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Stonyfield's Gary Hirshberg: The Next 20 Years of Organics


This post originally appeared on the Green Money Journal blog.

By Gary Hirshberg, chairman and co-founder of Stonyfield

When thinking about our future, I can’t help but think of the past. I often joke that back when we started Stonyfield in 1983, you couldn’t even use the words “organic” and “industry” in the same sentence.

With just seven cows and hardly any consumers understanding “why” it made sense to eat organic, we had no supply, and no demand. Today, our annual sales are over $360 million, and the rest of the organic industry has continued to grow right alongside us. In the U.S., sales of organic food and beverages have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to over $31 billion today. Even during the recent economic downturn the organic sector grew at a much faster pace than the conventional food sector. Organic food sales now represent about five percent of all U.S. food sales. The organic industry grew by nine percent in 2011, adding new jobs at four times the national average. Organic is a growth engine for the economy.

What’s driving this continued growth? The simple answer is: the public. Every day more people are deciding they want to take control of their health by taking control of their diet. Hardly a day goes by without another story breaking about a food supply scare. Pink slime in our burgers, antibiotics in industrial livestock production leading to antibiotic-resistant superbugs, arsenic in our chicken, salmonella on our cantaloupe – the list goes on.

For others, it can be a more personal life event, such as a pregnancy or a diagnosis of cancer or diabetes, that leads people to a new awareness of how the food they eat affects their health, or the health of their unborn children. In recent years, we’ve learned that prenatal exposure to pesticides can result in lower birth weight, delayed cognitive development, ADHD diagnoses and even lower IQ. It’s been shown that we can avoid many of these risks by eliminating our exposure to pesticide residues in our diets. As columnist Nicholas Kristof reported in The New York Times two years ago, “The President’s Cancer Panel is the Mount Everest of the medical mainstream, so it is astonishing to learn that it is poised to join ranks with the organic food movement and declare: ‘chemicals threaten our bodies.’” Four out of every 10 Americans will have cancer in their lifetime, the report stated. The 2010 panel, whose members were appointed by the Bush administration, recommended limiting your exposure to chemicals by eating foods produced without pesticides as one way to lower cancer.

With cancer, diabetes, obesity and allergens on the rise, people want to know more about their food. At Stonyfield, we hear from people 24/7 asking about ingredients, where they’re from, and how they’re grown. Often they are overwhelmed with contradictory information. There is considerable confusion over the difference between organic and natural, for example – and whether there is any difference at all. Unscrupulous companies have led consumers to believe that "natural" products offer all of the benefits of certified organic for a more affordable price. With the rise in public confusion comes increasing consumer distrust. In response, agribusiness launched a $30 million PR campaign to build trust through a new U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. The Center for Food Integrity, a nonprofit created by Monsanto and other agribusiness interests, is dedicated to “build consumer trust and confidence in today’s food system.”

Americans’ insistence on knowing what is in their food gave rise to Just Label It, the national campaign to label genetically engineered (GE) food. The National Organic Standards prohibit organic growers and food processors from using GE, but it is now in widespread use on non-organic farms throughout the U.S. A relatively new technology, GE has raised a host of health concerns and led to an explosion in herbicide use (herbicides made by the same companies manufacturing the GE crops designed to resist those herbicides). Despite the risks, the FDA has declared that because GMOs don’t smell, taste, or look different from their conventional counterparts, consumers don’t need to be informed about whether their food contains GE ingredients. Last October, the Just Label It campaign petitioned FDA to require mandatory labeling on GE foods, already required by more than 40 countries worldwide, including all of Europe, Japan, Brazil, Russia and China.

More than 500 diverse organizations – farming, parenting, religious, health, consumer, environmental, and business groups – joined the Just Label It (JLI) coalition as partners. Though they held different views about GE technology, they united behind the common belief that we have a right to know about our food. Consumer support for GE-foods labeling in the U.S. is nearly unanimous, according to the political opinion survey on GE food labeling conducted by The Mellman Group on behalf of JLI. Pollster Mark Mellman said that only topics like motherhood and apple pie muster over 90 percent support, but labeling GE-foods is among them. His survey found nearly all Republicans, Independents and Democrats in favor of labeling. No wonder then that JLI met with groundbreaking success. In just 180 days, it generated more than 1 million petition comments – over twice the number on any food petition in FDA history. This extraordinary win is just part of a much broader push toward transparency in the food system.

People want the truth. They want companies and other institutions to be transparent. This was clearly demonstrated through the rapid nationwide response to Pink Slime, and the surging popularity of the Occupy Movement last summer. Americans of all political persuasions voiced distrust of how government and companies are making decisions. Americans will no longer tolerate keeping the public in the dark for the benefit of just a few.

This emergent consumer movement clearly wants to know about its food. People increasingly want to buy food from sources they know. The number of farmers markets has grown from under 2,000 in 1994 to over 6,000 today. Local food sales are predicted by USDA to hit $7 billion this year. And the organic sector continues to grow.

Fed-up consumers aren’t the only force pushing toward a more organic future. A growing number of scientific studies conclude that to feed the world sustainably and affordably will require looking to alternative systems of agriculture. The National Academy of Sciences examination of agriculture in the 21st century concluded that organic systems and diversified farming systems that mix crop and livestock production are key to a sustainable future. The U.N. Environment Program found that agro-ecological systems can double or triple yields in areas of the world that need it most, like sub-Saharan Africa. Long-term agricultural research trials at Iowa State University have shown that organic crops can produce yields competitive with yields from conventional agriculture, resulting in increased profits for organic growers.

I can happily attest that this is not just the stuff of studies; it has been our very real business experience as well. We have learned that organic was not just better for us and for our consumers – farmers of many of the ingredients we purchase have also benefited from higher yields and reduced fossil-fuel based inputs leading to higher and more stable profits. Working to build our organic future is a quadruple win – for consumers, businesses, the environment and farmers. One of the best examples is the 40,000 acres of organic sugar cane we support in Brazil. Our partners there have found the transition to organic to be both an ecological and a financial success. Their green harvesting practices save 40,000 tons of CO2 per year, and 3.5 million liters of water per hour at the processing mill. The use of organic practices has led to a 90 percent reduction in pest damage, dramatic increases in soil carbon content and an incredible increase in biodiversity. They’ve done all of this while increasing their yields by 10 percent compared to when they farmed conventionally.

As we look toward the next 20 years, we can celebrate organic’s commercial success, growing consumer interest, and proven track record of competitive yields, and work to put an end to the lag in public investment. Just a tiny fraction – less than 2 percent – of all the money the U.S. government invests in public research on agriculture is allocated toward research in organic. Imagine what we could do if we were willing to invest more heavily as a society in expanding organic research.

No one has articulated this as profoundly as HRH the Prince of Wales when he addressed the Future for Food Conference at Georgetown University where I also spoke last spring. He said the system of subsidies “has led to a situation where farmers are better off using intensive methods and where consumers who would prefer to buy sustainably produced food are unable to do so because of the price.” There are many producers and consumers who want to do the right thing but, as things stand, ‘doing the right thing’ is penalized. And so this raises an admittedly difficult question – as the time arrives when a long, hard look is needed at the way public subsidies are generally geared. Should the recalibration of that gearing be considered so that it helps healthier approaches and ‘techniques’? Could there be benefits if public finances were directed so that subsidies are linked specifically to farming practices that are more sustainable, less polluting and of wide benefit to the public interest, rather than what many environmental experts have called the curiously ‘perverse’ economic incentive system that too frequently directs food production?”

I believe that the work ahead is clear. We must create a food system that produces healthy food that is widely accessible and can be produced in a way that protects our environment and enhances consumer confidence. Organic food production will improve farm profits, reduce national health care costs and help to reduce the dependence and the economic drain of inflating fossil fuels. In short, organic food production is national security.

Fortunately, the organic model we’ve developed over the last three decades has given us a running head start; we’re well on our way to creating healthy food, healthy people, a healthy economy and a healthy planet. As I wrote in the introduction to Label It Now: What You Need to Know about Genetically Engineered Foods, “Any chance of avoiding ecological or economic bankruptcy depends on business and government leaders – and, ultimately, every person on this planet – being held accountable for activities that pollute the environment, deplete our natural resources or precipitate health problems.”

As we look back, we can see that the organic industry and movement is one of the most positive and hopeful growth engines in the U.S. economy. As we look forward, to the next 20 years and beyond, I believe that the organic business sector can show America and the world how to create an economically successful food system based on true transparency and public trust.

Article by Gary Hirshberg, co-founder and chairman of organic yogurt leader Stonyfield (http://www.stonyfield.com ), author of “Stirring It Up: How to Make Money and Save the World and co-author of Label It Now: What You Need to Know About Genetically Engineered Foods”. Gary is a frequent speaker on topics including sustainability, climate change, the profitability of green business and organic agriculture. He also advocates for change in national food and agriculture policies, including those regarding the labeling of genetically engineered foods. Gary serves on several corporate and nonprofit boards including those of Applegate Farms, Honest Tea, Peak Organic Brewing, The Full Yield, Climate Counts, SweetGreen, RAMp Sports, Stonyfield Europe, Glenisk and the Danone Communities Fund. In 2011, President Barack Obama appointed Gary to the Advisory Committee for Trade and Policy Negotiations, and Gary became a co-chair of Agree ¬– a food and agricultural policy effort launched by eight of the world’s leading foundations.

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