February 27, 2017
This post is the second in a series – Letters from the Low Country – about food and agriculture in the Netherlands, written by Laura Genello as she studies organic agriculture at Wageningen University.
What does it mean to be organic, and what role does organic agriculture play in a sustainable food system? These are the questions in my mind as I travel out of the Netherlands and into the rolling hills surrounding Nuremburg, Germany, for the 2017 Biofach Organic Food Trade Fair, an international exposition and conference featuring organic businesses and producers from all corners of the globe. Upon arrival, it’s hard to believe that the organic industry comprises only 2 percent of the global food market.
The annual event stretches over eight exhibit halls and a suite of conference rooms, and features all facets of the organic industry: from a one-woman Dutch tulip producer, to the organic subsidiaries of large companies. The event is only open to trade professionals (and students, like me), and businesses of all sizes come together to build their sales networks. Companies from all over the world are represented, and many countries have their own corner of the exhibit hall complete with a VIP lounge for hammering out the details of deals.
A stroll through the exhibit halls is eye opening, with each new stand a burst of color and creative marketing energy. Some groups have carted in soil and transplants, building raised beds of lettuce seedlings in the center of their stands, another company showcases their ground grains with a bicycle powered flour mill, but almost all have elaborate displays of samples. Cheeses and ice cream made from organic milk, salads sweetened with organic agave syrup, a tasting line of honey, olive oils, wines and chocolate delight the taste buds. I make it my personal mission to sample as many different chocolates as possible. I taste chocolate from a Danish chocolate company that sources only from wild cacao trees, before sampling at the stand of a Belgium start-up, Chocolero, that uses fair trade and micro-lending to encourage coca farmers (cocaleros) to give up their coca crop and become cacao farmers—chocolate as a tool for stopping the drug trade. The range of products is striking; from the exhibit hall featuring cosmetics, where high-end facial cream can be found alongside all-natural condoms, to a French producer of edible insects.
Through it all, one of the most striking observations is that organic means vastly different things to different people. While the origins of the organic movement were…well, organic, today the term is legally defined and dictated by a global certification system based around four principles defined by IFOAM, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements: health, ecology, fairness and care. For some businesses all of these principals are a core ethic, for others, organic certification is primarily a marketing strategy. As one representative of a Croatian herb producer told me, developing an organic line was the logical progression of their company: a way to capitalize on current trends and break into new markets.
This debate over organic is just as evident at the other end of the convention center at the Biofach congress. I attended several congress talks in which the definition and underlying principles of organic drove the discussion. One of the most interesting talks was a discussion hosted by representatives of IFOAM and the Soil Association of the current organic regulations for aquaculture in the European Union and the associated controversy. In Europe, organic aquaculture standards have been in place since 2009 (the U.S. does not yet have organic aquaculture standards or certification). The European standards are being revisited; with one of the most controversial topics being whether recirculating aquaculture operations should be permitted within the context of organic aquaculture (currently, they are not). Recirculating aquaculture operations are generally tank-based systems in which the water is purified before being recycled back through the tanks. The aquaponics operation at the Food System Lab @ Cylburn is an example of a recirculating aquaculture operation.
Throughout the discussion, we heard perspectives from a mussel farmer from Canada who finds the regulations illogical, because she is forbidden from putting her mussels in a recirculating system for post-harvest storage to prolong freshness for delivery. We also heard from a representative of a consumer association who spoke of consumers’ negative perception of recirculating systems as over-crowded, who felt that permitting such systems as organic would undermine consumer trust in the label. It was evident that for some attendees, recirculating systems lacked connection to the natural environment and raised animal welfare and sustainability questions due to potential crowding and high-energy use. For others, these concerns prematurely discredited a water-efficient, pollution-reducing system based on anthropomorphizing the welfare needs of aquatic animals.
Similar themes spilled over into other talks, in which I witnessed on the spot parsing the language of the regulations to determine if nutrients from animal sources could be used for the production of microalgae food supplements, and a heated discussion of whether Green Innovation Centers take a substantially participatory approach in helping to spur sustainable agriculture development in the developing world.
The organic food industry comprises a $80 billion market, but the principles guiding organic production are far more involved than whether or not a grower uses synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. For consumers, organic has become synonymous with health and sustainability, and juggling consumer perception, guiding principles, business realities and sustainability are challenges that the organic industry will continue to face. For me, the biggest lesson learned from the Biofach conference is a greater understanding of the issues behind the certification label at the grocery store.
Images: Mike Milli (top) and Laura Genello 2017.
This work by Laura Genello and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Images in this post are not included in the Creative Commons license.