There's something amiss in the organic industry. Here at the 2011 Organic Summit in Baltimore, on the eve of Natural Products Expo East, you might get the impression that organic leaders are having a rough time of it. There's a palpable sense of defeatism in the air, a beleagueredness that belies the very real fact that organic is outperforming nigh every other category of food.
I still remember the presentation from earlier this year at Natural Products Expo West in which Alex Bogusky, a living legend in advertising circles, referred to organics as the 'rock stars' of food. From the conversation in the room at today's summit, I don't think the rock stars got the memo.
Michael Pollan, in a recent article in The Nation, rightly suggests that organic has won important battles with popular media, and even with consumers in terms of reputation and quality. What it has not earned to date is meaningful sales and a marked effect on the nation's food supply. Guess what? Nutrition Business Journal sees very real evidence of that changing. In our market overview of U.S. nutrition published just two months ago, we posited that consumers—despite price premiums, despite economic uncertainty—were paying up for organic. I'll offer up two evidentiary points to support that. One: Whole Foods Market, reporting quarter after quarter of surprising growth, on the company's stated path to 1,000 stores—a lofty goal with just 330 in place. Where else does that kind of growth, and bold commitment to more growth, exist in today's economy? Two: Sales of natural & organic products, whether those products are food, beverage or personal care items, produced twice the growth rate of relevant nutrition industry peers, such as dietary supplements and functional foods. Sales verily swamped growth in conventional foods.
So here's my first takeaway from this year's summit: The writing's on the wall, organics. You won the conversation. You are the rock stars of food. You now need to act more like rock stars.
I don't mean to belittle or diminish the very real challenges of the marketplace—the elusive quest for price parity with conventional; confusion in the messaging, especially versus natural; giant foes in Big Ag and giant, legislated food subsidies—but I do mean to suggest that more swagger and self-deserved back-patting might help. It's hard to succeed as an organic farmer. It's hard to build a successful organics business. But you are doing just that. Witness the 8% industry growth in 2010, and backroom conversations today that the growth is still real, not an anomaly. You deserve to strut and shout that success from the rooftops. Maybe consumers are ready to listen, if you'd just raise your voice a bit.
What follows are four additional takeaways from NBJ's sideline view of the summit, a view we are thankful to have been offered and humbled to have witnessed.
1. The debate is (mostly) over
Recent studies from Rodale Institute and the Organic Farming Research Foundation continue to prove the category's merits, particularly its protection of soil quality, its profitability over the long-term, and its sustainable approach to agriculture. There are 85,000 chemicals in our food supply, as one speaker affirmed today, with only 7% evaluated and researched for safety. Consumers intuitively get this. There are ample, simple messages here to be built around the chemicals in our food. Start screaming them. As several attendees (and I myself) can confirm, telling kids not to eat certain classes of food because they are 'full of chemicals' works. It works, because it makes sense and resonates quickly. It's a simple, clean message. More of that in organic packaging and marketing, please.
2. Grassroots to the rescue
Lots of interest continues to focus on grassroots initiatives to motivate consumers toward better choices. Food Corps presented its laudable and sensible approach to building a nationwide network of food advocates and educators in our schools. Many, many voices spoke of the importance of connecting locally with consumers, and partnering locally to circumvent the economic difficulties of running an organic business in light of aggressive, well-heeled competitors. Even the aforementioned Bogusky, once a kingpin of advertising, traded corporate brand advocacy for his new breed of consumer advocacy out of a tiny cottage in Boulder. The trend is certainly toward grassroots, but the excitement I felt in the room toward this topic centered around the more real possibility that grassroots advocacy could achieve levels of momentum not seen in decades. Transparency, mounting disrespect and distrust of multinational conglomerates, and the viral nature of consumer conversions to organic all aid the cause here.
3. Legacy defeatism has no place in the future discussion
I spoke of this above, but here's an example. The fight to 'retain' the already meager measures of budget baked into the Food Bill might be a sensible and realistic approach to the economic realities of Capitol Hill, but it's sure not inspiring. And organic is nothing but inspiring. It should be inspiring out of every pore. When the message meets the medium better here, won't consumers take better note?
4. Is GMO the crucible?
NBJ has suggested for some time now that GMOs have the potential to become the very crucible through which countless food villains and the excesses of science in the food supply might finally be judged by the average consumer. Very little evidence at this year's summit suggested that the threat registers well in that average consumer's mind, but some see that day coming. GMO clearly has the staying power to linger around the fringes of our food debate, biding its time for another wave of popular interest like it currently enjoys. Whether GMO serves as the crucible or not, smart minds are actively engaged in recasting the GMO message to consumers, and herein lies real opportunity to create some simple, sharp teeth around the benefits of both organic and non-GMO.
As for specific areas of interest, liability was front of mind today. Organic farmers should not bear the contamination burden alone, if at all, and the patent holders of GM technologies need to be brought to better account. There's a daunting challenge for you, but when the patent holders (and we all know the company names here) are forced by law to take more complete responsibility for their creations, all bets are off should the GMO debate go the way of Big Tobacco in the coming decades.
So there's a quick download. We hope to pay another visit next year and, with another year of outsized sales under organic's belt, hear some real confidence and swagger from the room. They deserve it.