By Melody Meyer, Vice President of Policy and Industry Relations, United Natural Foods Incorporated (UNFI)
It’s been nearly 37 years since I was first introduced to organic foods at a co-op in Iowa. Up until then, I’d lived almost exclusively on packaged foods and sodas. This was something new, something meaningful and something I wanted to be a part of.
Back then, the burgeoning years of the organic movement held great promise and excitement. We were creating a movement, possibly changing the world. I became a passionate advocate for eating organic food and easing the chemical burden our soils and streams were enduring from conventional agriculture.
In those early days, the movement was sprouting in various areas of the country, separately and independently. We all had the same visionaries, like Bob Rodale and Rachel Carson, who inspired us and united us in the same mission. However, despite our common goals, we remained independent groups scattered throughout the U.S. in places like Oregon, California, New York and Pennsylvania.
I watched as the movement grew up and gradually became a full-fledged industry that flourished despite its chaotic beginning. The first hints of coalescing took place with state organic regulations, Organic Foods Production Association of North America (OFPANA) and, finally, the USDA National Organic Program. Today, we are a $35 billion sales entity with consistent double digit growth annually. The organic seal has spread from category to category and is now reaching thousands of households across the U.S.
But our industry, like the organic Swiss cheese we eat, has some holes. Despite our victories, we remain underfunded by our lawmakers and misunderstood by a great number of consumers. Within our industry, there appears to be a lack of consistent solidarity. We often distract ourselves with quarrels that many see as unnecessary and unproductive. It begs the question: Have we really coalesced, or are we still stuck in our infant roots?
As I look at the state of organic affairs, I see many areas for improvement. According to the latest Organic Trade Association (OTA) 2012 Organic Industry Survey, eight in ten parents report they purchase organic products and four in ten say they trust in the label more than they used to. Why hasn’t the media picked up on these facts? Why aren’t we out there promoting our industry and proclaiming the benefits of organics on every billboard and website? In an era of increasing awareness of climate change, why don’t more consumers know about the Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial? Why don’t they know that organic farming counters greenhouse gases? Shouldn’t this be a prime time advertisement on television and radio?
Our industry is growing at double digits, providing jobs and prosperity in urban and rural areas, yet the 2008 Farm Bill only gave us a fraction of the funding we needed in comparison to other, less vigorous, areas of agriculture. As we all went over the Organic Cliff last January, we could not hold onto funding for Organic Data Collection, Organic Cost Share or conservation programs—all vital to our farmers and our progress. Congress is operating in an era of perpetual fiscal austerity and money for organic research is looking highly unlikely now and in the near future. This only begs more questions: How can we fund research for improved organic seeds? Where will the money come from to assist our youth to become organic farmers?
The potential consequences of our inaction are clear. Just pick up a newspaper and read about new scientific studies questioning the nutritional benefits of organics. If we continue to stay a fractured industry, we have little chance of adequately funding research to help publicize the many benefits of our product.
When I say “our product,” I say it for a reason. It doesn’t mean your organic milk or his organic corn or her organic blueberries. It refers to OUR shared product—the organic brand.
As a group of individuals with the same dream, we need to recognize our commonalities and stop protecting our own areas of the sandbox. We need to find a way to fund the extraordinary movement we are all part of, so it can indeed become a vehicle to change the world. Perhaps, it’s even time to earnestly talk about finally creating a USDA Organic Research and Promotions Program.
I dream of the day I’m stuck in traffic and see a bumper sticker that reads, “Organic. It’s what’s for dinner.” on every other car, or when I sit down to watch a TV show and it’s interrupted by a national campaign explaining what the USDA Organic label means, or the day when three corporations no longer control fifty-three percent of the global seed supply and its research.
For this new era to come to fruition, we must all finally come together as one cohesive entity. The Organic label is all of ours and it needs to be protected and propagated so that the dreams we had in the 1960’s can finally take root. How do we move from the odyssey of chaos to the ecstasy of unification? My experience in the Iowa Coop showed me working together creates great things.
Melody L. Meyer is the Vice President of Policy and Industry Relations for United Natural Foods Incorporated (UNFI). Her role is to help strengthen and promote healthy, sustainable and organic food production and consumption through education and advocacy. She also serves as the Executive Director for the UNFI Foundation. Melody serves on the Board of Directors for the Organic Trade Association. She is a board trustee for The Organic Center and serves on the Organic Advisory Committee for the CA Department of Food and Agriculture. Melody has been in the organic food industry since 1976, when she began her career at an Iowa Natural Food Cooperative. She started her own business, “Source Organic,” in 1995, which was eventually acquired by Albert’s Organics / UNFI. Prior to her current role, Melody served as the VP of Global Initiatives at Albert’s Organics where she was deeply engaged in promoting and developing and Fair Trade and organic producers from around the world. Read more from Melody on her blog about everything organic at organicmattersblog.com.