Is Organic Food the Answer?

After recently posing a question on Twitter regarding people’s opinions on whether organic or sustainable food was more important, it became clear that our food problems are far bigger than this limited characterization.  Simply put, we must find innovative ways to dramatically improve the quality and quantity of the food people eat.

For example, a relatively small, but fast growing segment of the population is connecting with local farms to learn about where their food comes from through weekly farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) programs.  While these rich and educational interactions are nearly ideal, they are not available to a vast majority of people who spent $535 billion at nearly 35,000 supermarkets across the country in 2007.  And it is unrealistic to assume farms could handle interacting with over 300 million Americans stopping by every week, even if we significantly increased the number of farms or expanded the size of current farms.

To reach mainstream America, we need new and innovative ways to connect consumers with sustainably grown, processed and transported food. That will require redesigning much of today’s conventional food system; a system designed from the ground up to meet the financial needs of America’s leading food businesses (regardless of what they tell us).

I propose we start the redesign at the point where food and eaters meet and buying decisions are made – the retail channels, e.g., supermarkets.

First, we need to significantly reduce the number of food products offered to consumers, currently estimated at 45,000 items in the average supermarket. Reducing the massive amounts of visual information, including conflicting and (intentionally?) confusing messages associated with marketing and nutritional claims, will benefit consumers that are finding it nearly impossible to make their way through the aisles without picking up a lot of strategically placed, highly processed, unhealthy food products.

And even when shoppers make a list before entering the store, which research shows 70 percent of shoppers do, only 10 percent adhere to the list, according to Marion Nestle in What To Eat.  Ms. Nestle goes on to say, “Even with a list, most shoppers pick up two additional items for every item on the list.”  Such impulse purchases, which are highly profitable for the store, are no accident, nor are the confusing messages or lengthy aisles.  Today’s supermarkets are expertly designed to maximize what consumers see in order to maximize what they buy.  This simple formula has been refined over decades to a profit-generating science

Next, we need to introduce an entirely new in-store labeling methodology that visually helps consumers easily characterizes the overall sustainability of a food product in terms of its health (including nutritional information), environmental, economic and social impacts. Some customer may equally value all of these aspects of sustainability, while others may emphasis only one or two.  For example, someone concerned with global warming would look for products with the highest Environmental grade when making their purchase decisions.  Getting as many products in a store labeled in such a way will help consumers quickly find the raw and processed food products that best match their needs.

Finally, implementing these ideas will require an entirely new, consumer-oriented retail experience, one with far fewer products, especially highly processed and prepared foods, in a much more intimate space.  Within such a store, you would also rethink displays to ensure that the intelligent, easy-to-understand labels were clearly visible for every product.  This new retail experience will fit in a significant scaled down store when compared to today’s mega stores, with a median size of 47,500 square feet in 2007, according to the Food Marketing Institute, representing a complete departure from the more products, more product lines, bigger footprint mentality that has dominated food retail for decades.

What we end up with, after a lot more hard work (and a few waves of our magic wand), are intimate, consumer-friendly food stores in every neighborhood in America helping people to eat like Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, and other leading voices in the food movement recommend.



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8 responses to “Is Organic Food the Answer?

  1. In Oregon we have many options to purchase better food (Whole Foods or better yet Natures NW), however the value of organic is actively eroded by the extreme efficiency of our mechanized farming system. Simply put, I can not afford to buy organic (we already go through 5 gal/milk a week and our kds are not yet teens!)

    I do think that if the true cost was better highlighted, the consumer might alter buying patterns enough to tip the balance.

  2. Rob:

    Great to see the blog. It’ll be fun to watch your ideas bounce around in public.

    Some of the problems that I have looking at health and food are (1) choosing which time-frame to look, (2) what level of social relativism to use and (3) how to separate my personal preferences from the objective benefits of smaller scale food systems.

    Starting in the middle, over the course of history 99.9% of the issues around food have been how to get enough calories. Based on that pervasive problem we are doing GREAT in our current system. For perhaps the first time in human history the problem is not one of caloric production, but instead (equally intractable?) one of distribution.

    In the ‘good old’ days of locally produced food the food variety was … spartan might be too good a word. I’ve read accounts of pioneer days in New England where the winter fare was butter for your primary calorie source, a few soft turnips, carrots and apples and perhaps an occasional hare. Not something that I romanticize. However, if we consider ANY use of depletable high-density energy sources to be unsustainable, we are probably left with no cities with over a 1M greater urban population, and, at least in New England, a lot of butter for dinner and dessert.

    Lastly, as someone who likes to consider myself scientifically inclined it is hard to find the benefits to the individual consumer of organic practices. I certainly prefer the aesthetic of smaller, less mechanized farms, and recognize the higher “real” efficiencies of such a system, but there is little or no evidence that eating a local/organic diet confers any measurable health benefits.

    That’s my perspective. Once you’ve convinced me of the right overhaul I think you’ll be well on your way 🙂


  3. Rob,

    You knew, of course, that I couldn’t resist making a comment.

    I like your approach, and the way you have laid out your argument. But…I know that you are trying to improve the world and I see a few flaws that hopefully you could address to make your dissertation ironclad.

    First, the system that you are addressing is not simply built around marketing, but also around efficiency. It is simply more efficient, and therefore less costly to have a large centralized food market than many smaller ones. Systems, be they commercial or culture drive towards efficiency, just like nature. So to win in the long run, you need to focus on efficiency for the customer. Otherwise, when something happens, such as a downturn in the economy, a lower cost producer (they do exist and always will) comes in and take the customers away.

    Yes, there are many more products in the grocery today, but we also shop at less places (no more separate produce shop, bakery, florist, butcher). Ergo, there needs to be more items in the centralized system, I don’t think that because a larger centralized grocery necessarily leads to the conclusion that it is bad, it is simply different. (For example, I save time and gas).

    Second, who gets to make the decision as to what products go into the store? There is a reason that there are choices, people don’t like the same things, even when the products are similar. Will the government be in charge of this? (Great…drive up my taxes so I have less to spend lol). The current system is somewhat Darwinian and self selecting. I simply don’t see how you could get people to agree on what to remove.

    The choice is also good from a cost standpoint. With fewer choices there is less competition and the remaining competitors have less incentive to drive down their costs or improve their products.

    I guess where I fall on this is that merely playing to moral arguments don’t win in the long run. Unless the “new” system provides higher quality, e.g. customer experience at the establishment, food quality, convenient for the customer, and at an equal or lower cost it won’t displace the incumbant system.

    Best of luck,


    • Hello Dave,

      Thanks for your “constructive criticism,” as they used to call such feedback at Intel. Seriously, I appreciate the clarity of your points and the challenges they represent. Would you be willing to consider a couple things? If so, then I look forward to you considering how the following thoughts might change your position. From there, I will gladly “debate” things further, as I always enjoy doing with you.

      1. What would today’s “low cost” food system look like if you stripped away the billions of dollars in federal agriculture subsidies?
      2. What if an increasing number of consumers moved their food expenditures toward raw and lightly processed foods?
      3. What if you replaced the rules and regulations that make it nearly impossible to run food processing operations, e.g., slaughterhouses, at the regional level with rules that allow such infrastructure to flourish?
      4. What if you used equally sophisticated and persuasive marketing tactics to help consumers understand that they don’t “need” as much variety as they think?
      5. What if we reversed the trend of households eating more food prepared and eaten outside of the home?

      I promise that there is a purpose behind these questions, and I look forward to continuing the dialog.



      P.S. While it is true that I am trying to improve the world, I know that the fastest and most efficient way to do that is by leveraging capitalism (not government regulations).

  4. Interesting article. Like idea of avoiding ideologies – like organic or vegetarian. Prefer principles in designing complex solutions to complex problems. those principles might include:
    No labels required or highest transparency of labeling
    As low on the trophic pyramid as possible

  5. Since you asked, I’ll throw in my humble 2 cents to keep the discussion going. I agree highly with Dave’s comments above. While your ‘What ifs’ are thought provoking, have high moral points and some inroads will be made with each, they do not seem very realistic. The bottom line is that we all have to operate in the ‘real’ world. With all the extremely diverse people, thoughts, opinions, lifestyles, approaches, and ‘needs’ out there, trying to downsize offerings and dictate choices and ‘needs’ could easily be labeled as elitist and rebuked. I think Dave’s point that you would never get anyone to agree on what is considered a ‘need’ is key. That is why we have the success of the ‘big box’ offerings. They cater to all, including to individuals like myself who do want healthy, low processed, and moral choices. I pick and choose what I want but still have access to everything. I also, like all of us, have to make choices based on cost. For example, some things I might deem important enough to spend extra on organic vegetables or natural fed meats, other things not. Sure, I would love to shop at ‘Whole Foods’ exclusively (that is albeit not perfect with many of the same chain ‘issues’ but does offer all the goodies of health – organic, low processed foods, awesome natural breads, recipes, cooking demos, natural supplements, awesome prepared organic choices, tons of info, etc, etc, etc..…), but I can’t afford it. It is a store that I go to once in a while to buy a couple of exclusive items while having a wonderful time in the nirvana of of health, but bottom line I consider another luxury. I have to live in the ‘real’ world like all the rest. I want choice (of course also at the lowest cost) as my ultimate objective. Choices allow us to be individuals. Choices also keep costs down and cater to all of our diverse ‘needs’. In addition, choices allow all to feel accepted and therefore want to give business to a store. With large offering retail chains, I can minimize my time and cost by shopping at one place that offers it all at the lowest costs. Yes, these places are not perfect and the system has it’s serious flaws, but they do offer choices that meet my personal and lifestyle needs well enough for the cost I can live with. An endeavor to partner with these larger scale retain chains with a niche that could enhance their offering (while still capitalizing on the chain’s existing connections, low cost models, distributions chains etc..) I could see as a viable capitalistic option. Some examples of partnerships could be partnering to offer a larger, more informative, more involved organic offering center of the store OR partnering to offer lower cost / locally supplied organic distribution models that would add to the stores selection while also enhancing the store’s profitability. Offering a retail solution that offers select choices in combination with a marketing approach that could easily be viewed as dictating ‘needs’ and moral obligation, I would view as a highly risky endeavor. I would consider it an endeavor that would have a hard time being profitable, surviving the competition, and could easily be labeled as just another luxury, specialty, niche store by many. A luxury specialty offering that is already offered many times over today via stores like Whole Foods and other smaller natural food stores (that by the way are struggling immensely, being gobbled up by the competition, and are only surviving in very elite domestic areas).

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