Tuesday, July 6, 2010

What's in a name?

At the latest European organic conference in Rome delegates discussed what should be part of the EU organic Regulation and what should not. Organic food has been in fashion for a while and some organic standard-setters, certification bodies and companies have rushed to expand the use of the term ‘organic’ into other sectors. Most prominently the term is often used for textiles and cosmetics, but also in water, salt, fisheries, forestry, building sectors, –in fact you name it and it is probably there. Parallel to this there is also the inclusion of many new aspects associated with the organic sector, e.g. its effect on climate change, biodiversity and social conditions. The term ‘Organic’ is thus moving further and further away from the ‘no chemical fertilisers, no pesticides’ market claim that it was in many countries.

Both developments are somewhat problematic. To what extent they really respond to market needs is not clear, nor is it clear whether the drive is mainly by a self-interested certification industry, or by people who like to tell other people what to do. If one sees the term as a ‘brand’ there are many reasons to question the wisdom of stretching the use of this successful brand into new areas. Normally, that leads to erosion of its image. Of course ‘organic’ is not a normal brand and does not necessarily follow the normal rules, but still there is most certainly a risk in expanding its use to cover things far from its agricultural origins. The organic sector is also not credible, or competent, as a rule maker for production categories that fall largely outside agriculture. It makes more sense that associations of craftsmen, builders or architects discuss eco-building rather than farmers and supermarkets; and that weavers, spinners and apparel makers develop textile standards. The inherent ‘values’ of ‘organic’ might not translate easily to other product segments. The same consumer that wants the t-shirt to be made with organic cotton, may simultaneously go for high-tech outdoor stuff, made by plastic and possibly with nano-particles.

The inclusion of more aspects of production in organic standards is to some extent the opposite, it is about ‘deepening’ the organic idea and proposition. Very often the rules of those ‘new’ subjects are not sensitive enough for the contradictions that may occur, and there may be trade-offs. For example, air freight of one product may mean an improvement of the livelihood of a community; or limiting green house gas emissions from agriculture may sometimes conflict with bio-diversity or animal welfare. Each new subject carries with it new values and subjective judgments. One can influence both organic producers and consumers and change values, some of them quite rapidly, in society, but it still goes that the more things added, fewer people will feel comfortable with the whole package.

The fundamental problem is perhaps the combination of a ‘do good’ system, which organic systems most definitively are, with an institution that does not have ‘do good’ as its main principle, rather the opposite – the market. Markets are driven by profits, a fundamental tenet of the market system we humans have created. Is it really realistic to expect an institution that was never intended to do good or to be fair to be that? If we look at it like that many of the inherent conflicts in the organic movement become more understandable. Organic as a concept, illustrated by the four principles of organic as developed by IFOAM, is not market-oriented at all. On the contrary, it clearly adheres to principles that go far beyond, or above, sometimes also against, the market. But the ‘organic market’ is clearly market-oriented, those that are in that market will not survive long unless they are market-oriented. It is because of the market, competition and communication with the consumers that we formulated organic standards and have certification systems. Many don’t accept this perspective but believe that the standards are – or should be - an expression of organic principles. A third group, perhaps, sees the whole idea of organic standards as an abomination; using standards to define organic methods is like using a plough for no-till farming. It is not so much about right or wrong here. Still it is quite obvious that the majority of the certified organic farmers follow the details of organic standards because they want to market their products as organic, and that organic standards, as they are written today, are written with that use very much in mind. The people developing standards should have these issues more often in mind. The itch or urge to write more rules should perhaps sometimes find sublimation in some other way?

The text above is the leader of the coming issue of The Organic Standard, the special journal for organic standards, certification and regulation which Grolink publishes and of which I am the acting "publisher"

No comments:

Post a Comment