Blogs & Comment

Winning the hearts and minds of organic consumers

If organic agri-business really wants to hit home, it's got to focus on both values and science.

Organically raised Cinta Senese pigs (Photo: Paul Avis/Getty)

The agri-food business has rapidly become one of the most ethically-controversial industries on the planet. Vicious cultural battles are being fought over what constitutes an ethically-decent way to raise various food products. And marketers are fighting tooth-and-claw to develop and market food products that meet the increasingly diverse desires of consumers—including consumers who may want food that is not just low-fat, low-salt, and low-cal, but organic, free-range, local, low-carbon, cruelty-free, fair-trade and/or free of genetically-modified ingredients. Winning the hearts and minds of a public with such varied preferences and interests is no easy task.

For a peek at the cultural and ethical complexity of the agri-food industry, check out this story, by Louise Gray in The Telegraph:Soil Association ditches rockstars to go back to its roots.” It profiles Helen Browning, the new director of the U.K.’s Soil Association, which is the nation’s most significant pro-organic charity, and also the organization responsible for the creation in the 1960s of the world’s very first certification system for organic food.

Two key points are worth making, here:

1) Browning displays an unusual degree of common sense in avoiding an “us vs. them” attitude toward non-organic farmers: “Much to the dismay of the more ‘fundamentalist’ wing of the organic movement she is also relaxed about letting non-organic farmers join the organisation and sharing information with intensive agriculture. …”

This is essential, if advocates of organic farming really are concerned with the health of consumers and the planet, rather than merely being concerned with promoting the organic ‘brand.’ Turning organic agriculture into an all-or-nothing category makes it too much like a cult, alienating non-organic farmers and giving them little reason to try to learn about alternatives or to reduce the amount of pesticides they use.

2) On the other hand, Browning’s hit-and-miss attention to science is sure to do damage to her cause. “The former chair of the food ethics council argues that large scale units are overusing antibiotics and creating MRSA strains that are a danger to humans as well as animals. … She uses homeopathy to keep her herd healthy, but mostly it is being outdoors on a mixture of grass and clover that makes happy cows and tasty beef. …”

This is rather alarming. While Browning is right to worry about overuse of antibiotics in agriculture—that’s a serious public-health risk—opting for homeopathy as an alternative is utter lunacy, roughly equivalent to relying on witchcraft. (The Soil Association’s standards for organic livestock do permit standard vaccination, but also promotes the use of homeopathy.) Where the health of food animals is concerned, we need proven methods, not dis-proven ones. Consider: any food-processing plant that relied exclusively on, say, prayer or the blessings of a priest to eliminate germs, instead of thoroughly cleaning their machines, would face the wrath of regulators, not to mention public outrage. If organic agri-business is to win not just hearts, but also minds, it needs to do a better job of relying on science, and not just wishful thinking.