Special Edition: Botanicals

Real Organic Project seeks to regain control of soul of movement

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

The splits in the organic movement have given birth to a new initiative to regain the soul of the concept, according to an executive with a major retailer.

Alan Lewis, who helps direct strategic projects for supplements and natural foods retailer Natural Grocers, spoke with NutraIngredients-USA at the recent Expo West trade show in Anaheim, CA.  The new initiative is called the Real Organic Project and was put together by some of the original pioneers of the organic movement.

Corporate interests co opt movement

“What’s happened in the meantime is the USDA and the organic interests have been co-opted a bit by large corporate interests,” ​Lewis claimed.

The core debate revolves around whether organic refers only to the inputs that go into the goods on the shelf, or if the seal really ought to speak to a wider view of how that food or those ingredients were grown. Some argue that organic ought to address the health of the whole ecosystem—both botanical and social—in which those ingredients originate. 

That is in contrast to whether it’s good enough that chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides and synthetic processing aids were avoided during the growing of the raw materials and the manufacture of the finished food or ingredient.

Hydroponics, factory farms drove schism

Lewis says the decision a while back to certify as organic hydroponically grown foodstuffs was a watershed moment in the industry, and helped to start the current rift.

“Now you can take a big cement garage floor, put some buckets out there, put some rootstock like organic blueberries in there, start feeding those plants through feeding tubes and the next day you can get that operation certified as organic,” ​he claimed.

“The problem is that on the second day you are putting out of  business the 35-year-old family farm that might only be a mile or two away and has built some really beautiful soil and has a diverse farm around those blueberry plants,” ​Lewis said.

Lewis said the concentrated animal feeding operations, otherwise known as factory farms, can be certified as organic, too. A pig raised in those conditions—never having seen the sun and born thinking ammonia is just how the world smells—is likely a far cry from what most consumers would think of when it comes to organic meat, which would be something more like the life of the pig in Charlotte’s Web​.

“It’s especially true in dairy, where the cows are on concrete floors and might never have access to vegetation. But the USDA has been astoundingly lax when applying the standards to these huge operations,” ​he claimed.

“Just because you end up with a clean, organic blueberry doesn’t mean it really fits the values of the community,” ​Lewis said.

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