A Boost For Organics

A mandate for substantial changes in food production methods – spearheaded by the burgeoning environmental movement – should be watched carefully by those of us who seem more inclined to abandon organically grown produce as a profitable venture.

Today, there is no doubt that organics have fallen out of favor. Raley’s, the Sacramento-based chain, recently pulled organics from the shelf. Other chains have reduced the size and variety of organic displays. Without exception, all these steps stem from organics not living up to anticipated sales projections.

Actually, organics got a very unfair test over the past 18 months. The category was growing slowly but steadily, mostly being marketed through health food stores or a few specialty-oriented supermarkets. Then, with the Alar and Chilean grape scares, mainstream supermarkets rushed to give organics a shot.

Of course, organically grown produce doesn’t come from a factory where one can simply add a second shift and increase production. In fact, most certification laws require two to three years of specific growing techniques before produce can be classified as organic.

As a result, we had booming demand for organics from the giant supermarket chains. At the same time, we had a basically fixed supply. True to form, prices went insane. Indeed, some retailers decided they would offer organics, no matter what. In the process, they drove up prices to as much as ten times that of conventional produce. And surprise, surprise, sales went sour.

Of course, the organics industry also has problems that are not of a supply and demand nature. Most notably, these are being addressed as part of the debate over a national law regarding organics. The basic problem is to define what, exactly, it means for produce to be “organically grown.”

To most people, the phrase implies produce grown without the use of any synthetic or man-made materials. But in fact, many definitions allow the use of various synthetic materials when organic substitutes are not easily available. If a definition is made too strict, organic farming may be too difficult or expensive. If a definition is too lax, everything could be classified as organic. Then the term could lose its meaning and any marketing advantage.

But certainly, the retail trade is in agreement that a meaningful national definition of the term is desirable. Most retailers, furthermore, prefer that federal law preempt any state or local laws. This way, any organic produce purchased anywhere in the country would be expected to meet uniform standards.

Once an acceptable organic definition is reached, certification will still pose problems. No testing program can really certify that produce was grown organically. Residues can dissipate prior to testing, and the expense to test for every conceivable chemical would be prohibitive. In fact, organic growers are nervous that the expense of certification requirements, which might be contained in a new national law, could make their products uneconomical.

In the face of all of these problems and in light of warming demand for organics since the food safety scares, many produce people clearly are questioning why they should even bother with organics. The answer may become more apparent if we consider some strong trends in our society that are reducing the tolerance for farming of any type and particularly those of anything toxic or carcinogenic.

Urban sprawl has led to increasing conflict between homeowners in new subdivisions and their neighbors, farmers. Enormous concern over groundwater supplies and chemicals leaching through the soil are noted throughout the country.

The protests over Malathion spraying in Los Angeles pointed out the latent unwillingness of city dwellers to do much for the farming faction. Realize that growers were very fortunate that the medfly got established in another part of the state where agriculture still has significant influence. If the insects were gaining hold in Rhode Island, I wouldn’t bet my money that we would see aerial spraying in Providence.

All this unrest means that the industry would be wise to keep experimenting with how to grow organically. More money for research in this area…more commercial growers gaining experience with current techniques…this all is very prudent.

But even assuming minute pesticide residues are proven 100% safe to eat, environmental pressures may well lead to legislative mandates severely restricting or eliminating pesticide use.

The industry has done a good job in the last couple of years of addressing concerns regarding food safety. Now, however, chemical use is getting caught up in a whirlwind of environmental consciousness, a consciousness that incorporates fears on everything from global warming and ozone depletion to oil drilling and garbage disposal. It may well be that it is as a result of environmental, and not food safety, pressures, that the industry will have to shift in the direction of more organically grown produce.