Washington State University

Small Farms Team

Consumers' appetite for eco-friendly food grows

Michelle Cole, The Oregonian Newspaper, 4-21-2002. Reach Michelle at 503-294-5143 or michellecole@news.oregonian.com.

Range-fed. Sustainable. Shade-grown. Environmentally friendly.

All new at the supermarket. All intended to appeal to consumers' eco-sensibilities.

People worried about their health buy organic spinach. But a growing number want to know that the spinach was not only grown without chemical pesticides but also that it was cultivated nearby and not shipped in from out-of-state in a fossil fuel-burning truck.

American are increasingly choosing organic and sustainable foods not only for their own health,but also out of concern for the health of the planet

When the First Unitarian Church in downtown Portland recently asked its members to skip meat for at least one meal a week, to buy organic fruits and vegetables and to search out foods produced closer to home, 349 households signed on. They included Jane Meininger's family, which worries about the connection between burning fossil fuels and global warming.

We work really hard to minimize the amount of time we spend in the car," Meininger said. "My husband bicycle-commutes. We choose a local school so the kids can walk. I bike to the grocery store. Buy my food from Chile? That doesn't sound like a good thing for me to do."

Marketers see opportunity in the fact that foods are being selected on how kind they are - or are perceived to be—to Earth. They're even creating new green foods for kids.

Take Gorilla Munch cereal, for example. It's made from organic ingredients, of course. But the back of the box explains why mountain gorillas are an endangered species and what kids can do to help. It also promises that 1 percent of the proceeds from the sale of that box will go to a save-the-gorilla fund.

Eating to save the world

That's how Jack Kysar sees it. And that's why he and his wife, Judy Davis, are changing their eating habits.

"When you read how much pesticides and fertilizers are put into the environment by corporate farms, those get into streams and, eventually into what we eat and drink," he said. "And I never thought that much about what they put into animals—antibiotics and hormones."

That chemicals used by U.S. agriculture are found in the nation's waterways has been well-documented, beginning with Rachel Carson's 1962 book "Silent Spring." Concerns have arisen more recently about the environmental impacts of raising livestock and poultry in industrial-sized feedlots.

And now there are health and environmental questions surrounding the use of hormones and antibiotics in animals raised for food. Consumers Union reports about 20 million of the 50 million pounds of antibiotics produced annually in the United States are ingested by animals, usually as a feed additive to promote growth or to control infectious bacteria. A recent government study found traces of these drugs in 139 streams across the country, including three in and around Portland. Researchers say human activities are to blame but livestock practices also contribute to the contamination.

One in four Americans now purchases organic products, according to the U.S. Agricultural Research Service, which pegged organic sales at $7.8 billion in 2000. Roughly two-thirds of those organic customers are motivated by health and nutrition concerns. Still, one in four who purchased organic products were motivated by environmental concerns, says the Hartman Group, a firm specializing in green marketing.

Healthy for people, planet Eating for Earth increasingly reaches beyond organics.

Grocers must be prepared these days to answer a new list of shopper questions: Is the fish wild or farmed? Were the apples grown locally?

Marketing experts say this concern about the environmental impact of foods is driven in part by a generation of 18 to 29 year olds—a powerful consumer cohort raised with recycling and Earth Day celebrations. They include Colin McDonald, a sophomore at Western Washington University in Bellingham, who launched a campaign to ensure that fair-traded, shade-grown coffee is sold in cafeterias and coffee bars throughout his campus. Environmentalists contend that coffee grown in the midst of a tropical rain forest, rather than in cleared monoculture fields, protects bird and insect habitats and requires less chemical treatment. There's a social benefit, too, as shade-grown coffees command a higher price for the farmer. McDonald reports that he had no problem finding 2,000 students to sign his coffee petitions. "Even the Young Republicans - which is a small but vocal group - many of their members signed up," he said.

Conservation groups join the battle

Some of the nation's largest conservation organizations have also been working to link food to consumer's environmental concerns.

The National Environmental Trust urges restaurants and consumers to "Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass," because the group says the fishery is severely depleted. The Audubon Society and Environmental Defense teamed with others to produce seafood guides for consumers. Conservation International partnered with Starbucks to produce and promote shade-grown coffee.

Five years ago, the World Wildlife Fund joined with Unilever, one of the world's largest suppliers of fish sticks and frozen fish products, to start the Marine Stewardship Council. Now an independent nonprofit, the council offers one of the first "eco-labels" to identify fish certified to come from an environmentally sustainable catch.

Smaller groups are also getting attention.

The Mangrove Action Project reaches out to consumers interested in hearing about the environmental consequences of large-scale shrimp farming. Spokesman Alfredo Quarto says vast tracks of mangrove forests in Asia have been cleared to make way for shrimp farms constructed in recent years. The practice upsets fragile ecosystems, degrades water quality and threatens the economies of local fishing communities, Quarto said.

"Whenever I give talks everybody says, 'I'll never eat shrimp again,' " he said.

Cutting through a forest of terms Chefs Collaborative, a national network formed in the late 1990s to promote healthy and ecologically sustainable eating, has grown to more than 1,000 members, including 131 in Portland. Among its newest members is Alice Engelstad, manager and part-owner of "Peanut Butter & Ellie's," a cafe for kids in Northeast Portland.

"Peanut Butter & Ellie's" menu is built around sandwiches made with organically produced peanut butter and jellies certified to have been produced in a way to protect the environment and to promote fair labor practices. The restaurant's flooring is made from recycled tires. The staff ensures that every half-pint milk container emptied is recycled. A mission statement printed on the back of the menu promises customers wholesome, organic and sustainably produced foods.

"One of the great things about something like this is that it allows us an avenue to tell the world what we believe in," Engelstad said. "This isn't a bunch of baloney here."

Names are confusing

The sheer number of environmental messages attached to food can be confusing. Consider: "Made with organic ingredients." "Salmon-friendly." "Free-range." "Natural." "Wild vs. farmed."

"In the last four or five years everybody has been throwing these eco-labels at consumers like spaghetti against the wall," said Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation.

Consumers Union evaluated more than 60 specific food label claims through its online eco-label project. Some environmental label claims, such as certified organic, are backed by rigid, verifiable standards, said senior research adviser Urvashi Rangan.

Other label claims, such as "environmentally friendly," are almost meaningless, she said.

Susan Douglass has learned to be a careful label-reader. " 'Natural' doesn't mean anything to me," said Douglass, who prefers organic or locally grown produce, organic milk from Oregon or Washington, wild salmon and free-range chicken. Health concerns dictate her choices; Douglass was diagnosed with lymphoma when she was pregnant with her now 2-year-old daughter. But Douglass says she's increasingly aware of the environmental impacts of raising the food her family consumes. And she's willing to pay a bit more for making Earth-friendly choices.

The range of choices is likely to grow exponentially in the next few years.

Mike Moran, general production manager for the Grand Central Bakery in Portland, is working with Northwest seed farmers to develop a wheat variety that can be sewn into the stubble of the previous year's crop. The goal is to reduce soil erosion, wind erosion and chemical use. By spring 2004, if not before, Moran plans to sell only "sustainable bread."

"When I talk to people about what we're working on. I see the same reaction," Moran said. "They like the idea of being able to buy a bread that they know where the wheat came from, that it was not shipped across the country and that the farm engages in the best agricultural practices."

He won't hear any argument on that from McDonald's. The world's largest fast-food company announced last week a new partnership with Conservation International's Center for Environmental Leadership in Business to assess the environmental impacts of McDonald's food purchases and to find ways to support sustainable agriculture and conservation practices.

That is potentially good news for Douglass, who craves a hamburger now and again. But at least for now, she says, "We pretty much stay away from fast food."

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