Monitor: The natural products industry can offer common ground in the Red Plate/Blue Plate politics of food

The culture wars have stretched the battlefield onto the dinner plate with every veggie burger now perceived as an assault on the American way of life, but if the natural products industry can honor its back-to-the-land roots, it can share that ethos in a way that resonates across a variety of menus.

Rick Polito, Editor-in-chief, Nutrition Business Journal

June 4, 2021

4 Min Read

Natural Products Industry Health Monitor, June 4, 2021

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Consider this: Choosing sides, right up the middle

Look at the headlines and it would appear that red states and blue states shop at two different grocery stores, cook in two different kitchens and compile two very different shopping lists and meal plans.

We’re not sure that’s true, but since when has truth got in the way of some good hysteria?

We saw that hysteria clearly in April in what we will call “Burgergate.” The Biden administration issued ambitious new goals on climate change and before the document even finished downloading, right-wing media announced that the former president was coming after your red meat. “No burger on July 4. No steaks on the barbecue” blared Fox News.

The relationship between climate change and meat production is complex and opinions are strong. Some theories of regenerative agriculture hold that livestock is essential to feed the processes that sequester carbon in the soil. Other sources point to meat consumption as among the primary drivers of climate change.

We’re not going to settle that debate here.

Instead, the natural products industry might need to have a different debate about what it can do to take politics out of food and defuse the dinner table standoff in a nation that doesn’t need one more thing to fight about. The alleged assault on carnivores is just one part of it. From school lunches to organic certification to farmers markets as hotbeds of socialism, food has become another front in an us vs. them war.

Whether it intends to or not, the natural products industry plays a role in that. Virtue shaming has become a thing and yesterday’s latte liberal is today’s soybean socialist. We don’t think brands need to surrender or even play down their values, but we do think there are values that could be played up.

The natural products industry can trace some of its roots to a back-to-the-land movement, but it often feels like that the land has been relegated to window dressing status. Brands need to make farmers a priority and not just a prop to put on the label.

That means not only getting involved in agricultural policy, where the industry is largely missing in action, but also engaging in what we could call “agricultural transparency.” That could mean talking not just about climate change, environmental issues and nutritional values of organic food but talking about the people who are part of the agricultural system, their homes, their lives.

Brands should talk about the health of the farmers and the farming communities that have been devastated by Big Ag. They should talk about how natural product brands work to give farmers a better share in the economics of packaged goods, and then show how that is true at the dollar-by-dollar level. They should highlight projects that help farmers stay on the land and ensure a new generation has a chance to build a life there.

They should not only live up to those pledges but share the on-the-ground actions and results. Document those results as part of the value proposition for going organic. In short, the natural products industry needs to look more like a partner to agriculture and less like a colonial agent extracting resources for privileged urban professionals.

We’ve all seen 1% For the Planet. How about 5% for the farmers?

That will not depoliticize food on its own, but it could be one way that natural products brands can declare and sustain values that are not a part of the alleged red plate/blue plate divide. We can still disagree about meatless Mondays and GMOs, but the health of the farmers and farming communities should be something that natural brands can make clear to consumers. Food could be something to bring us together, not something we fight about.

About the Author(s)

Rick Polito

Editor-in-chief, Nutrition Business Journal

As Nutrition Business Journal's editor-in-chief, Rick Polito writes about the trends, deals and developments in the natural nutrition industry, looking for the little companies coming up and the big money coming in. An award-winning journalist, Polito knows that facts and figures never give the complete context and that the story of this industry has always been about people.

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