Natural and organic: Let's unify to create a healthy, sustainable and just food system

Natural and organic: Let's unify to create a healthy, sustainable and just food system

New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman drew the ire of organic advocates with his May 6 editorial, “Leave ‘Organic’ Out of It.” Rather than view his arguments as a knock against organic, I see them as a call for unity—something the natural products community desperately needs right now. 

New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman drew the ire of organic advocates with his May 6 editorial, “Leave ‘Organic’ Out of It.” But rather than view his arguments as a knock against organic, I see them as a call for unity—something the natural products community desperately needs right now, especially if we are going to really move the needle on creating a healthier, more sustainable and equitable food system.

In his editorial, Bittman argues that the food world faces two “important struggles:”

One is for sustainable agriculture and all that it implies—more respect for the earth and those who live on it (including workers), more care in the use of natural resources in general, more consideration for future generations. The other is for healthier eating: a limit to outright lies in marketing “food” to children, a limit on the sales of foodlike substances, a general encouragement for the eating of real food.

Some organic advocates took to the New York Times website to express their displeasure with Bittman's argument that “there’s a very real difference between eating better and growing better” and that, although organic is the gold standard when it comes to sustainable agriculture, organic is not a required element of healthier eating.

I can eat better starting right now, and it has nothing—zero—to do with shopping at Whole Foods or eating organically. It has to do with eating less junk, hyperprocessed food and industrially raised animal products. The word “organic” need not cross my lips.

Although he wasn’t specifically talking about the natural products industry, Bittman’s editorial is timely for our growing, and at times contentious, community in that it brings up two key questions: 1) How is this community defined; and 2) what is our mission?

What is our mission?

Let’s talk first about mission because I would argue that, like the broader food advocacy world, the natural products community embraces multiple missions—including addressing the complex problems of sustainability and healthy food that Bittman discusses above.

As part of this, a longtime, primary mission of the natural products community has been to bring more health and wellness to more people through the proliferation of healthier, cleaner products. Since the industry’s inception 35-plus years ago, we’ve come to define this as meaning products containing no artificial and synthetic inputs or hyperprocessed ingredients such as trans fats or high-fructose corn syrup. (In the unfortunate absence of a federally regulated "natural" standard, this description has come to reflect how our community defines the term natural through individual retailer and distributor standards and the standards governing New Hope’s Natural Products Expo, the largest U.S. tradeshow in the natural products industry.)

USDA Organic certified products and those containing organic ingredients typically fall on the leading edge of the healthier, cleaner products spectrum. But, as Bittman argues, a product doesn’t need to be organic to be healthier and cleaner.

Of course, what truly defines a healthy product? It’s not an agricultural standard such as organic, but it’s also not a natural products standard that eschews artificial and hyperprocessed ingredients but does nothing to limit the amount of sugar, salt, saturated fat or empty calories found in a food or beverage. Let’s face it: Anyone who’s been to Natural Products Expo or shopped Whole Foods Market or most independent natural foods stores have come face to face with (and probably tried) less-than-healthy organic and natural fare. An organic whoopie pie is still a whoopie pie.

This is not to say, however, that our community hasn’t collectively done a great service to the broader food world by creating, distributing and promoting our products. Along with leaving out the fake stuff, the antibiotics and hormones, and the hyperprocessed ingredients, many of our products contain less sugar, salt and refined grains than their conventional counterparts. Many are backed by mission-driven entrepreneurs and retailers who, along with creating healthier and cleaner products, use education and inspiration to promote health and wellness.

Our manufacturers, suppliers and retailers have also been at the forefront of what we at New Hope call the wholegrarian revolution, which is the powerful consumer shift we are seeing toward eating whole, real foods. Kale chips. Dried fruit. Fermented veggies. Pasta made from one ingredient—beans. Some of these offerings are organic; others are not, but they all are examples of the innovative and delicious products coming out of our industry that support creating a healthier, more sustainable food system.

How is our community defined?

I’ve used the term “natural products community” numerous times in this piece, so what do I mean by that? And how does this connect to the larger food world?

From a practical, business-focused standpoint, and given the fact that I’m coming from the perspective of working at New Hope, the natural products community could be defined as encompassing the organic and natural manufacturers, suppliers, retailers, service providers, investors and others who attend Natural Products Expo and/or support the product standards governing this tradeshow and the natural retail channel. 

However, from a broader, more mission-focused perspective, the community I’m referring to goes far beyond the walls of Natural Products Expo and our natural retailers. It includes suppliers and manufactures who sell via all channels; it includes organic advocates and those fighting for GMO labeling or for getting healthier foods into our schools and underserved communities; it includes organizations big and small that each play a role in making our food system healthier, more just and more sustainable.

This community is made up of a broad array of professionals and advocates who, although sometimes at odds, are for the most part championing the same missions and working toward solving the same gargantuan, complex problems—we’re just all on a different part of the solution spectrum. Importantly, people and companies that are just trying to cash in on the growth in natural and organic are not part of how I would define this industry and community.

So, what if this industry, this community could align itself first and foremost with the cause of making our food system healthier, more just and more sustainable? And, rather than engage in in-fighting, what if we could acknowledge and support the important role of organic as a leading agricultural standard and solution within the sustainable and healthy food movements?

But what if we could also acknowledge and support the reality that creating greater accessibility to healthier, more sustainable food requires a strong local food system and the greater availability of affordable, simple products that are made with real, whole food-based ingredients and labeled transparently so people know what they are eating and are better able to make informed choices? 

Wouldn't this create a more powerful platform for change than we have in the current environment of natural and "Big Organic" bashing? Couldn't this help us see that we're allowing labels (natural, organic, local) to divide us, when we really should be united in service to our common, greater causes?

Bringing all of this back to Bittman’s editorial, I will end with his final thoughts on the importance of creating a unified mission connecting the “ever-increasing number of people working to improve the growing, processing, transporting, marketing, distributing and eating of food:”

Both sustainability and healthier eating affect us. Very few people can avoid struggling daily with the avalanche of bad food and the culture and propaganda surrounding it. Near-hysteria or simple answers lead to unachievable situations and nonsolutions. More effective would be shifting the food culture, the relevant business models and public policies—a gradual and concerted movement toward making production and consumption simply “better.” That is what the good food movement should be about.

I believe this is what a united natural products community should be about too.

What do you think?

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