AHEAD OF THE HEARD
Like most agricultural sectors the organic industry has its annual conventions and general meetings. And like most they tend to offer events and speakers that support the mandate and philosophy of the members. But at times presentations are made at these events that provide food for thought and may even make the party faithful uncomfortable. A recent organic industry meeting in Guelph Ontario saw a speaker challenge organic growers to face some realities about the alleged nutritional superiority of organic over conventional products. That perceived superiority has been central to the image the organic industry wants to present to the consuming public. However, the speaker suggested that University studies have shown that in many cases there is no nutritional difference between organic and conventional foods. That is not something organic producers want to hear at their conference even though most would know that the presenter was speaking the truth. But it’s all rationalized as being just part of marketing.
But then the speaker dropped a bombshell and stated that his organization was developing a handheld instrument based on infrared spectroscopy that could instantly provide nutritional information on food products. The idea being that consumers could make instant educated decisions on the nutrition levels of foods they were about to purchase. That puts real power in the consumers’ hands, but it may not be to the advantage of organic growers as it may show instantly that there isn’t much difference between organic and conventional foods. The supposed advantage to organic food would be that the same instrument could identify the alleged toxins in conventional foods. That would be a tremendous marketing advantage that would be hard to overcome by conventional food producers even if alleged toxin levels were minute and of absolutely no health concern. In marketing – any negative perception, real or imagined, is virtually impossible to overcome – albeit steep discounts will change consumer perceptions about just about any product.
I would suggest that governments and commodity groups get behind the development of just such a food testing instrument. The point being it should end the ambiguity and bull fudge that now surrounds the issue of what is and isn’t organic. The reality is that if the nutritional and residue levels of tomatoes grown either organic or conventional are the same it should be presented as such to the consumer. At present without any significant type of testing at any production stage the consumer has no idea as to any residue levels. All there is at present is a promise from organic growers and an assumption from conventional growers that their products meet some sort of perceived standards. Official government testing of residue levels in our food products is at present sporadic at best. I suggest a new type of mobile food testing instrument in the hands of consumers and retailers could be a disaster for the organic industry. That’s probably the reason the organic industry has lobbied so hard and so successfully, to keep any mandatory testing of their products outside of the organic certification process.
Perhaps the speaker at the organic industry convention was imploring the audience to get a handle on the development of these types of testing devices before they are imposed on their industry. The point being technology has a life of its own and is driven by the market – if a food testing device has profit potential some developer will create it whether the industry likes it or not. The implication being that the industry needs to find a way to deal with this development or it may be decimated by its ramifications. To be fair one should say the same ramifications could face producers of conventional food products if mobile testing devices were to consistently identify toxins even at minute levels and consumers have a choice. It’s a serious development for all producers particularly those that grow products that are marketed almost directly to consumers.
A positive ramification for a nutrition and toxin testing device for all growers and producers is that it would expose the dishonesty and if not outright fraud associated with alleged organic foods that are imported. It’s virtually taken for granted that organically labelled foods from China and Southeast Asia cannot be trusted and that there is widespread deception and corruption at every level regarding organic certification.
It will be interesting to see how the organic industry will be dealing with this new testing technology development. One thing for sure it won’t be going away any time soon.