Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Tuesday Talking Points Memo

The Brewing Organic Backlash is Hogwash

There seems to be an organic foods backlash brewing among some industry people, buy local promoters, chefs and media folks. I speak primarily of a recent spate of media stories primarily promoted by those who believe that organic has now gone corporate, or that it has become too mainstream of a category.

These organic critics are arguing that with Wal-Mart and major supermarket chains getting into organic products merchandising in such a big way that the bloom is off the organic lilly so to speak. They also point to large consumer packaged goods companies like Kraft, General Mills and others who are acquiring smaller organic foods companies and sound the "boogeyman" alarm bell.

We need a little perspective here folks. First, the organic foods category really didn't start gaining any initial steam until about 1989-1990. This is when larger independent natural foods retailers, Whole Foods, Wild Oats and some progressive independent and regional supermarket chains like Raley's in California and Publix in Florida began to take organic foods merchandising seriously in their stores. Prior to 1989-1990 organics were really a niche within a niche sold primarily by Co-op markets and independent natural foods stores and mostly on the west and east coasts.

So folks, we have a category which for all intents and purposes has only been blooming for 18 years. It's still in it's infancy. There's much growth ahead. As such please don't lose your heads. Don't toss the organic baby out with the buy local bathwater.

Let's remember the roots (pun intended) of organic which is the farm. Not only does eating organic increase a person's positive health probabilities but as it grows as a category it continues to change agriculture--changing it from a modern model with high uses of pesticides, insecticides and fungicides to a new post-modern model of cleaner, organic farming and agriculture The more the organic category grows and the more mainstream it becomes, the more this chemical-dependent modern agricultural model changes to the post-modern organic farming paradigm

So organic backlash promoters, instead of being like a General who has just won his toughest battle but goes back to the tent to ruminate as to whether he really won, embrace the success and mainstreaming of the organic category. See it for what it really is: Healthier foods for more people (as the price goes down that is) and a device who's growth means an increase in clean, post-modern sustainable farming methods rather then the chemical model. It's an environmental win-win all around.

There is no bigger advocate for buy local than this publication (NSFM). However we scratch our head at those who create a mutual exclusivity between buying local and organic in terms of national production. The two (buying local and organic) are compatible. Natural foods, organic, locally produced, artisan and specialty foods are all important destinations on a journey to provide heathier, higher quality, cleaner and better tasting foods as well as variety. All of these elements can fit together like an environmentally-conscious glove, and added together create a more sustainable, environmentally sound farming and agricultural system.

And let's thank the Wal-Mart's, Targets, Krogers, Safeway's and others of the mass retailing world (rather than bemoning their corporatism) for finally taking the organic category seriously. Their merchandising of organic items is bringing category retail prices down thus making these foods more affordable for middle and lower income people. They're also driving the major consumer products companies to get deeper into the category which will ultimately have the effect of persuading more and more growers to switch from the chemical agricultural model to a more sustainable natural and organic one.

Lets build a natural-specialty foods post-modern paradigm that includes natural, organic, locally produced, domestic and imported, all with the goal of being produced in a sustainable, environmentally sound way from the farm to the grocery shelf. Contrary to the critics organic plays an essential role in this development. An inclusive model embracing these elements goes much farther than creating self-serving artificial distinctions that in the larger view are really meaningless.

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