through chemistry," and thus corporate America set its sights on turning agriculture into agribusiness. Over time, a few large companies came to control most segments of our food production.
In recent decades agribusiness became the dominant force in food production, at a tremendous cost to farmers and our society as a whole. Millions of small farmers were -- and continue to be -- driven off their land. Many local processors and other farm support businesses have been shuttered.
Dr. Fred Kirschenmann, a twenty-five-year veteran of organic farmering, is deeply concerned about the impact of agribusiness on local ecosystems and local communities. As a farmer and a philosopher whose academic training includes a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, he has undertaken significant analysis of the history of American farming. He concludes that a single thread has held agriculture together for most of our history: the concept of "agriculture as a public good, not simply a means to produce food and fiber."
Today, Kirschenmann notes, "agriculture is perceived more as a public problem than a public good. . . If agriculture is not perceived as the origin of our polluted groundwater, it is the culprit that is devastating the landscape with eroded soils, destroyed rain forests, intolerable odors, or end of stream dead zones. If it is not perceived as a leviathan force that prevents consumers from exercising freedom of choice in the marketplace, or denying farmers access to free markets, it is seen as a threat to public health, implicated in everything from mad cow disease to E. coli, to cancer, to endocrine disruption."
In response to such problems, the state of Iowa in 1987 created the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. When the founding director retired, Dr. Fred Kirschenmann applied for the job -- and got it, by the unanimous choice of the search committee. Kirschenmann believes that organic can and must play a key role in the future of farming. So he traded in his tractor, boots, and day-to-day responsibilities on his highly successful 3,500-acre organic farm in Windsor, North Dakota, for a suit, an office, and a boss. Now he represents the University and run its multimillion-dollar department. This, in itself, is a sign of the changing face of farming.
Kirschenmann, for his part, looks both forward and back. He admires the farming methods employed by Native Americans. "Their vision for agriculture was to feed the village -- everyone in the village -- and to do so in a manner that disturbed nature as little as possible. He also holds with the Jeffersonian model of a society of small farmers with financial freedom and political independence. These qualities, Kirschenmann thinks, allow citizens to be important players in creating a vital democratic system. True organic farming, which encompasses other measures of sustainability such as fair trade and regional food systems, offers hope that agriculture will once again become a public good.
Think Globally, Act Locally
LaFarge Wisconsin hardly seems like a radical place. The sleepy little town is located on the banks of the scenic Kickapoo River in southwest Wisconsin and home to the world's largest organic farming cooperative, Organic Valley. The cooperative was created in 1988 by seven farmers committed to building a system of agriculture that respects family farms and builds rural communities. A central tenet of the company is to support local economies through sustainable food production.
The cooperative created a pool of vegetables to sell, but didn't have much luck. Good fortune smiled however, when they added organic dairy products to their mix. Sales took off. Within a few years they were the largest bulk producers of organic milk in the world. In 2001 their sales topped the $100 million mark for the first time -- and all of it was certified organic. This is quite an accomplishment for a company that is owned by the family farmers who create its products.
For many farmers, consumers, and investors, Organic Valley offers a model of food production on which to base twenty-first century agriculture. George Siemon, president and one of the founding farmers of the company, is bullish on the future of cooperative farming and business. "Our ownership structure makes us accountable to more than the bottom line," he says. "Farmers make a good living, rural economies are supported, the environment is respected, and our customers get great tasting, healthy products."
Unlike many of the large organic companies that are emulating the agribusiness approach to production by centralizing production and focusing strictly on profitability, Organic Valley is focusing on local economic development and sustainability. "Organic food can be transported 10,000 miles, but that is not sustainable," says Siemon. "We are trying to bring organic back to its roots with a strong focus on regional production and building local economies."
Organic Valley's impact on rural economies in Wisconsin has been tremendous. In 1999, Republican Governor, Tommy Thompson, named the company the top rural development initiative in the state. They have also developed regional production and processing centers in the northeast, Florida, California, and the pacific northwest. "We want people in Portland to buy milk from farmers in that part of the country," says Siemon. "It gives people a deeper connection to their food, cuts down on the miles food travels, and keeps most of the economic gain in the region. For us as a company this model has been profitable, especially for farmers who are paid a fair price for their product."
The accomplishments of Organic Valley prove that you don't have to be a huge conglomerate to make money in the food business. They have been so successful that their biggest organic milk competitor, NASDAQ-traded Horizon Organic Dairy, is reducing its reliance on mega-dairy farms in favor of smaller farms serving regional processing facilities -- in essence mimicking Organic Valley.
Another company that has successfully used this model is Wolaver's. They have created a line of craft-brewed organic beers and ciders that are exceptional in quality and taste. To achieve their dual objectives of producing fresh beer and promoting environmental responsibility, Wolaver's has developed partnerships with three regional boutique brewers who brew and distribute their products in the northeast, midwest, and western U.S.
This unique bioregional and socially responsible model of business has helped Wolaver's rise to the top. In just five years, their beer has become the top selling organic brand in the country. According to their CEO, Sean Turner, "This system gives us the ability to develop a national brand while maintaining a strong connection to our local markets. Plus it is far more environmentally responsible because we burn a lot less fossil fuels transporting our product."
Regional Food Systems
The movement toward regional food production is known in some circles as regional food systems. In recent years many non-profit organizations have begun to support such efforts, seeing obvious benefits for the environment, economic development, and food security.
Consumers fed up with conventionally produced food laden with pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics have been a driving force in the growth of regional organic food sales. In recent years this has translated into a resurgence of locally produced vegetables, fruit, meat, and cheese distributed through a variety of methods in which the farmers sell directly to consumers. Farmers markets are the best example of this phenomenon. The USDA reports that 2,800 such markets are now operating across the country, a 63 percent increase in just six years.
Another important element of this movement is Community Supported Agriculture (known as CSAs), in which farms sign up local households to own a piece of the farm's production. In the winter these subscribers pay a fee to the farmers in exchange for the right to receive weekly boxes of fresh vegetables during the coming growing season. Such an arrangement gives the farmer up-front money to invest in seeds, labor, and other overhead costs. In exchange, members get fresh-picked organic food once a week delivered to a drop off spot in their town.
More than 1,000 farms in the U.S. serve more than 100,000 households using this model. The largest CSA in the country, Angelic Organics, has more than 900 members. Third generation farmer John Peterson used the CSA model to save his family farm from developers. In the process, he turned it into a vital part of the community and a training center for others who want to become organic farmers. According to their Web site, Angelic Organics, based near Chicago, brings a new meaning to the term local:
"These days, 'fresh' seems to mean fresh off the truck from California, and 'local' is anything east of the Rockies, and west of the Atlantic. When we say it, we mean it. For us, fresh means we hand-pick most of the vegetables in your box within 24 hours of its arrival in your neighborhood. Local means settlers here smelled the smoke from the Great Chicago Fire."
Locally grown organic food is available all over the world. One of the best examples is Cuba, a country that entered into sustainable food production by default when the dying Soviet Union stopped sending subsidized fertilizers and pesticides to the island. The country rapidly turned toward a network of urban gardens and regional farms, many of which are organic. Ten years later, the local food systems in Cuba are thriving and represent a model to be emulated by other countries.
In the excellent book, Going Local, author Michael Shuman points out that local food production is thriving across the planet. "Some 800 million people in the world who live in cities are engaged in urban agriculture, mainly for their own consumption. In Hong Kong, which has extraordinary population density, nearly half of all vegetables consumed are grown within city limits, on 5 percent to 6 percent of the city's land.... Residents of Kampala, Uganda, meet 70 percent of their poultry and egg consumption with local production. Data from the 1980s suggests that the eighteen largest cities in China met over 90 percent of their vegetable needs, and half their meat needs through urban farming. And Singapore raises 80 percent of its poultry and a quarter of its vegetables, within city limits."
Fair Trade Brings Social Justice to Organic
No doubt, then, that organic and locally grown produce is popular. Is the movement to produce it strong enough to withstand interest by conventional corporations? In recent years many of the top companies selling organic and natural food have been acquired by big business. General Mills now owns Cascadian Farm, Kraft owns Boca Burgers, and the publicly traded Hain Food Group owns Arrowhead Mills, Garden of Eatin' and many other popular brands. As more corporations become involved in organic farming and processing, many wonder if companies driven by the bottom line will corrupt the values of the movement.
Some advocates are safeguarding sustainable practices by embracing and promoting the notion of "fair trade." Promoters of fair trade examine a firm's business practices regarding a range of criteria -- from the environment to social justice -- and certify their goods as Fair Trade products. In recent years the movement has become a big component of the coffee industry, as companies like Equal Exchange have become large producers of Fair Trade Coffee.
Already a great deal of the organic coffee sold in the U.S. is Fair Trade coffee. In Europe such goods as chocolate, honey, sugar, bananas, tea, and orange juice are also getting certified. "Fair Trade labeling is experiencing phenomenal growth by providing consumers with a simple way to know which products are produced under socially just conditions," says Kevin Danaher, who works with Global Exchange, one of the pioneers in the movement. "Our ultimate goal should be substantive labels on all commodities that give the biography of the product, defining the full social and environmental impact of the production process."
A system in which products are certified organic and also fair trade is a likely next step in the socially responsible food movement. The certified organic label is already a clear standard from which consumers can judge a product's integrity. A separate fair trade certification can then take organic to the next level, by incorporating other important issues such as social justice, the humane treatment of animals, living wages, appropriate scale of farms, and others.
Creating this dual certification system will also put an end to the confusion being generated by so-called eco-labels, which have proliferated in recent years. "The problem with many of these labels is that the definitions of what they stand for are vague and there is no mechanism to verify the integrity of their claims," says long-time organic inspector, Jim Riddle who also serves as the Vice Chair of the National Organic Standards Board. (Riddle was not speaking for the NOSB.)
What is "Fair Trade"?
Fair trade certifiers examine the practices of farmers and companies looking for a commitment to social justice. The Fair Trade Federation (FTF) criteria to achieve certification include:
* paying a fair wage in the local context
* offering employees opportunities for advancement
* providing equal employment opportunities for all people, particularly the most disadvantaged
* engaging in environmentally sustainable practices
* being open to public accountability
* building long-term trade relationships
* providing healthy and safe working conditions within the local context
* providing financial and technical assistance to producers whenever possible
University of Missouri Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics, John Ikerd, says, "Sustainable farming means farming in harmony with nature -- nurturing nature rather than dominating or manipulating nature. Sustainable farming means farming in harmony with people -- within families, communities, and societies. Sustainable farming means farming in harmony with future generations -- being good stewards of the earth's finite resources."
Linking Fair Trade and organic labels with regional food production will provide an opportunity to create a truly sustainable food system. It will connect us with our food, instill values in the production process, and support local communities. It is a worthy goal for the twenty-first century.
Jim Slama is the President of Sustain, which has created the Local Organic Initiative to help build a regional, fair trade, organic food system to serve the Chicago area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For information on the Local Organic Initiative, check www.localorganic.org and for more info about Fair Trade certification, see www.transfairusa.org.