LA CROSSE, WIS. -- Consumer interest in organic food has grown rapidly in recent years, as has spending on organic products, from $1 billion in 1990 to nearly $27 billion just 20 years later. Yet organics' percentage share of total food sales still remains in the single digits -- in part, say some advocates, because the advantages of this way of producing food have not been well communicated to the general public.
That issue provided the backdrop for a session Friday morning at the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service annual conference in La Crosse, Wis. The session, titled Messages Matter: How to Talk (and Think) Organic, largely focused on two problems faced by those promoting sustainable agricultural practices: lack of experience that many organic producers have in dealing with the media, and a mismatch in messaging resources between the organics sector and the corporations that have a huge financial stake in such conventional agriculture staples as chemical pesticides and fertilizer and genetically modified seeds.
Jim Riddle, who for several years has been the organic outreach coordinator for the University of Minnesota’s Southwest Research and Outreach Center, enumerated the benefits that he and other advocates believe organics have over conventionally grown foods. These include better soil and water quality; carbon sequestration; biodiversity; low to no pesticide residues; none of the genetically altered seeds (or GMOs, for genetically modified organisms) that are causing increasing controversy; none of the antibiotic applications that many in the pro-organic camp believe are contributing to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria; and research showing that organic foods tend have higher levels of beneficial vitamins, minerals, antitoxins and bioflavonoids.
But Riddle told the organic producers and advocates who made up most of the audience that they need to step up their game in communicating their message. He advised them to avoid the pitfalls of dealing with the media, including reporters who are “just looking for juicy quotes” and may be pursuing a sensationalistic angle. He recommended that his listeners reach out to the media quickly and assertively in response to stories that they believe misrepresent organic foods.
Riddle was joined by Melinda Hemmelgarn, a Missouri-based registered dietician who hosts the nationally syndicated “Food Sleuth Radio” program. Hemmelgarn underscored the challenge organic advocates face in keeping their messages from getting overwhelmed by the multi-million dollar advertising and public relations campaigns staged by corporate producers of farm chemicals and seeds.
Hemmelgarn pointed to an ad blitz staged by the Monsanto corporation in Washington, D.C., aimed at influencing the nation’s agriculture policy-makers. The campaign, which included eye-catching ads in bus shelters and subway stations, touted biotechnology as necessary to meeting the world’s food needs and being environmentally sound -- contentions that advocates of sustainable agriculture strongly dispute.
Hemmelgarn provided a list of suggestions for organic advocates in their efforts to cultivate media coverage, including emphasizing the positive (rather than restating and then disputing negative characterizations made by opponents) and networking to develop relationships with reporters covering their issues.
One thing that Riddle and Hemmelgarn both emphasized, though, was that organic producers get their messages across best when they personify by describing their individual efforts toward building a more sustainable food system.
“It is a global message with local flavor,” said Riddle, who added, “The media eats that kind of stuff up.”