Skip to main content Skip to navigation
Science in action to improve the sustainability of agriculture, natural resources, and food systems
Learn More Program Areas

Embracing Value-Added, Evidence-Based Diversity Across the Food Industry is Good for Business

Posted by Chuck Benbrook | February 25, 2015

Benefits of Org Ag BenbrookIf you ask any brand manager, company executive, or corporate board member what a company’s most valuable asset is, the answer is always the same – consumer trust, and the marketplace loyalty grounded in that trust.

Whether selling cars, computers, or potato chips, both trust and market share are difficult to earn and easily lost.

Maintaining consumer trust does not occur in a vacuum. Aggressive, young sharks (i.e., competitors) are always eager to move up the food chain, and the unexpected must be expected – and dealt with adroitly, to prevent a slip from starting a long, slow slide.

Think of all the sweat equity, and public and private investment capital that has flowed into U.S. Ag Inc. over the last half-century, making our food and fiber system the envy of the world, or so the story goes.

I worry, however, that the halo-effect benefiting all U.S. farmers and food companies, and the nation as a whole, is losing some of its luster.  This is clearly happening with a growing segment of consumers in the U.S., and it is also beginning to happen in international markets.

Some of the reasons are obvious, others are subtle, systemic, and increasingly damaging. I have been thinking about what it will take to at least start turning things around. Many of the major ag industries here in the PNW are heavily reliant on exports to food-quality and food-safety conscious markets, and so it is especially important for our region to track factors with potential to alter U.S. Ag Inc.’s reputation, for better or worse.

I was invited to do a speech at an Organic Agricultural Research Symposium (OARS) in La Crosse, Wisconsin Wednesday, February 25th, and decided to use this speaking engagement to address some aspects of this important topic.

My talk is entitled “The Benefits of Organic Agriculture: Evidence Based Results and Evidence-Driven Policy.” While organic, value-added benefits and label claims are addressed in some detail, the talk is really about much bigger fish. It’s about the integrity of science, trust in the U.S. government, and how to restore, and perhaps even brighten, U.S. Ag Inc.’s halo.

The presentation is being live streamed by the eOrganic cooperative extension program at 6:00 pm Central Time 2/25/2015, and will be posted by eOrganic soon after its delivered.  We have also posted the slides, six-to-a-page, on the M2M website.

I suspect that most people who listen to or read the talk will find at least a few points or assertions objectionable, but please do not let these points of conflict obscure the more important message – U.S. Ag Inc. needs to find better ways, in concert with our government, to embrace, verify, and market value-added products, and if we do not, others will.

Loss of access to value-added markets will take away jobs, reduce farm and food industry income, and undermine the potential return to investment capital.

Finding ways to acknowledge, and indeed celebrate, proven benefits of organic farming is a necessary first step. Without getting past this first step, next steps may prove too great a leap. For possible paths forward, see “The Benefits of Organic Agriculture: Evidence Based Results and Evidence-Driven Policy.”

8 thoughts on "Embracing Value-Added, Evidence-Based Diversity Across the Food Industry is Good for Business"

  1. Theresa Marquez says:

    Good Topic Chuck. Dairy is a good example. Conventional dairy is losing sales each year as organic dairy continues to grow. There is a lot of opportunity in the organic dairy sector! T

    1. Chuck Benbrook says:

      I agree, there is great opportunity in the dairy sector to expand adoption of systems that: (a) produce healthier milk, (b) help keep cows healthy and alive for 3-4-5+ lactations, and (c) build soil health/quality. I happen to be in La Crosse, Wisconsin at the always-amazing MOSES conference. This place is full of young farmers, and others wanting to become farmers. Agriculture as a career path, a vocation, and for many a calling, is coming on strong. Very encouraging indeed.

  2. Lorraine Lewandrowski says:

    Hard to identify with organic dairy seeing the leering , hateful marketing methods used . The most recent is OnlyOrganic video using children spraying pesticides and stabling cows with giant needles . We are losing farms as it is. Organic farmers benefit from programs that we the older farmers built, now it seems that you spit in our faces.

    1. Chuck Benbrook says:

      Lorraine, I found and watched the video you are referring t, and I agree with your assessment. Over the edge and bound to trigger unnecessary collateral damage. One point — the most over-the-edge videos are rarely done by organic companies, but rather by NGOs engaged in the ongoing “fight” over GMOs, pesticides, animal welfare, treatment of farmworkers, etc. The key message in my speech was “we ” as a community — both within organic and between conventional and organic brands/companies — must elevate our messaging to build all brands from the U.S., recognizing that in all sectors there are value-added brands/products, It is going to take time, patience, and leadership to turn the ship around, because things have become so deeply and viscerally negative among many passionate people, from both sides, who believe they are doing what is needed and justified at the present time. I fear things will get worse before there is an awakening that we must change.

      1. Andrew McGuire says:

        But Chuck, you can’t just blame the NGOs here. Only Organic, according to their website is supported by Earthbound Farm, Annies Homegrown, Organic Valley, Stonyfield Organic, Nature’s Path, and other organic food companies. These are not companies on the margins of organic food production. Since these companies support Only Organic, can’t one assume that they support the message that is being put out by Only Organic’s video?

        1. Chuck Benbrook says:

          No, you cannot make that assumption. It is actually common for NGOs, in their messaging, to cross over lines that member-companies are not comfortable crossing, indeed that is a major purpose of some messaging NGOs. Happens on the conventional side too, and indeed all sub-sectors. Of course, if a group crosses over the line too often for a given company’s taste, the company is likely to part ways. Its a dynamic process, generally headed in a bad, damaging direction, hurting the image of U.S. Ag Inc. No one caused this, no one can stop it, but if enough people start trying, and making the case for an alternative way to compete, perhaps things will get better.

          1. Andrew McGuire says:

            Perhaps what you say is true, but unless these companies are far less sophisticated than I think they are, they know full well what message is being put out by Only Organic. Yes, to reduce risk of offending, they may not put out the same message themselves, but their support for the organization is tacit support for the message. The arrangement allows them to maintain a degree of separation, and plausible deniability, between themselves and Only Organic who is doing the companies’ negative advertising.

            I do agree that organic food companies are not the only ones doing this; they have joined the traffic on the low road.

  3. Andrew McGuire says:

    You asked in your slides, “Will USDA continue their oft-repeated assertion that organic food offers no food safety or nutritional advantages?” Yes they will, because doing otherwise is tantamount to saying that the non-organic food supply, which they regulate, is somehow deficient; unsafe, or not nutritious. Your examples of future value-added organic label claims – pesticide dietary risk, antibiotics/hormones, and GE food – fly in the face of the current regulations that already govern these issues and are deemed by the USDA and other agencies as ensuring safe food. To make claims of being better, there would have to be ample evidence of a real and present danger from pesticide residue, antibiotics, hormones and GE food, and if such a problem was found to exist, the answer would not be labels for organic food, but better regulations for all of agriculture.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *