Racing the organic train

Remember in the old movies when a car was racing the train to cross the tracks? The same race is underway right now between organic, the concept, and organic, the marketing feature. Nowhere was this made more clear to me than this morning, when I saw Kellog’s new Organic Rice Krispies.

The consumer market is undergoing a rapid shift towards “organic” food. The sign of the times is Walmart’s declaration of providing organic alternatives in their food offerings. Organic used to be a fringe market. Its acceptance by mainstream retailers and producers is creating a race between consumers who are asking, with their dollars, for more confidence in their food supply (from mad cow, to factory farms, to GMO foods, to Bovine Growth Hormone, to trans-fats, and on and on) and producers who are asking, with their dollars, for broader legal definitions of terms like “organic” in order to keep doing as much of what they already do as possible.
Will the shift in consumer demand create meaningful changes in the food supply? Or will the train that is the established food industry crush the concept into nothing but another meaningless marketing feature?

Michael Pollan (author of Omnivore’s Dilemma, the nearest thing to Silent Spring in the current debate) wrote a wonderful essay in NYT (6-4-06; Mass Natural) recently about the implications of Walmart’s lurch toward things organic:

Beginning later this year, Wal-Mart plans to roll out a complete selection of organic foods — food certified by the U.S.D.A. to have been grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers — in its nearly 4,000 stores. Just as significant, the company says it will price all this organic food at an eye-poppingly tiny premium over its already-cheap conventional food: the organic Cocoa Puffs and Oreos will cost only 10 percent more than the conventional kind. Organic food will soon be available to the tens of millions of Americans who now cannot afford it — indeed, who have little or no idea what the term even means. Organic food, which represents merely 2.5 percent of America’s half-trillion-dollar food economy, is about to go mainstream.

Pollan raises the critical issue: if Walmart insists on charging only 10% more for its organic foods, it will be virtually impossible for the concept of “Organic” to survive. What’s left will be the Organic Rice Krispies of the world: old wine in new, green, bottles.

Fortunately, my race-with-the-train analogy is not the only one that applies. The mass market often coopts emerging fringe concepts (like locally brewed beers into “macro-micros,” italian cafes into Starbucks, and Tex-Mex into McChipotles). And there is good evidence that this helps, rather than hurts, the cause. The very superficiality of marketing features legitimizes fringe behaviors, turning them into more acceptable desires for more people. One study found, for example, that when a Starbuck came to town, more people began buying coffee (and hanging around) at local coffee shops too. Who used to meet friends at a coffee shop (any coffee shop) before Starbucks?

The question on my mind: did Snap, Crackle, and Pop really go green or do they just drive their SUVs down to meet at the nearest Starbucks for a Free-Trade latte?

2 thoughts on “Racing the organic train

  1. “…if Walmart insists on charging only 10% more for its organic foods, it will be virtually impossible for the concept of “Organic” to survive.”
    That is a very interesting comment – is it the price that suggests its organic or the way the product is produced/grown? There is I think a wider definition of “organic” that you might be referring to – namely organic (beyond no pesticides used etc.) for many also connotes a broader consideration for stakeholders when producing/growing product. So, employees are paid fairly, env’l considerations etc. – so perhaps Wal-Mart meets a more narrow conception of ‘organic’ product-wise, though not a broader conception stakeholder-wise. It will be interesting to see how these tensions play out – presently (as far as I understand) “organic” (even the narrow definition) is not even checked or regulated in any meaningful way, so what it means might be up for grabs (and in some cases, only a marketing tool).

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