Green Horizons

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Green Horizons
By Anne Goodwin Sides
Issue 93, February/March 1999

woman at farmer's marketIT’S NOT A 1960S CO-OP ANYMORE. TODAY’S NATURAL-FOODS MARKETPLACE IS A BIG, BRIGHT, MAINSTREAM PLACE. LET US TAKE YOU THERE, IN MOTHERING’S COMPLETE GUIDE TO THE NEW WORLD OF WHOLE FOODS.

The New Natural Marketplace
I ducked into my neighborhood Wild Oats store the other day to pick up a homeopathic cream with echinacea and pot marigold for my three year old’s eczema, recommended to me by my hairstylist. I was also looking for something with arnica to soothe the swollen thumb I sprained skiing. While scanning the aisles, I stopped at a cooler filled with oversized bottles of juices spiked with herbal, mineral, and vitamin supplements, and decorated in eyecatching graphics. I grabbed a bottle of SoBe Wisdom, a sweet cocktail of ginkgo biloba, St. John’s wort, and gotu kola, which promised to cheer me up, enhance my memory, energize my sex life, and “sharpen the mind.” I am a mother of three — this should be a staple of my diet.

Next, I feasted my eyes on the produce section — a banquet of plump, fresh, fragrant, organic fruits and vegetables that would send a Russian housewife into shock — and filled my basket with heirloom tomatoes, deep-green kale, and aromatic mangoes. I tossed in a fresh loaf of gazillion-grain bread, a few cans of organic frozen juices, milk, and yogurt, and headed for the checkout line. I nearly gasped out loud when the cashier rang up … cha-ching … $52.93.

Natural-foods markets such as Wild Oats, stocking “nutraceuticals” — natural and organic foods, vitamin and herbal supplements, foods fortified with ingredients to enhance health benefits (like orange juice with calcium), and lesser-evil foods low in fat, sugar, caffeine, and salt — are cashing in on a $20-billion nutrition industry. With many natural-foods companies showing 15 to 20 percent annual gains in sales, Wall Street is salivating over the fastest-growing segment in the entire retail sector.

Inevitably, the boom has led to cutthroat competition among the nation’s largest organic-food purveyors, chains such as Whole Foods Markets, Wild by Nature, Mother’s Market and Kitchen, and Wild Oats. The rules of capitalism being more or less constant, this competition has had the felicitous effect of driving prices down. In a brazen corporate move last summer, Whole Foods Markets opened up a new emporium in Boulder, Colorado — the corporate home of chief competitor Wild Oats — and proceeded to slash prices. Surprisingly, the interloper did not hurt Wild Oats; instead, both stores continued to expand, siphoning customers from the mainstream grocery chains. This year, with both Wild Oats and Whole Foods Markets saying they plan to open a dozen new stores, the natural-foods sensation shows no signs of leveling off.

The trend has not gone unnoticed by the mainstream supermarket chains, which have jumped in eagerly, capturing 9 percent of the market. In the Midwest, Dominick’s Finer Foods started out by opening the World Market department in two of its stores in 1995. Now 50 of the company’s 83 outlets feature natural-products departments. Similarly, the Boston-based company Star Markets started by introducing natural foods into its existing merchandise mix in 1995 by using the store-within-a-store concept. About a year and a half later, the chain opened its first freestanding Wild Harvest, and has since launched four more stores.

EIGHTY MILLION AGING BABY BOOMERS, like me, are driving the demand for natural products, according to a recent report by Salomon Smith Barney. We’re feeling the chronic aches and pains, the anxiety, arthritis, and the insomnia that come with … well, age. As medical costs go up, and managed care makes doctors seem inaccessible and harried, nutritional consultants roaming the aisles of our neighborhood natural-foods store can provide a comforting, available alternative. With more media attention focused on deaths caused by potent prescription drugs — 20,000 patients, for example, die every year of stomach hemorrhages caused by using anti-inflammatory drugs — more and more Americans are turning to thousand-year-old herbal remedies for preventing disease, slowing aging, or optimizing their health.

Age is not the only factor in consumer interest. Consumer awareness about food purity is also sparking sales. According to a study recently conducted by the Hartman Group, 53 percent of grocery shoppers are concerned about pesticide residues in food, and 55 percent believe man-made hormones and antibiotics do not belong in meat. Seventy percent think organic products are substantially better for one’s health. And another 20 percent consider themselves “the new green mainstream”: These are consumers who understand that their purchases have an impact on the environment, and they would not have it any other way.

To keep such avowedly green shoppers from defecting to the natural-products aisles at Krogers and Safeway, longtime natural-products retailers like Wild Oats now offer cooking demonstrations, lectures, and Wellness Centers staffed with naturopaths, herbalists, acupuncturists, and massage therapists. Both Wild Oats and Whole Foods have launched on-line stores, where, with the click of a mouse, customers can purchase private-label nutritional supplements and nonperishable groceries.

The natural-products market has, in fact, come a long way since the days of neighborhood, basement, food co-ops, like the one I belonged to in the 1980s. I loved the sense of community in that cramped, musty place with its misshapen squash and imperfect apples, the sense of being part of a small-scale economy of local farmers and consumers.

A few years later, after I’d moved to Chicago, I was stunned when a friend asked me to meet her for lunch at the new Whole Foods. Lunch at a naturalfoods market? But this was no mere coop: This was food as theater, with highconcept design, surreal produce, and instore dining. One organic, pecan-crusted, tuna sandwich later, I was hooked. But what I enjoyed most were not the upscale amenities: This place had managed to preserve the friendly green subculture that had begun in those early corner co-ops. And in the end, that is one of the most attractive aspects of today’s natural-foods marketplace. It’s expanding without losing its ethos, going mainstream without losing its soul.

Organic Grows Up
Long before organic food became synonymous with Birkenstocks, tofu burgers, and no-frills food co-ops, there were old-fashioned farms — unassuming places that happened to be home to crops and animals. The animals ate some of the crops and produced manure. The manure was added to the land, and the farmers could continue cultivating the same plot without depleting the topsoil. Chemical fertilizers, which became available in the mid-1800s, made it possible to grow bigger, better-looking crops on meager land. Seventy-five years later, farmers happily coated their fields, and made America the breadbasket of the world, until over-farming spent the topsoil and the Midwest became a whirling dust bowl.

A few rebel agronomists, who noticed that chemically doused crops were actually more likely to be visited by a plague of insects, favored fertilizing with humus. In 1933, the best-selling book 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs discussed health hazards from spray insecticides. In 1962, Rachel Carson’s seminal study Silent Spring warned that pesticides were wreaking havoc on the environment. By the early 1970s, DDT was banned in the US, but organic farmers were still being labeled “hippie-weirdo-freaks.” Twenty-five years later, one of the most outspoken of the 1970s organic farmers, Gene Kahn, had become CEO of Small Planet Foods, a $90-million-a-year organic food giant, in an industry whose annual sales have reached $4.2 billion and are expected to grow exponentially.

Today, consumers seeking produce grown without pesticides and livestock raised without steroids can buy organic products in half the nation’s supermarkets. And in more than half of America’s super-chic eateries — restaurants like Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, Restaurant Nora in Washington, DC, and Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California — organic food is the heart of the menu.

Internationally, demand for organic products is burgeoning. Europe and Japan — where many people shop every day to ensure their food’s freshness — are the primary export markets for American organic farmers. Japanese buyers have ratcheted up the price of organic soybeans up to $23.00 per bushel, compared to about $7.00 per bushel for conventional soybeans. Following the mad cow disease scare, the British have developed a hearty appetite for organic meat. Here at home, roughly 33 percent of Americans are buying organic food at least once or twice a month and are willing to pay a premium — 15 to 20 percent more — for food they perceive to be more nutritious, flavorful, and natural.

What Does “Organic” Really Mean?
Currently, about 45 certifying agencies around the country award food an “organic” label. Each of these agencies has a slightly different definition of what organic means. At the national level, the US Department of Agriculture is attempting to hammer out a uniform set of requirements for certification. Until those are ready and accepted by the organics industry, most local certifying groups will continue to abide by principles laid out by the USDA’s National Organic Program staff. These say that organic food must be grown without agrichemicals or pesticides. Crop management should protect the environment, minimize pollution, replenish the soil, recycle materials, and provide attentive care for farm animals.

All of which seems obvious. But in reality, less than half of the food on the market that’s labeled “organic” is certified organic. In most states there are no penalties for labeling a product “organic,” even if the product does not meet any of the requirements for certification. Even products certified organic may have pesticide residue. In a recent test, Consumer Reports found pesticides on both organic and conventional samples, though the organic samples held only trace amounts.

What, then, is a concerned consumer to do? Begin by looking closely at the foods in your supermarket. Ask the grocer if his organic products are certified. If they’re not, suggest he start stocking only certified organic foods. If he is unresponsive, organize a letter-writing campaign and try to get the word out to other consumers. Shoppers pay a premium for organics and expect them to be certified. Their displeasure at learning otherwise will usually convince merchants to comply.

What of the USDA?
Can food be organic if it is been irradiated? Genetically engineered? Fertilized with toxic-metal-laden sewage sludge? A tidal wave of 280,000 farmers, advocates, and consumers didn’t think so. They pummeled the USDA with negative comments last year after the agency proposed national standards that would have dramatically weakened the existing standards for organic certification. USDA Secretary Dan Glickman conceded as much, saying, “Biotechnology, irradiation, and biosolids … neither fit the current organic practices nor meet the consumer expectations about organics.”

A revised USDA proposal should be released by the middle of the year, according to Keith Jones, program manager for the National Organic Program. You can find a copy of the current draft of the proposal on the USDA’s Web site, www.ams.usda.gov/nop. For commentary on the various USDA drafts, visit the Organic Trade Association’s site, www.OTA.com.

Even if the new USDA standards forbid organic food from being nuked, cloned, or grown in human fecal slop, the Organic Trade Association and other industry advocates say many important issues will remain unresolved. The OTA, for its part, wants rigorous guidelines for animal feed and treatment, lower certification fees for small farmers, and the authority to decertify operations not in compliance.

Weary of waiting for the USDA — it took the agency eight years to produce its first draft proposal — the Independent Accreditation Steering Committee, composed of local organics groups, is scurrying to finish its own proposal. The IASC’s plan, which should be unveiled in March, will define how organic food must be grown, processed, stored, transported, labeled, imported, and certified. The proposal is meant to serve as a road map for the USDA, or even as “a &facto alternative to a federal program,” says Diane Bowen, executive director of the California Certified Organic Farmers.

Whichever standards are accepted, everyone involved in the organics industry agrees that national standards of some kind are essential. Such standards should dramatically boost both consumer and retailer confidence. Consumers who are more confident in the quality of organic produce will likely buy more. Grocers will stock more. And an increasing number of conventional farmers will likely cross over to lucrative organic practices. And ultimately consumers should see lower prices.

In other words, consumers and producers alike can foresee feel-good growth in a feel-good industry. Establishing credibility for organically produced food will produce an indelible imprint on the larger food market. Expanding the organic marketplace will also help to heal the environment. If our water supplies and soils have to be tested and treated to remove the toxic residue of agrichemicals, then these chemicals were never the miracle panacea that they once were cracked up to be. Organic farming safeguards the water supply, improves the organic content of the soil, protects plant and wildlife habitat, and alleviates the toxic threat to our families.

By buying organic food, we leave as our legacy a healthy agriculture for generations to come.