On the Sustainable Food Horizon for 2012: Organic Market Trends

As we embark on 2012, we wanted to highlight a few issues and trends that we feel impact the natural, organic and sustainable foods industry. We hope this presents some resources and food for thought as we face new challenges in growing the market for healthy, sustainable food.

Consumer Health Concerns Drive 10% Natural and Organic Products Growth

With the overall economy showing signs of recovery, Boston-based investment banking firm Canaccord Genuity is bullish on the natural and organic products industry, which, says analyst Scott Van Winkle, is currently growing in the 10% range due to strong consumer demand for quality, health and nutrition, compared to 1% growth in overall food sales. More than three-quarters of US families purchase some organic foods, according to a November 2011 Organic Trade Association (OTA) survey. Those surveyed revealed that their strongest motivator is the belief that organic products are “healthier for me and my children,” followed by concerns over the effects of pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and GMOs, and the desire to avoid highly processed or artificial ingredients. “In a time when the severity of the economy means making tough choices, it is extremely encouraging to see consumers vote with their values by including quality organic products in their shopping carts,” said OTA Executive Director Christine Bushway. While baby boomers have been early adopters of organic, younger Gen X and Gen Y consumers are emerging as supporters of organic and sustainable products, with Gen Y showing the highest usage of organic products and natural personal care; they just don’t have the same buying power yet as boomers, says research firm Natural Marketing Institute. However, it’s still tough out there for independent natural products retailers and manufacturers, as competition is intense for the healthy consumer’s dollar.

Canaccord Genuity’s Healthy Living Index of more than 40 publicly traded natural, organic and healthy lifestyles companies continues to outperform the S&P 500, with companies including UNFI, Whole Foods Market and Hain Celestial Group seen as darlings of Wall Street. “Strong growth is apparent across all channels of distribution,” says Van Winkle. According to OTA, sales of organic products totaled $29 billion in 2010, up 8% from 2009. Organic companies are creating jobs at three times the rate of businesses overall and supporting 14,540 organic farms and ranches in all 50 states, totaling 4.1 million acres of land currently in organic management, says OTA. Categories of organic products charting significant growth include fruits and vegetables (12% of all fruits and vegetables now sold in the US are organic), dairy, beverages, packaged foods, supplements, clothing and fiber, personal care products and pet foods. Meanwhile, total sales of natural and organic products by all retailers, including natural and mass merchandisers, grew 7.3% in 2010 to more than $65 billion, says industry communications leader New Hope Natural Media, with similar growth projected for the foreseeable future, as long as the economy continues to recover. Add to that the fact that sales of Non-GMO Verified products grew to $1 billion in 2011, and the health-conscious consumer is driving the market with the motto, “It’s the organic apple a day that keeps the doctor away!”

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GMOs: Biotech Gains Ground; Consumers and Organic Industry Fight Back

GMO agriculture continues to present the greatest threat to organic and sustainable food production. Here in Boulder, CO, a center of organic products business, despite three years of contentious public hearings, a survey showing that 71% percent of Boulder County residents are against GMOs, and a growing body of research demonstrating the health and environmental risks associated with the widespread adoption of GMO agriculture, the Boulder County Commissioners voted unanimously in December to allow the cultivation of GMO sugar beets on taxpayer-owned Open Space land. The publicly owned land is leased to a handful of conventional farmers who claim they cannot compete unless they use GMO seed and Roundup herbicide. GMO farming continues to dominate more than 90% of major commodity crops, including corn, soy, cotton, canola and sugar beets. This past year GMO alfalfa was approved for market and Monsanto introduced GMO sweet corn to supermarkets’ produce sections. Both are prolific pollinators that will increase the risk of genetic drift and contamination of organic and native crops. Genetically engineered salmon designed to grow faster than native species narrowly missed FDA approval in 2011—but is still on the docket to be the first genetically engineered animal product to be approved for market. Should such a fish escape into the wild, a likely occurrence, native species could be seriously threatened. Meanwhile, scientists at the China Agricultural University are developing genetically engineered cows to produce milk that contains the characteristics of human breast milk that they hope to bring to market in two years.

The organic industry has been labeled Luddites in its opposition to GMOs by conservative Boulder columnist Bob Greenlee, and was discredited profusely in the Boulder County hearings as being against farmers’ right to coexist. Yet proponents of GMO agriculture ignore science that shows GMO insecticide toxins ingested in the diet were present in the blood of 93% of pregnant women and 80% of fetuses tested; that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide, is so prevalent in the environment that it is being detected in the air, rain and rivers during the entire growing season in the Midwest; that engineered genes may jump into the DNA of other species in the environment with unknown consequences; that Roundup-resistant superweeds are emerging as a result of GMO farming; that pesticide use has actually increased by nearly 400 million pounds since the introduction of GMOs in 1996; that GMO corn is losing its effectiveness against insect pests in four major crop-producing states; that Purdue University Professor Emeritus Don Huber is being discredited for identifying an unknown new disease infecting plants and animals that has a strong association with GMO agriculture.

Now consumers and organic leaders are fighting back. In September, a number of organizations, including OTA, Rodale Institute, Environmental Working Group and others, together with the Center for Food Safety, filed a legal petition calling on the FDA to label genetically engineered foods; more than 450 partner organizations have signed on to help spread the word, and individuals are encouraged to sign the petition. In October, thousands of people participated in the 300-mile Right2Know March from New York to Washington to demand mandatory labeling of foods containing GMO ingredients. In California, petitioners are actively gathering signatures for an April 2012 deadline to place the California Genetically Engineered Food Act calling for labeling of GMO foods on the 2012 California ballot. The Organic Consumers Association’s Millions Against Monsanto has been supporting the initiative. Non-GMO activists in Boulder County are regrouping to pursue a referendum, beginning with a “GMO Free Boulder” benefit concert featuring Ziggy Marley on January 21. "If you put a label on genetically engineered food you might as well put a skull and crossbones on it," Norman Braksick, president of Asgrow Seed Co., a subsidiary of Monsanto, told the Kansas City Star in 1994, shortly before GMOs were first introduced to the marketplace. With 96% of consumers saying GMOs should be labeled, according to a 2011 MSNBC Health Poll, it’s a statement that stands true today.

Also, attention natural food manufacturers: a class action lawsuit filed in December against Frito Lay by a California law firm alleges that the company misleads consumers by making all-natural claims on its Tostitos and SunChips, which also contain GMO corn and vegetable oils, ingredients the claimant says are not natural. As many natural products contain GMO ingredients, the outcome of this case should be of interest to natural products businesses.

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Another Price of GMOs? Organic Dairy Feed Shortages and Higher Organic Milk Prices

The increased production of GMO corn for conventional animal feed and biofuels, including corn ethanol, is costing organic consumers indirectly by creating a shortage of organic grain needed for feed for organic dairy operations. The cost of organic feed and hay has risen sharply in the past year as farmers find it more difficult to source non-GMO and organic grains, while the price farmers receive for their organic milk has not, says the December 29, 2011, New York Times. Yet, consumer sales of organic milk increased 15-17% from January through October 2011, according to USDA, while total conventional milk sales dropped 2%. Organic dairy farmers, many of whom have cut back on production because they can’t afford the feed, are demanding a 20% increase in the price they receive for their milk, creating out-of-stock situations in Publix stores throughout the Southeast, and retailers Wegmans and Target say they, too, have been affected by organic dairy shortages. The Times reported that organic dairy leader Organic Valley raised the price paid to farmers in August 2011, and was considering raising the price further this past December, alarmed that some organic dairy farmers were actually abandoning organic for conventional farming, where the cost of feed is significantly less and the price paid for conventional milk has risen. Meanwhile, the direct cost to organic consumers is going up: a half-gallon of organic milk that typically sells for $3.99 may now sell for $4.39, with some supermarket chains already raising their prices. Farmers are asking retailers to do their part by lowering their markup on organic milk so that higher prices do not drive consumers away. A couple of messages are garnered from this story: 1) Organic dairy farmers need to be paid more for their milk so they can make a sustainable living; 2) More and more acreage is being dedicated to GMO corn production for human and animal consumption and for the growing demand for ethanol, which is reducing organic land conversion, increasing GMO contamination risks, and raising the cost for organic feed and organic milk. Now with the deregulation of GMO alfalfa, which threatens organic alfalfa crops, organic dairy farmers are even more at risk.

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Climate Change Is Affecting Agriculture; Rodale Shows Organic Farming More Resilient

First it was chocolate, and now peanut butter. In September, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture reported that rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns associated with climate change will dramatically reduce land area suitable for cocoa production between 2030 and 2050, particularly in Ghana and the Ivory Coast in West Africa, where half the world’s cocoa is sourced, impacting the $9 billion cocoa industry. In October, the Wall Street Journal reported that record heat and drought in the southeastern US and Texas had decimated the peanut crop, raising prices 30-40% on supermarket shelves and leaving small organic peanut butter producers pinched for supplies. A 2011 crop-yield analysis by Stanford University revealed that warming temperatures have reduced wheat and maize harvests by 5.5% and 3.8%, respectively, from what they could have been during the past three decades.

While GMO agriculture continues to promote that it is the solution to climate change and world hunger, the fact is that conventional and GMO farming, with its intensive use of water, fossil fuels and chemicals, is responsible for 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions – more than any other sector of the economy. Meanwhile, in 2011, the venerable Rodale Institute released the results of its 30-year field trials, America’s longest-running comparison of organic and conventional farming practices. Its primary conclusions: 1) organic yields match conventional yields; 2) organic outperforms conventional in years of drought; 3) organic farming builds rather than depletes soil organic matter, making it a more sustainable system; 4) organic farming uses 45% less energy and is more efficient; 5) conventional systems produce 40% more greenhouse gases compared to organic farming practices. “As we face uncertain and extreme weather patterns, growing scarcity and expense of oil, lack of water, and a growing population, we will require farming systems that can adapt, withstand or even mitigate these problems while producing healthy, nourishing food. After 30 years of side-by-side research…Rodale Institute has demonstrated that organic farming is better equipped to feed us now and well into the ever changing future,” said the authors of the report.

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Feeding The World’s 7 Billion; Surprise Fact: More People Are Overweight than Hungry

The world’s population reached 7 billion this year. Of that total, nearly 1 billion people suffer from chronic hunger. As has been true for a long time, much of the problem is rooted in political unrest, armed conflict and civil war vs. the ability to produce food or engage in trade. Rising prices and climate change exacerbate the issue. Proponents of industrial and GMO agriculture persist in dismissing organic as an option to feed the world, spreading misinformation that there isn’t enough land, even as scientific studies conclude that not only can organic feed the world, but that it may the most viable option of doing so. Research from the University of Michigan and the United Nations shows that in developing countries, where risk of famine is greatest, organic methods could double or triple crop yields. “Organic agriculture can be more conducive to food security in Africa than most conventional production systems, and it is more likely to be sustainable in the long term. Furthermore, evidence shows that organic agriculture can build up natural resources, strengthen communities and improve human capacity, thus improving food security by addressing many different causal factors simultaneously,” said the UN.

Meanwhile, here’s an astonishing fact: there are more overweight and obese people on the planet than hungry people. An estimated 1.46 billion adults worldwide are overweight, with 502 million of them considered obese, according to a 2011 World Health Organization report. Ironically, according to the Red Cross, excess nutrition leading to obesity is killing more people today than hunger. “If the free interplay of market forces has produced an outcome where 15% of humanity are hungry while 20% are overweight, something has gone wrong somewhere,” said Red Cross Secretary General Bekele Geleta. The obesity epidemic is not just affecting wealthy nations; it is sweeping into low and middle-income countries, says WHO, creating a dual problem of unhealthy weight gain in some segments of a country's population, and malnutrition in others. While nearly all countries are seeing rates rise, the severity of the problem varies greatly from country to country. In Japan, about one in every 20 adult women is obese, compared to one in four in Jordan, one in three in the United States and Mexico, and up to seven in 10 in Tonga. The across-the-board rise in obesity appears to be driven by changes in the global food system and the increased availability of processed foods, along with more sedentary lifestyles, say the authors. Adding more weight to the subject, researchers from Oxford and Columbia Universities forecast in The Lancet in August 2011 that nearly half of the US and UK populations will be obese by 2030, with a resulting increase in incidence of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer. The combined medical costs associated with treatment of these preventable diseases are estimated to increase by approximately $50 - $60 billion per year in the US and by approximately £2 billion per year in the UK by 2030. Hence, effective policies to promote healthier weight also have economic benefits, the researchers conclude. Healthy food marketers that can help provide solutions to obesity will benefit as society realizes that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

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Equal Access: Improving the Availability of Healthy Food

Three primary obstacles remain to making healthy, natural and organic food more accessible. One is that the price of highly processed, cheaply produced food is just that—cheap, and organic products seem expensive in comparison. Market research firm the Hartman Group found that when consumers were asked why they didn’t buy more organic products, the reason most often cited (71% of the time) was that organic was too expensive. However, if you account for all the government subsidies enjoyed by industrial agriculture—more than $25 billion annually—and the hundreds of billions of dollars in external costs born by the public in terms of preventable, lifestyle-related diseases, including cancer, obesity and diabetes, plus damage to the environment often caused by chemical-intensive agriculture, then organically produced food, with its higher nutritional density and environmental benefits, is certainly the better value all around.

A second obstacle is that many people don’t have access to organic—especially those in inner city or rural areas. The USDA estimates that currently 30 million people in the United States live in “food deserts,” areas where healthy food is difficult to obtain, or “food swamps,” urban areas with no access to fresh foods but flooded with unhealthy fast food instead, according to the May/June 2011 Organic Processing. Progress is being made, with the advent of farmers markets, CSAs and urban agriculture programs. In an event produced by Compass Natural in September 2011 with Best Organics Inc. and held in partnership with the University of Colorado Deming Center for Entrepreneurship at the Leeds School of Business, Whole Foods Market Chair John Elstrott announced the retailer’s plans to reach new customers in historically low-income areas with new stores slated in neighborhoods of inner-city Detroit and New Orleans. "We believe all people want to eat healthy," Elstrott said. "We want to experiment with the inner-city demographic."

The third obstacle is that most children who eat school lunches are given no access to organic during a time when toxins in food can affect their development the most. First lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Campaign, which led to the president signing the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010—includes a $10-million Organic Pilot Program to help provide organic food choices in school nutrition programs. Also, many organic companies, including Nature’s Path, Veritable Vegetable, Organic Valley and others have been working to get organic food choices into schools. In higher education, a growing number of colleges are increasing healthy organic offerings and incorporating sustainability in their dining halls, including Cornell University, University of Colorado, and University of California at Berkeley.

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Fukushima Update: Cesium in Organic Milk, Contaminated Seafood on Horizon

If you think that Fukushima hasn’t affected our food, think again. From rice and tea to beef and baby formula, radiation released from the March 2011 nuclear power plant disaster in Fukushima has contaminated a significant amount of Japan’s food, presenting an alarming health risk to its population. The nuclear explosions and subsequent meltdowns in three heavily damaged reactors, caused by an earthquake and tsunami, have released 70 tons of highly toxic nuclear material into the environment, according to nuclear power expert Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds Associates, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Fukushima event.

By May 2011, the enormous cloud of radioactive fallout created by the accident ended up not only in Japan, but also throughout North America, from Seattle to Boston, all the way to Europe, transported swiftly around the globe in the Jetstream. Most but not all of the fallout was deposited on the ground in the Cascades and the Rocky Mountains. Soon after, milk, drinking water and topsoil from Hawaii to Vermont began testing positive for radiation, including radioactive iodine and cesium, caused by the Fukushima disaster. By summer, a number of fruits, vegetables, mushrooms and other products grown or harvested in California—a major food producing region in the US—tested positive for radiation caused by Fukushima’s fallout.

At the end of September, more than six months after the Fukushima event, store-bought milk samples from an organic dairy producer in the San Francisco Bay Area with a Best Buy date of Oct. 10, 2011, tested positive for radioactive cesium 134 and cesium 137, according to the UC Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering, which has detected radiation in organic milk since testing began in mid-April. Also, tests found radioactive cesium 137 in topsoil in downtown Oakland and in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, suggesting widespread contamination. In November, UC Berkeley announced it was no longer testing soil or locally produced milk or vegetables, as its facilities were undergoing remodeling; however, the department stated that milk sampling would resume when the work is finished. In a report presented in late October by the Worcester Polytechnic Institute's Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering in Worcester, MA, researchers claim that US topsoil may actually contain levels of radioactive cesium more than 100 times higher than previously reported by UC Berkeley, suggesting a far greater impact on public health, farm production and fishing, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. Currently there is no monitoring being done by government agencies.

The good news is that airborne fallout has mostly abated since the initial explosions last March, yet in the Pacific Ocean, a vast floating debris field from the earthquake and tsunami containing potentially radioactive material is soon expected to wash up on shores of the Pacific Northwest, threatening the environment and coastal residents. Pacific seafood is also at risk, as more than 460 trillion bequerels of radioactive strontium, plutonium and other isotopes have leaked into the ocean from the stricken Japanese reactors. The incident is being called one of the world’s most severe marine pollution disasters in history. “There’s a witches brew of chemicals leaking into the ocean…that eventually works its way up to the salmon and tuna and mackerel at the top of the food chain,” said Arnie Gundersen in a Dec. 26, 2011, radio interview with environmental health expert Helen Caldicott, MD. “It will be next year before we start to see the highly contaminated [seafood]. I’m eating as much salmon as I can this year because I’m a little bit concerned about what will happen next year,” he said. According to Greenpeace, governments and retailers are not adequately protecting the public from radioactive contaminated Pacific seafood, still sold unlabeled in Japan and international markets, including to the US, due to an alleged pact between the US and Japan.

Critical of the lack of testing of seafood by EPA, Gundersen said, “In our ports in the US, we have monitors that look for nuclear weapons; it’s likely that in a year from now, a truckload of tuna may fire off a radiation alarm because it’s loaded with cesium. At that point, hopefully, there will be a whistleblower at the dock to alert the authorities,” because, he says, the objective of the US, Japanese and other governments throughout the world has been to minimize the consequences of the disaster. “There’s way too much money on the line,” Gundersen concludes.

A lot of lives are at stake, too, starting with the young—infant mortality in the US has risen more than 10% since the Fukushima accident, say the authors of a new study published Dec. 19, 2011, in the International Journal of Health Sciences. The study links an estimated 14,000 excess deaths in the US alone, and potentially thousands more, to radioactive fallout from the Fukushima accident. The rise in reported deaths was highest among US infants under age one. “Deaths are seen across all ages, but we continue to find that infants are hardest hit because their tissues are rapidly multiplying, they have undeveloped immune systems, and the doses of radioisotopes are proportionally greater than for adults," the authors said.

In disturbing news reported by Reuters on December 28, scientists in Alaska are now investigating whether local seals are being sickened by radiation from Fukushima, as scores of ring seals have washed up on Alaska’s Arctic coastline since July, suffering or killed by a mysterious disease that is causing extensive lesions and patchy hair loss in the animals’ fur.

So, what can one do to protect oneself and family, as the costs of the Fukushima accident, estimated at $257 billion, continue to escalate? Eat Icelandic butter, North Atlantic salmon and vegetables grown in the Southern Hemisphere? How about advocating for greater safety regulations and monitoring of aging nuclear reactors in the US, particularly those situated in major earthquake and tsunami zones, and also trying to slow the ambitions of the likes of Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who wants to build 100 new nuclear plants in the US in the next 20-30 years? Because it can happen here, and our food system, economy and population centers are not prepared for the consequences. Nuclear energy is clean, until it isn’t, and we need to invest in alternatives. Get informed; stay active; make a difference: www.enenews.com; Greenpeace.

Steven Hoffman writes on issues in sustainable food and agriculture. He is Managing Partner of Compass Natural LLC, a full service marketing, communications and public relations agency serving natural, organic and sustainable businesses. He also is Co-owner of Best Organics Inc., a leading online retail provider of premium artisan organic gift basket collections. He is Cofounder of the annual LOHAS Forum green business conference, former Director of The Organic Center, dedicated to scientific research and education about organic food and farming, and former Editorial Director of the Natural Foods Merchandiser, a leading industry publication. Hoffman also served as Program Director for Natural Products Expo, the world’s largest natural and organic products trade expositions, and as Marketing Director for pioneering organic foods manufacturer Arrowhead Mills. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, Hoffman specialized in food, agriculture and education in Central America. He is a former director of the Philadelphia Urban Gardening Program, and holds a M.S. in Agriculture from Penn State University. Visit www.compassnatural.com.

Copyright 2012, Compass Natural LLC, Boulder, CO. www.compassnatural.com. All rights reserved.

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