Presentation at the MOSES Organic Farming Conference – Getting the Organic Message Out to Consumers | 2005

Getting the Organic Message Out to Consumers

Presented at the MOSES Organic Farming Conference
LaCrosse, Wisconsin
February 25, 2005

Roger Blobaum

We need to do much more to document the benefits of organic farming and to convey this information to others.   Surveys of organic farmers show they feel that educating consumers about these benefits is a high priority.

Educating consumers also is a high priority of the Organic Trade Association, which recently set up the Center for Organic Education and Promotion to research and convey the benefits of organic food and farming to both consumers and the general public.   We are pleased that its director, Mark Davis, is able to be on this panel to discuss the important work underway at the center.

The title of this workshop, “Getting the Organic Message Out to Consumers,” reflects this broader approach. But it is still too narrow. Most would agree that consumer education is where the immediate need is greatest. But we also need to convey organic benefits information to farmers thinking about switching to organic, educators and researchers, bankers and other agricultural lenders, consumer and environmental and animal protection organizations that support organic farming, state and national policymakers, and the media.

I want to take a moment to touch on the relationship between organic benefits and organic claims. It is pretty well settled that organic is defined by the methods and materials used (usually referred to as a production claim) and not by the outcome achieved (which would be a content claim). What we have now is a production claim verified by third-party certification. We may have to revisit this distinction between and production claim and a content claim if we can establish and document and verify that organic food is safer, is more nutritious, and tastes better.

Benefits realized by organic farmers.

Organic farmers take pride in what they do and how they do it and are more than willing to talk abut it. A lot of information from organic farmer surveys exists on the benefits that organic farmers themselves have identified. I want to list some cited most often.

  • Avoiding the use of toxic pesticides and other farm chemicals in organic farming enhances family and animal health and protects the health of farm workers.
  • Soil health is enhanced by organic methods and organic farmers believe soil that is alive and healthy increases productivity and contributes as well to animal and family health. Higher organic matter levels achieved in organically managed soils also increases water-holding capacity and increases drought resistance.
  • Farming in harmony with Nature enables organic farmers to contribute personally and directly to protection of the land and the environment and overall agricultural sustainability.
  • Organic farmers derive a great deal of personal satisfaction from the positive feedback they receive from consumers.
  • Organic farmers achieve a high level of independence by unhooking as much as possible from agribusiness costs and practices and from the industrialized model of crop and livestock production.
  • Profit margins and overall economic viability are enhanced by the system of premiums consumers are willing to pay for organically grown food.
  • Organic farming reduces energy input costs as much as one-third and helps make organic farmers less vulnerable to energy shortages, interruptions, and price increases.
  • Organic farming systems help provide habitat for songbirds, wildlife, and beneficial insects and enhance ecosystem diversity in the rural landscape.

Consumer benefits

We see much evidence in the marketplace of what these organic benefits are. They are listed on packaging, in web sites, and in advertising. This is a typical example from a box of organic whole grain cereal:

  • Grown without the use of synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
  • Contains no artificial flavors or preservatives.
  • Grown in a system that relies on time-tested natural methods, including soil building and crop rotations, that help protect and nurture the environment.

This label also points out that organic standards prohibit the use of hormones and antibiotics in the production of organic food as well as ingredients that are irradiated or genetically engineered.

A similar consumer message is carried in advertising for a nutrition bar:

“The organic ingredients we use are produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Our bars are produced without using conventional pesticides or fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients, no bioengineering or ionizing radiation either. In other words food as nature meant it to be. Simple, pure, and most of all delicious.”

Many of us were pleasantly surprised early this month to find that an article entitled “In Praise of the Organic Environment” had appeared in Global Agenda Magazine, a business-oriented publication. It was written by Marion Nestle, a respected New York University Department of Nutrition professor and author of the recently-published and favorably reviewed book entitled “Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health.” She noted that organic foods are no longer a fad and that they provide a long list of consumer benefits. She also noted that the outlook for claiming special benefits, such as higher nutritional values, is promising but needs a lot more research and documentation.

“Are foods better because they are organic?”, she asks in winding up this important article. “Of course they are, but not primarily because of nutrition. Their true value comes from what they do for workers in lower pesticide exposure, for soils in enrichment and conservation, for water supplies in less fertilizer runoff, for animals in protection against microbial diseases and mad cow disease, for fish in protection against contamination with organic hydrocarbons, and for other such environmental factors.”

Unfortunately consumers sometimes credit organic food with benefits that are not claimed. Many consumers believe, for example, that synthetics are not allowed in organic production and processing. A recent federal court decision publicized the fact that a long list of synthetics are allowed and used. The court agreed with the blueberry farmer who brought the lawsuit that the Organic Foods Production Act appears to state in plain language that synthetics are not allowed. It is unclear whether an attempt will be made to change the law to allow continued synthetic uses.

Surveys also suggest that many consumers are still confused about the difference between organic foods and those that make simple pesticide-free claims. A National Marketing Institute survey that compared the number of consumers who stated that they wanted organic products with those who said they wanted products grown without pesticides showed that the largest number went for products carrying “grown without pesticides” labels. What this shows, the survey concluded, is that consumers don’t fully understand what organics are and that much more consumer education is needed. “Though it’s been said a thousand times,” the survey report concluded, “it bears repeating: Educate, Educate, Educate.”

Many consumers also would like more emphasis put on benefits related to organic values and principles. These are implied organic characteristics that suggest organic food is food with a local connection, a farmer’s face, and a conscience. These characteristics include things like appropriate scale, locally grown, community control, and social justice. Consumers attempt to gain these benefits by participating in CSAs and farmers markets.    Unfortunately these characteristics are not covered by organic standards, do not form the basis for organic claims, and are not third-party verified.

A final education challenge is identifying important public benefits of organic farming and conveying this information to policymakers. Most consumers are unaware that Congress deleted all references to health, environmental, and social benefits when it enacted the Organic Foods Production Act. Or that the official government position on organic is that it is no better than conventional, that there are no public benefits, and that organic food and farming are important only because they offer farmers and consumers a choice.

National policy

  • Global Warming. The role of organic agriculture in mitigating climate change focuses on two important contributions: 1) organic farming requires less fossil fuel energy and, as a result, adds a smaller amount of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, and 2) the higher level of organic matter in organically-managed soil sequesters carbon, reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Last Monday’s Washington Post reported that the government is trying to capture and store carbon dioxide through enormously expensive processes and then sequester it by pumping it into depleted oil and gas fields or deep salty aquifers. The story did not mention the important contribution organic farming makes through carbon sequestration.

  • Soaring Natural Gas Prices. The price of natural gas, which has gone up in concert with oil prices, has soared by more than 30 percent in the past year. One industry answer, in addition to more offshore drilling, is to increase to 23 billion cubic foot a day the amount of natural gas that is liquefied overseas in an expensive process and imported in huge ships.

Consumers have no idea that natural gas, as the feedstock in making synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, is an expensive input in conventional crop production. Or, more important, that synthetic nitrogen is not an allowed input in organic farming because it is a form of fossil fuel energy, burns up organic matter in the soil, and is so poorly utilized by plants that as much as 90 percent of it is leached out and lost. Any mention of this benefit of organic farming by policymakers? The answer is none.

  • Dead Zone.   The Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone, located south of the Mississippi River Delta, is made up of 5,500 square miles of water with so little summer oxygen that it is unable to sustain any aquatic life. Smaller dead zones, also caused by nitrogen runoff, are turning up every summer in the once-pristine Chesapeake Bay and depleting crab, oyster, and fish resources. Again, organic farming in the Chesapeake and Mississippi River watersheds would help alleviate this growing problem.
  • Antibiotic Resistance. Increasing resistance in animal production due to feed medicated with antibiotics and the use of antibiotics as a growth promoter is a serious problem that makes it increasingly difficult to find a cure for some simple bacterial diseases. And the increasing resistance of important bacterial pathogens results in high costs for research to develop new antibiotics for human applications. But do policymakers ever cite the ban on antibiotics in organic livestock production as a public benefit? Never.

I could go on to discuss mad cow disease, endocrine disruption and other health problems related to pesticides, and similar topics on a long list of pressing national problems where organic farming offers an important contribution or a solution. We need to do much more to get these public benefits acknowledged by policymakers the way they are acknowledged in Europe, and to do as the Europeans do, which is to reward organic farmers for providing the public with these benefits.

Two public benefits of organic

One is the job-creating potential of organic food and farming. A recent speech by a German agriculture minister who is a strong supporter of organic farming cited statistics showing a substantial number of jobs being created in areas where organic farming is flourishing. She cited this as another important rationale for the generous financial and other support organic agriculture receives in Europe.

The other is pioneering research by economist Luanne Lohr of the University of Georgia. Using data from more than 1,000 counties, she compared the characteristics of organic and conventional farmers and the indicators of benefits in counties with organic farms and counties without organic farms. These are the most important measurable findings:

  • Counties with organic farms have stronger farm economies and contribute more to local economies through total sales, net revenue, farm value, taxes paid, payroll, and purchases of fertilizer, seed, and repair and maintenance services.
  • Counties with organic farms have more committed farmers and give more support to rural development with high percentages of resident full-time farmers, greater direct to consumer sales, more workers hired, and higher worker pay.
  • Counties with organic farms provide more bird and wildlife habitat and have lower insecticide and nematicide use.

The research report also include these unmeasurable positive impacts:

  • Organic farming under current standards avoids social and economic costs such as pesticide poisonings and costs of testing for genetically engineered foods.
  • The market for organic foods is more efficient than for conventional foods because prices reflect more the the cost of producing socially desirable outputs, such as clean water, as a byproduct of food production activities. This reduces the need for government intervention through taxes or subsidies to obtain these benefits.

Overall, she concluded, the findings of this study are surprising in the strength of support for the hypothesis that organic farming produces more benefits than conventional farming. Nearly every indicator tested across the range of economic, social, and environmental benefits, she concluded, favors organic systems.

In doing a little research in preparation for this panel, I was surprised by the wide range of benefits provided by organic farming that I turned up. We have a significant story to tell consumers, researchers, policymakers, the media, and others. I urge all of you to feel special pride in being involved in organic farming, to think about its many public benefits, and to make an extra effort to convey this message far and wide.