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Joining other year-end prognosticators, Steven Hoffman of Boulder, Colo.-based Compass Natural popped in on us this week to share highlights of some of the trends he sees on the horizon in sustainable food and agriculture. Found below is an abridged rundown:
1. The Economy
Wall Street may be recording record profits, but the job market is lagging. As such, hard-pressed consumers will continue to look for value. Core healthy lifestyles shoppers will be more discerning in their budgets for organic while lower income families are particularly strained in finding healthful food alternatives. While the new frugality may be here to stay as consumers continue to feel they are on shaky ground, the natural and organic companies that best communicate overall value will continue to grow in a tough market.
2. Social Networking
Word of mouth travels fast in the social network, good or bad. Take an active role in making it good. Stay engaged on Facebook and Twitter and build your brand among friends and followers. Sustainable consumers tend to be early adopters on the web and build strong online communities. “Friend” and “follow” other like-minded Facebookers and Twitterers – they’ll help you spread the word – and stay connected professionally on networks such as Linked In, among others. Try to keep up!
3. Chemicals in the Environment
The cumulative effects of chemicals in our environment, food and packaging are impacting our public health. As a result, demand for sustainable food production that protects health and the environment will continue to grow, and consumers are willing to pay a premium for organic products, but only up to a point (see #1).
4. Sustainable Packaging
Packaging is facing challenges on two fronts: reducing package waste in landfills; and keeping chemicals from leaching into food. Many natural and organic products companies are leading the way toward more sustainable packaging, including BPA-free cans, and also innovating on reduced package content and recyclable and compostable packaging alternatives. Concerned over squeeze pack packaging, Justin’s Nut Butter, a small Boulder-based business, recently convened a sustainable squeeze pack summit, bringing competitors, industry leaders and packaging specialists together to explore ways to develop more sustainable packaging in consumer products. This is a great opportunity for the industry to work together and serve as a pacesetter for the food and consumer products industry at large.
5. Organic Gardening and Urban Agriculture
As Michelle Obama leads the way with the White House organic garden, Victory Gardens are also back, except they’re organic. The movement is helping people get in touch with their food, as well as giving them access to fresh, local produce. The organic sector of the lawn and garden (L&G) market has also experienced significant growth over the last few years, and major garden centers are expanding the shelf for natural and organic L&G products.
6. Organic and Climate Change
The global food system is estimated to account for one-third of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, says Anna Lappe, author of Diet for a Hot Planet. Yet, organic farming has the potential to help reduce agriculture’s impact on global warming. According to Dr. David Pimentel, author of Food, Energy and Society, organic agriculture has been shown to reduce energy inputs by 30 percent. Organic farming also conserves more water in the soil and reduces erosion. “Sustainable and organic agricultural systems offer the most resilience for agricultural production in the face of the extreme precipitation, prolonged droughts and increasingly uncertain regional climate regimes expected with rapid global warming,” according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
7. Slow Money
According to Woody Tasch, founder of Slow Money, a nonprofit formed to catalyze the flow of investment capital to small sustainable food companies and agriculture, the innate value of investing in sustainable food comes not only in the form of monetary return, but also in benefits to individuals and communities. In the fast-pitch world of buy low/sell high, Slow Money is developing vehicles that enable small investors to invest in local sustainable food businesses. In two years, Slow Money has grown to 1,200 members and six regional chapters, and has facilitated the investment of more than $3 million into a number of local sustainable food businesses. (For more info, visit www.slowmoney.org.)
8. Animal Rights
The beauty-without-cruelty movement has been around for a while, helping to usher in a generation of body care products that have not been tested on animals. Now, we enter a new era of animal rights and consumer advocacy that is critical of the inhumane practices. However, beginning on January 1, Whole Foods Market will require that all meat sold to it will be rated under new animal welfare standards. The world’s largest retailer of natural and organic products created Global Animal Partnership as a nonprofit third party certifier to establish ratings, conduct inspections and administer the standards.
9. GMO Debate
This is an issue that isn’t going away. While proponents insist that GMOs are the only way to feed the world, opponents claim that GMO farming has passed the point of diminishing returns. The FDA currently is evaluating genetically engineered salmon—the first potential GMO animal for commercial consumption—and also a GMO apple that doesn’t turn brown when cut open.
“Sustainability is not an exact science, but it is a strategic decision,” says Jeanne von Zastrow, senior director of industry relations and sustainability at the Food Marketing Institute (FMI). And it’s more than how the food was grown; it’s also about a company’s energy and water use, transportation, equipment, supply chain management, packaging and waste – garnering efficiencies in these areas and elsewhere promotes sustainability and cuts costs. Many natural and organic products companies are leading the way but could do more, and FMI also is developing sustainability resources for the food industry. While what consumers say and do regarding sustainability may be a dichotomy, health conscious and environmentally aware consumers will continue to develop brand loyalty by identifying with your green efforts.
11. Organic Acreage Grows
Compared to overall acreage dedicated to conventional agriculture production, the amount of land under organic production is still very small. But it is growing. In the first wide-scale survey of organic farming, published this past year, USDA counted 14,540 U.S. farms and ranches that were under organic production, comprising 4.8 million acres of land in 2008. Certified U.S. organic cropland acreage between 2002 and 2008 averaged 15 percent annual growth.
12. Local and Fair Trade
As Edward & Sons’ Joel Dee likes to say, “We are all local.” At Edward & Sons, Dee and his team work with small-scale organic producers all over the world. One example is the organic hearts of palm project in Peru’s Amazon basin. Working with local and indigenous people, Edward & Sons helped create a sustainable harvesting and processing program in Iquitos, a small city 125 miles from the source of the Amazon, helping to protect the rainforest and bring sustainable jobs to an impoverished region. This type of partnership supports local economies and environments around the world. As consumers respond to the ‘local” trend, they are understanding that local means not only supporting farmers and producers in their own area, but also choosing organic and fair trade products that support local economies all over the world.
For more information, visit www.compassnatural.com.