Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Business of Food: Organics Gone Mainstream

At the first morning session at the IACP conference in Chicago there was a panel discussion on the topic of organics. The speakers were an interesting mix--there was Samuel Fromartz who wrote the book Organics, Inc. Michael Abelman, the founder of the Center for Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens, a farmer and an outspoken advocate of organics. Representing the business of organics were Jim Adams a former journalist and the Marketing Director at Chipotle Mexican Grill and Michael Brandeisky, VP Strategic Marketing Initiatives responsible for natural and organic products at Kraft.

Fromartz set the context by presenting organic as part of "a larger conversation" about who produces your food and how they produce it. He outlined two directions, one where organics was growing with more choices being offered to consumers, the other was about ideals, stewardship of the land, local producers, social justice and clean food. But is it idealism versus growth? Fromartz doesn't think so. He believes both can and should coexist. He said there is fear of organics "selling out" but with only 3% market share, it's less of an issue than it might seem. His overall message--keep pushing the envelope.

After showing some disturbing footage of factory pig farms, Adams told a most interesting anecdote about his company switching from a conventionally raised pork to Niman Ranch pork, a more "natural" and humanely raised product. The company had to raise the price of the carnitas burrito by a dollar to support the change. The result? A four times increase in sales of carnitas burritos. Later a pig farmer challenged his assertion that pigs were given growth hormones and Adams agreed that he didn't know anything about it. It was unfortunate that this inaccuracy ended up lessening Adam's credibility.

Brandeisky talked about the commitment Kraft has made to "organic and natural" and said that many consumers switch to organic and natural products after a major illness or when they get pregnant or have children. He said Kraft doesn't see it as a fad and that it fits well with their strategy to serve consumers by "helping them to live and eat better". And yet he mentioned nothing about the other issues that Fromartz had raised. Was the audience too polite to a corporate sponsor of the conference to question him about stewardship of the land? I doubt he would have had much of an answer as to what Kraft is doing in that respect, but since the question wasn't asked we really don't know.

Abelman was by far the most rousing and popular of the speakers. He told the audience that he had addressed the same conference in 1993 and that back then what seemed radical, is now mainstream. He said that the definition of organic has become more narrow but that it is more than just about the chemicals in our food. He called for a renewed commitment to the values that lead to the movement in the first place. He asked the audience to rethink issues of scale, and how we grow responsibly.

Both Abelman and Fromartz concluded the presentation with a discussion of the choice between buying local and buying organic.Abelman said he mostly chooses local over organic. He went on to explain that organic is not the only issue and that a relationship with a food producer enables him to have a dialog that otherwise wouldn't happen. Sometimes local producers just don't have organic certification but are still "doing all the right things". Fromartz concluded that it is ultimately a false choice--that we must do both, not one or the other. All in all this was a most thoughtful and provocative presentation.