The Organic & Natural Health Association was founded in 2016 to develop a definition for "natural." The association abandoned that goal when it determined there was no definition that would serve the consumer and has moved on to missions that include regenerative agriculture and establishing large-scale nutrient tracking for individuals. We spoke to ONHA Executive Director Karen Howard last month about how the focus differs from other trade groups.
Why haven't more trade associations better engaged the public?
Karen Howard: I think the reason they haven't attempted the engagement is they haven't invited [consumers] to the table. So in our case, they're actually members. Consumer organizations were always designed to be members with a vote and with eligibility to be on the board.
How would you describe the general level of knowledge about nutrition among the public?
KH: I'd say it's growing. I don't think that people understand the implications of nutrient deficiency. I know just from my own personal experience, when I learned about the severity of some of these nutrients being deficient, I was stunned. Iodine comes to mind. So there's an iodine deficiency, and as much fast food as people eat, which is laden with salt, that seems counterintuitive. The implications of iodine deficiency and some of the other ones in terms of things like birth weights and defects and early pre-term birth, it's startling. So I think it just feeds into the poor diet issues that we already face and the obesity levels. But I do think people, as they are looking to eat healthier—however they define that, whether it's natural, organic, or a combination thereof—are looking to understand nutrients better. It's just really hard to get that into mainstream conversation because there is still this bias that you can get all your nutrients from food.
Your association is working on individual nutrient-level testing in large populations. What is the end goal of that effort?
KH: The end goal is to really take that body of work and say, 'Now we have a case to be made for how health care should be delivered in a health versus disease manner.' So we can actually talk about nutrition and the impact on health status and being healthy and staying healthy versus treating disease. So you're really having the ability to reverse some of those long-term health care consequences that are caused by these nutrient deficiencies.
What's the biggest challenge in getting this done?
KH: I think the only thing we are really dealing with is time. You know these things do take time. Eighteen months gives you the beginning of the story. Seven years enables you to paint a really strong picture. So if we were able to marshal resources and do all 12 nutrients at one time, that would be awesome. The reality is that people have a limit to what they can consume, whether it's through media, education or dietary supplements, frankly. And so with each nutrient that we study, people are suddenly taking another supplement. So there is just that level of awareness and education of the value of this in the industry and improving that in terms of outcomes, and it's just going to take time.
One of the topics that you're covering is regenerative agriculture. Does the public understand the urgency?
KH: No. They don't. What they do know in large part through great conversations that have been had for the last several years is that our agricultural practices are not working. We're depleting the soil. So if they think about what they would want to have, whether it's reducing your carbon footprint or to be able to generate food that's healthier, that's where they're going to start to understand regenerative practices. I'm very hopeful, given what the Demeter Association has been able to do in Europe in terms of an awareness around their seal and the fact that the brand recognition for Demeter and restorative agricultural practices is only second to that of Coca-Cola. So I know it's doable and it's a question of how we begin to step into that conversation, what resources we can marshal to spread that word as fast as possible. Being able to consume beef that is healthier and actually adds to the health of the soil, it's a great story to tell.
How is Organic and Natural's approach different from the other trade agencies on political activity and engagement?
KH: Well, I like to say there is a story: the good, the bad and the ugly. Everybody is pretty practiced at selling the good side of the story and fairly open about what the problems are in the industry but not willing to open up the hood of the car and look underneath and see where we might be exposing ourselves to future problems that we might want to tackle now. So we're good with that. We're happy to say that when we started the conversation around raw ingredients should be under the auspice of a GMP standard, we were opposed by every trade association. No longer are we opposed in that. So now when we look at what the risks are associated with pesticide residues in supplements, we don't have any fear of tackling that. Our members are willing to put themselves out there and expose themselves with that light to see if there are problems in their supply chains. Our commitment to supply chain integrity enables us to take very bold stands. So we'll take that and then we'll make a decision as to what we think is appropriate to take and fix on Capitol Hill.
Looking across all industries, what could trade associations do better, and does the model need to be changed?
KH: All trade associations should have a mission that they should be working themselves out of. There shouldn't be any nonprofit on the planet that should not be willing to say, 'We're done. We've completed our job. We're shutting our doors and we've moved on.' And if you're not moving toward that, then all you're doing is creating an environment where you keep yourself employed.