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The organic movement’s Sarah Palin moment?

Will the latest hits to organic—GMO approvals, Gates in bed with Monsanto—fuel the organic movement to reach bigger, to muster support among a more mainstream group of swing (food-dollar) voters? Reflections on organic experts at Expo West, the organic movement's message, and how clarifying how we talk about organics could help the news reach a much wider and more mainstream audience of consumers.


Will the latest hits to organic—GMO approvals, Gates in bed with Monsanto—fuel the organic movement to reach bigger, to muster support among a more mainstream group of swing (food-dollar) voters? After conversations with organic thought-leaders at last week’s Natural Products Expo West I’m convinced that, like Sarah Palin entering the 2008 election, the recent news could be the best thing that ever happened to organic. Close to 90 percent of Americans say that they do not want to eat GMOs. And yet, according to policy makers, GMOs are our future.

At the show, ocean activist Philippe Cousteau (grandson of Jacques) offered this pith statement in an interview with Newhope360: “Organic food is a critical step in the right direction because the pesticides, the fertilizers, the herbicides we’ve come to depend on in the last few decades are poison: They poison our people, they poison our environment, and they disrupt the system. Organic farming is a critical step in making a healthy, viable, prosperous, and sustainable future for our children.”

He’s right, and his message is clear. As an organic advocate, I’ve watched the movement lose authority in the last few years, despite campaigns like the OTA’s “Organic. It’s worth it.” Sure, organic has remained strong in the marketplace despite the economic downturn, but its message hasn’t reached far enough or fast enough to counter the disturbing momentum of chemical agribusiness.

What’s more, there seems to be lack of confidence at the core. I asked a well-educated friend recently what he thought of organic: “Well, what I get at the farmer’s market [whether or not it is organic] is better. Organic isn’t what it used to be—the standards have really gone downhill. They allow all kinds of chemicals in organic now.”

It’s not that farmers’ markets aren’t creating a lot of positive change, and it’s not that organic doesn’t have room to improve. But pesticides and GMOs too often don’t enter the conversation—and they should. It’s clear from the recent Future of Wellness consumer research done by NewHope360, many more outside of the core are still totally unaware of the social, environmental, and health consequences of their food choices.

As someone tasked with educating shoppers about these food choices, I take this failure very personally. Where have we gone wrong?

Aside from lacking the robust infrastructure or funds of Monsanto or the Gates Foundation, perhaps we organic advocates haven’t taken ripe opportunities to focus the organic message. When organic has come under attack, we have responded haphazardly and without effect because, as a group of intelligent folks, we aren’t comfortable with generalizations. (Those of us comfortable with generalizations have too often tended toward fear tactics.)

Right now the stakes seem clear: Be positive and get the message out to a much wider audience or lose viability. It’s time to talk in terms that we know resonate outside the walls Expo West. (Here’s my personal take; I invite you to post yours below.)

Organic is about CHOICE. Your choice to not eat synthetic pesticides and GMOs, for two.

Organic is about PEOPLE. Industrial agriculture makes super-rich agribusiness executives even more wealthy. Period. From that perspective, organic is hardly elitist.

Organic is CHEAP. When you consider the tremendous effort and commitment it takes to grow things organically under current regulations, without much government support, and in an uncertain market; when you consider how many people are getting sick from chemicals in their food and groundwater; when you consider the environmental degradation, then it’s simply amazing that organic foods don’t cost more.

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