The rise of organic farming is analogous to the clean-energy revolution: As is the case with renewables, organic products’ growth is rapid, but it still comprises only a tiny segment of the overall market. Part of the problem is that for many smaller farmers, who operate on thin margins, the organic certification process is time-consuming and expensive. Organizations such as Northern California-based CCOF say they are trying to make the transition to organic more cost-effective, but the process involved is still lengthy one.
One challenge for the organics movement is the development of a certification, acceptable to both consumers and farmers, which recognizes the switch from conventional farming methods to those that finally allow for that coveted “organic” certification. CCOF operates a certified transitional farming program that recognizes farmers’ efforts to go organic during that three-year transition period. But the fact that it is difficult to even find these labels on products demonstrates the lack of traction such certification has with consumers and retailers.
Meanwhile, depending on the source cited, the amount of farmland worldwide devoted to organic agriculture only totals about 1 percent. Organic crops are raised on over 14,000 farms in the U.S., covering 3.7 million acres. Sales of organics keep increasing, up to $39 billion in 2014, a 10-fold increase from two decades earlier. Nevertheless, while the agriculture sector recognizes transitional ingredients, consumers often overlook them while farmers struggle financially during that three-year window.
Kellogg subsidiary Kashi, the cereal and snack bar maker that has found success landing its products on shelves in many supermarket chains, is trying to solve this conundrum.
QAI led the development of this protocol, with additional advice from agricultural suppliers, an NGO, experts on organics, retailers, distributors and food brands, according to a press release issued by Kashi.
This protocol, which will soon be available on QAI’s web site, can apply to any crop -- from grains to berries to cotton. Kashi says it will support any farmer that is transitioning to organic certification so that they can maintain ownership of their land. But no details were offered other than what was disclosed publicly in the company’s press statements.
“Farmers face steep barriers to converting to organic – including financial uncertainty during the three-year transition period required to be eligible for USDA Organic certification," said Nicole Nestojko, senior director of supply chain and sustainability at Kashi.
"During those three years, farmers have to make big investments – from purchasing fertilizers allowed in organic farming, to developing new farm business plans and making capital investments in infrastructure like on-farm storage. Those expenses start from day one, but farmers cannot sell crops at organic prices until at least three years later.
"[The Certified Transitional standard] creates a market where consumers can choose to directly support farmers looking to make this conversion. Kashi is the first company to offer a Certified Transitional product.”
Kashi says it has already started incorporating wheat grown on farmland in transition to organic within one of its products. A varietal of red winter wheat is the mainstay of a dark chocolate-flavored wheat biscuit cereal that will be available next month. Kashi claims at least two farmers grew transitional wheat for this product. The company has not announced whether it will source more transitional ingredients for other products in the near future.
What Kashi says it will do is make this new protocol available to any organization that sources or grows agricultural crops. Other brands not necessarily owned by Kashi may also adopt this transitional sourcing standard. The company insists that the overarching goal is to boost financial support for farmers who have committed to growing organic crops, so that acreage for organic crops surges past that current 1-percent ratio of total farmland.
Of course, something is in this for Kashi, too. In order to get consumers involved, the company is encouraging shoppers to join this bandwagon — by buying its new Dark Cocoa Karma Shredded Wheat Biscuits cereal. “When you buy a box,” the company stated in one of the documents it made available to the press in announcing this new protocol, “you are playing an active role in changing our food system.”
Kashi’s food labeling, and and that of its parent company Kellogg, have raised eyebrows in the past. While Kashi is known for “natural” products, its corporate parent irritated many advocates of GMO labeling with its contributions totaling $790,000 to the 2012 'No on Proposition 37' campaign, which opposed mandated GMO disclosures on food products in California. Kashi is also one of many companies nailed in recent years for its proclivity to label its food products as “natural,” the actions of which resulted in a class action lawsuit in 2014.
Do not be surprised if many consumers view this latest initiative by Kashi with, at a minimum, some healthy skepticism. But what this program does highlight is the need for consumer education when it comes to organic agriculture. If many farmers could afford changing their ways in order to benefit financially from the premiums organics can afford, many would have done so already.
Image credit: Jurema Oliveira/Wiki Commons
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.