December 14, 2010

Top 13 Trends in Sustainable Food & Agriculture.

Boulder, CO (December 14, 2010) – Joining other prognosticators, we at Compass Natural wanted to highlight some of the trends we see on the horizon in sustainable food and agriculture as 2010 comes to a close.

Happy Holidays and all the best for a healthful and prosperous new year.

~ Steven Hoffman, Compass Natural

Baker’s Dozen: Green 2010.

1.  The Economy

Wall Street may be recording record profits, but the job market is lagging. As such, hard-pressed consumers will continue to look for value. Core healthy lifestyles shoppers will be more discerning in their budgets for organic, and low-income families are particularly strained in finding healthful food alternatives. With people looking to save money, coupon redemption is up 25% this past year, and coupon use in the natural sector reflects a similar growth trend. Also, redemption rates for Internet coupons, while still small, account for the fastest growing segment in the business. Private label product sales also increased from 15 percent of total food sales before the recession to 18% this past year, according to research firm Booz & Company, which also reports that the new frugality may be here to stay, as consumers continue to feel they are on shaky ground. The natural and organic companies that can communicate value as well as benefits will continue to grow in a tough market.

2.  Social Networking

Word of mouth travels fast in the social network, good or bad. Take an active role in making it good. Stay engaged on Facebook and Twitter and build your brand among friends and followers. Sustainable consumers tend to be early adopters on the web and build strong online communities. “Friend” and “follow” other like-minded Facebookers and Twitterers – they’ll help you spread the word – and stay connected professionally on networks such as Linked In. See what other companies are doing on their Facebook pages. Learn WordPress, a relatively easy, open source blog publishing program, or get someone on your team who knows how, and contribute regularly to your blog. Tie it all in with your website and traditional public relations and marketing campaigns. All these efforts can go far in getting your brand to show up higher in the Google searches. Try to keep up!

3.  Chemicals in the Environment

The cumulative effects of chemicals in our environment, food and packaging are impacting our public health. The average school age child is walking around with an estimated 10-13 pesticide residues in their bodies every day. However, when they switch to an all-organic diet, the residues literally disappear from their bodies, according to studies by Emory University and Harvard School of Public Health. Additionally, the President’s Cancer Panel in 2010 reported on “pre-polluted babies” born with as many as 300 man-made chemicals in their umbilical cords. Families are reacting: 41 % of parents report they are buying more organic foods today than a year ago, up significantly from 31% reporting organic purchases in 2009, according to a joint survey released this month by the Organic Trade Association and Kiwi Magazine. A growing body of research also points to links between pesticides and alarming rises in the rates of childhood autism, ADHD, diabetes and obesity. Additionally, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer runoff is primarily responsible for the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere. GMO contamination threatens native plant species and promotes the emergence of superweeds. As a result, demand for sustainable food production that protects health and the environment will continue to grow, and consumers are willing to pay a premium for organic products, but only up to a point (see #1).

4.  Sustainable Packaging

Did you hear the latest research about fast food and deli paper wrap and microwave popcorn bags that leach cancer-causing chemicals into our food? These stories will continue to emerge, and packaging is facing challenges on two fronts: reducing package waste in landfills; and keeping chemicals from leaching into food. Many natural and organic products companies are leading the way toward more sustainable packaging, including BPA-free cans, and also innovating on reduced package content and recyclable and compostable packaging alternatives. Concerned over squeeze pack packaging, Justin’s Nut Butter, a small Boulder-based business, recently convened a sustainable squeeze pack summit, bringing competitors, industry leaders and packaging specialists together to explore ways to develop more sustainable packaging in consumer products. This is a great opportunity for the industry to work together and serve as a pacesetter for the food and consumer products industry at large.

5.  Organic Gardening and Urban Agriculture

As Michelle Obama leads the way with the White House organic garden, Victory Gardens are back, except they’re organic. And it’s helping people get in touch with their food, as well as giving them access to fresh, local produce. The organic sector of the lawn and garden (L&G) market has experienced significant growth over the last few years, and major garden centers are expanding the shelf for natural and organic L&G products. Market research firm Packaged Facts in January 2009 estimated that the organic L&G sector reached $460 million in retail sales in 2008, a gain of 12% over 2007. Farmers Markets and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) are growing fast, and small-scale urban farms are also on the rise, thanks to the efforts of organizations like Growing Power, linking inner city teens and communities with working urban food gardens utilizing vacant city lots. Many natural and organic products companies are already helping support similar causes.

6.  Organic and Climate Change

The global food system is estimated to account for one-third of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, says Anna Lappe, author of Diet for a Hot Planet. Yet, organic farming has the potential to help reduce agriculture’s impact on global warming. According to Dr. David Pimentel, author of Food, Energy and Society, organic agriculture has been shown to reduce energy inputs by 30%. Organic farming also conserves more water in the soil and reduces erosion. Healthy organic soils tie up more carbon in the soil, helping to reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere. An October 2010 study in California’s Central Valley concluded that organic farming significantly reduced GHGs, while conventional agriculture increased GHGs in the atmosphere. Additionally, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition reported, “Sustainable and organic agricultural systems offer the most resilience for agricultural production in the face of the extreme precipitation, prolonged droughts and increasingly uncertain regional climate regimes expected with rapid global warming.”

7.  Slow Money

According to Woody Tasch, founder of Slow Money, a nonprofit formed to catalyze the flow of investment capital to small sustainable food companies and agriculture, the innate value of investing in sustainable food comes not only in the form of monetary return, but also in benefits to individuals and communities—“more organic farms, more organic food available locally, and a more robust local economy,” he writes in the Winter 2010 GreenMoneyJournal. In the fast-pitch world of Buy Low and Sell High, Slow Money is developing vehicles that enable small investors to invest in local sustainable food businesses. In two years, Slow Money has grown to 1,200 members and six regional chapters, and has facilitated the investment of more than $3 million into a number of local sustainable food businesses. In 2010, Slow Money established the Soil Trust to pool small donations into a philanthropic investment fund dedicated to small food companies and soil fertility, and is working with socially responsible investing companies to further open the playing field for everyday citizens who want to make sustainable food investments. See www.slowmoney.org.

8.  Animal Rights

The beauty without cruelty movement has been around for a while, helping to usher in a generation of body care products that have not been tested on animals. Now, we enter a new era of animal rights and consumer advocacy that is critical of the inhumane, intensive confinement conditions in which most animals bred for food find themselves. However, beginning on January 1, Whole Foods Market will require that all meat sold to it will be rated under new animal welfare standards. The world’s largest retailer of natural and organic products created Global Animal Partnership as a nonprofit third party certifier to establish ratings, conduct inspections and administer the standards. Kudos to Whole Foods: This is a huge step in increasing consumer awareness of animal rights, and also in presenting more humane options to the public.

9.  GMO Debate

This is an issue that isn’t going away. In fact, I would venture that the organic industry is pretty much at war with the biotech and pesticide companies that seek to dominate the market with GMO agriculture, the genetic drift from which is a threat to organic seed stock and organic crops. While proponents insist that GMOs are the only way to feed the world, opponents claim that GMO farming has passed the point of diminishing returns. While pesticide use was reduced in the first three years after GMO crops were introduced in the mid ‘90s, herbicide use has actually increased over the past 13 years by nearly 400 million pounds as a result of GMO agriculture, according to The Organic Center. GMO yields are not matching what was promised, and superweeds are emerging due to the overuse of glyphosate, the herbicide mainly used in GMO agriculture, hence the need for more herbicide. With numerous food allergy and health concerns also emerging, many manufacturers are turning to the Non-GMO Project to verify that their products are GMO free. Consumers are highly confused over this issue, due to the rhetoric from biotech companies that have co-opted the term “sustainability.” And the onslaught continues: the FDA currently is evaluating genetically engineered salmon—the first potential GMO animal for commercial consumption—and also a GMO apple that doesn’t turn brown when cut open. If you are not choosing organic or if it doesn’t say non-GMO on the label, chances are your food contains GMOs, as it is estimated that 80% of conventional grocery products now contain GMO ingredients.

10.  Sustainability

“Sustainability is not an exact science, but it is a strategic decision,” says Jeanne von Zastrow, senior director of industry relations and sustainability at the Food Marketing Institute (FMI). And it’s more than how the food was grown; it’s also about a company’s energy and water use, transportation, equipment, supply chain management, packaging and waste – garnering efficiencies in these areas and elsewhere promotes sustainability and cuts costs. Many natural and organic products companies are leading the way but could do more, and FMI also is developing sustainability resources for the food industry. While what consumers say and do regarding sustainability may be a dichotomy, health conscious and environmentally aware consumers will continue to develop brand loyalty by identifying with your green efforts.

11.  Organic Acreage Grows

Compared to overall acreage dedicated to conventional agriculture production, the amount of land under organic production is still very small. But it is growing. In the first wide-scale survey of organic farming, published this past year, USDA counted 14,540 U.S. farms and ranches that were under organic production, comprising 4.8 million acres of land in 2008. Certified U.S. organic cropland acreage between 2002 and 2008 averaged 15% annual growth. Globally, organic acreage grew by 9% in 2008, with more than 35 million hectares in organic production. The highest increases came in Latin America and Europe, according to the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) in Switzerland.

12.  Local and Fair Trade

As my friend and colleague Joel Dee likes to say, “We are all local.” At Edward & Sons, Joel and his team work with small-scale organic producers all over the world. One example is the organic hearts of palm project in Peru’s Amazon basin. Working with local and indigenous people, Edward & Sons helped create a sustainable harvesting and processing program in Iquitos, a small city 125 miles from the source of the Amazon, helping to protect the rainforest and bring sustainable jobs to an impoverished region. This type of partnership supports local economies and environments around the world. As consumers respond to the ‘local” trend, they are understanding that local means not only supporting farmers and producers in their own area, but also choosing organic and fair trade products that support lo cal economies all over the world. This is a story the sustainable food industry was born to tell, so if you are going to import organic products from China or elsewhere, make sure you’ve got a sustainable, fair trade and maybe even a cultural story behind it and not just because it’s cheaper (see #2).

13.  The Real Cost of Cheap Food

One of the best articles I’ve read on this subject was the cover story of Time’s Aug. 31, 2009, edition, appropriately entitled The Real Cost of Cheap Food. In it, author Bryan Walsh reports: “The U.S. agricultural industry can now produce unlimited quantities of meat and grains at remarkably cheap prices. But it does so at a high cost to the environment, animals and humans. Those hidden prices are the creeping erosion of our fertile farmland, cages for egg-laying chickens so packed that the birds can’t even raise their wings and the scary rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria among farm animals. Add to the price tag the acceleration of global warming — our energy-intensive food system uses 19% of U.S. fossil fuels, more than any other sector of the economy. And perhaps worst of all, our food is increasingly bad for us, even dangerous,” says Walsh, referring to rising obesity rates and food safety issues in America. Plus, if you haven’t seen it, check out the 5-minute video of Birke Baehr’s talk, What’s Wrong With Our Food System, at the TEDx Next Generation conference in Asheville, NC. This 11-year-old young man, who wants to be an organic farmer, speaks clearly about what is wrong with conventional agriculture, factory farming and the industrialized food system, and what people can do to change it. “Some people say organic or local food is more expensive, but is it really? With all these things I’ve been learning about the food system, it seems to me that we can either pay the farmer, or we can pay the hospital,” says an astute Birke.

Bonus Trend: Young Organic Farmers

For years, young people have been leaving the farm. Today, the USDA estimates the average age of the American farmer is 57, with more than 25% over age 65. However, while the trend is too new to quantify, USA Today reports that there is an emerging movement in which young people, “most of whom come from cities and suburbs,” are taking up organic farming on small-acre farms throughout the country as an “honorable, important career choice.” Three factors have made these small organic farms possible: a rising consumer demand for organic and local produce, a huge increase in farmers markets nationwide, and the growing popularity of community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs, says USA Today. The National Young Farmers’ Coalition is a new organization created by and for young and beginning farmers in the United States, and a soon to be released documentary, The Greenhorns, explores the lives of America’s young sustainable farming community. Also, an international volunteer organization, Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, since 1971 has been connecting young workers with organic farms all over the world, where they gain hands on experience in sustainable farming. The invested energy of youth is a promising bonus trend indeed for the future of sustainable food.

About Compass Natural

Compass Natural LLC, established in 2002 and based in Boulder, CO, brings 30 years’ experience in natural and organic products sales, marketing, public relations, communications, research, event planning, and strategic industry guidance to businesses with interests in the $290 billion market for natural, organic, sustainable, and socially responsible products and services. Visit www.compassnatural.com.

© 2010 Compass Natural LLC.

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