In December the BBC reported that the Collins English Dictionary’s Word of Year 2022 was permacrisis, meaning “an extended period of instability and insecurity, especially one resulting from a series of catastrophic events”. It’s a term that captures perfectly the dizzying sense we have of lurching from one unprecedented global event to another. Some commentators believe a state of permacrisis could turn out to be the defining feature of our era. And it can sometimes seem that we’ve almost forgotten what stability and security ever felt like. This is the new reality that the organic industry must now navigate. So, how should it respond in a permacrisis? And is it mission ready?
In 2019 I gave a presentation titled Use in an emergency: Remaking the case for organic in a climate crisis. I wanted to explore how the organic movement might need to re-position itself to demonstrate its relevance to a new generation of climate-anxious consumers. At the time alternative ethical labels – such as vegan, plant-based and local – were growing quickly, because some consumers think these propositions align better with their climate priorities. By 2019 this was already becoming a challenge for organic, as competing ethical labels began to eat into organic market share.
Organic was also running into difficulties on the policy front. For example, in the 40-page summary of the IPCC’s landmark Climate Change and Land Report published in the same year organic agriculture received just a single specific reference. With decades of development and marketing building behind it, organic ought to be the benchmark for sustainable agriculture. But at this crucial juncture the organic movement’s voice risked being lost in crucial debates about the future of food and farming.
Alternative ethical labels were already becoming a challenge for organic in 2019
Fast-forward to early 2023 and the world is an even more dangerous and unpredictable place. The climate crisis is more present than ever but it was the Covid pandemic that consumed most of the political energy in 2020-21. The pandemic also introduced us to the concept of the ‘new normal’, the idea that we will never return to a pre-pandemic world and must adjust to a new reality. Then Russia’s invasion of Ukraine detonated a global food supply chain and energy crisis, resulting in soaring inflation across Europe.
Challenging aggressive critics
Agri-business lobbyists seized on the war as an opportunity to reverse key commitments in the EU Farm to Fork and Green Deal initiatives. Some organic industry commentators, like Bavo Van Den Idsert, say they have been struck by the “extreme aggressiveness” of pesticide and chemical industry lobbyists in using the war as a pretext for undermining the EU’s ambitious plans to transition to sustainable agriculture. He and others believe that the organic sector has been too polite in the past and could learn from radical climate activists like Extinction Rebellion and Greenpeace.
One of the drivers of the rapid growth of veganism (+260% in 10 years in the UK) is the way the vegan movement has commanded the attention of consumers and the media. An energised campaigning style has captured the mood of the time and helped recruit swathes of new followers. Strikingly, vegan messaging is very often about driving cultural change and unafraid to engage on issues built around justice. By contrast organic messaging, which has drawn heavily in recent years on the language of mainstream food industry marketing, has sometimes felt out of step with urgency of the task in hand.
There are almost certainty lessons to be learned here. But the Danish organic commentator, Paul Holmbeck, believes a balance should be struck. He agrees that organic should take inspiration from like-minded movements now competing for the “sustainable alternative” space, and he gives as an example the way that the Regenerative Organic Certification scheme is helping to reinvigorate the US organic scene. At the same time, he says, the greenwashing at the heart of the corporate regenerative agenda must be called out.
Organic messaging, which has drawn heavily in recent years on the language of mainstream food industry marketing, has sometimes felt out of step with urgency of the task in hand
While it’s clear that we shouldn’t underestimate the determination of our critics to attack us, we should nonetheless understand that the crises which characterise our times actually present an enormous opportunity for our movement. The war in Ukraine has thrown into sharp focus the vulnerability of food supply chains when there is high dependence on agri-chemical inputs. The need for more resilient, locally sustainable food systems, like organic, has if anything been made clearer by these crises (it’s no coincidence that since the outbreak of war price rises for chemical fertiliser dependent conventional food has far outpaced those for organic). At the same time discussion about the ‘true cost’ of food production – which prices in the ecological after-costs – is finally gaining attention at the policy level. This really could be organic’s moment.
What we say about organic, and how we say it, will be crucial in the coming months. We will need to fight those lobbyists and interests who want to derail the transition to genuinely sustainable agriculture. But we should communicate with real confidence that organic is the most evidence-based solution we have for the climate and nature crisis, and our best option for producing healthy, sustainable food in a highly stressed world. We should be working to shift the plant-based discussion towards organic, and harnessing promising new research in this area. And we must show how organic is already embedded in local food systems across Europe. Above all, as Paul Holmbeck has commented, “we need to communicate with more heart about what we stand for in organics!”.
Author: Jim Manson, Journalist
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