How should organic respond in a ‘permacrisis’?

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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 seems to perfectly capture the the deeply unsettling 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 be difficult to remember 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? 

Staying relevant  
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 the approaches they believe offer the most effective climate solutions. 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 and was bundled with a range of ‘sustainable practices’ – nature based solutions, sustainable intensification, climate smart agriculture and so on – some of which have little real-world evidence behind them. With decades of development and marketing building behind it, organic ought to be the benchmark for sustainable agriculture and the favoured model for policy-makers. But at this crucial juncture the organic movement’s voice risked being drowned out in crucial debates about the future of food and farming. 

Fast-forward to early 2023 and the world is a markedly 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 and its impacts continue to reverberate around the world. 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 
It is a widely held view in the organic sector that agri-business lobbyists have seized on the war in Ukraine as an opportunity to reverse key commitments in the EU Farm to Fork and Green Deal initiatives (which include cutting chemical pesticide use in the Union by 50%, and dramatically expanding organic agriculture). Some organic industry commentators, like Bavo Van Den Idsert, a senior adviser to the trade group OPTA Europe, 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. Van den Idsert believes the lobbyists aim is plain and simple: “to steal back the CAP budget”. 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 about how to successfully inject urgency into the climate debate and pull citizens behind you. 

“Van den Idsert believes the lobbyists aim is plain and simple: “to steal back the CAP budget”

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 (precisely to make it appeal to a more mainstream audience), has sometimes felt out of step with urgency of the task in hand.

There are almost certainty lessons to be learned here. But the prominent 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. In particular, the “repeated false claim” by so-called ‘Regen Ag’ that regenerative is “beyond organic” should be challenged head on, Holmbeck insists.

A new relevance for organic
While it’s clear that we shouldn’t underestimate the determination of critics to attack organic and promote a false dichotomy between sustainability and food security, we should also understand that the crises which characterise our times create a powerful new relevance for the organic movement. The unique conditions that they have been sparked could mean that this is organic’s moment. 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 is no coincidence that since the outbreak of war price rises for chemical fertiliser-hungry 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 serious attention at the policy level.

“we need to communicate with more heart about what we stand for in organics!”.

What we say about organic, and how we say it, will be crucial in the coming months and years. We will need to firmly combat those lobbyists and interests who want to derail the transition to genuinely sustainable food and farming. We may indeed need to be less polite. But we can 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 high 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!”. 

  • This article was first published in, and commissioned by, Bio Eco Actual

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