Let them eat organic

April 14, 2010, 7:11 PM UTC

You see them at the supermarket – plump, ripe red tomatoes that look so healthy and tasty. But then you realize they’re organic, and likely to cost twice what the shabby slicing tomatoes do. So back on the shelf they go.

Yet buying organic is not only good for the body, it’s good for the earth. So how to bring more organic food to more consumers at a cheaper price?

Expand research into organic practices and develop measurable standards big buyers of food can trust are part of the answer, according to a panel of experts speaking Wednesday at Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference.

“There’s only one USDA organic researcher,” said Jessica Lundberg, chairman on Lundberg Family Farms, a grower of organic rice in northern California. “That’s not a balanced system. That’s not putting researchers where we need to have them.”

Surprisingly, some big food retailers said they currently have no way of knowing which farmers they are buying from are farming in a sustainable way.

“Today, I don’t have a system where I can push a button and get a report,” said Matt Kistler, senior vice president of sustainability at Wal-Mart, one of the country’s largest grocers.

Pushed by the desire to lower its carbon footprint – traditional agriculture is very carbon intensive due to the petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides – Pepsi’s sustainability expert said his company is also looking to evaluate the farming practices of the orange growers that supply the company’s Tropicana brand and the potato farmers that supply Frito-Lay.

If these large companies start buying more organic, it could help scale up the market. That’s been a key problem with organic certifications programs in the past, said The Nature Conservancy’s chief external affairs officer, Glenn Prickett, who was in the audience.

“To quote a colleague, certification programs are like private school for food,” said Prickett. “They’re nice if you can afford it.”

If the world starts producing more organic food, some audience members cautioned that it shouldn’t come at the expense of increasing yields, which are needed to feed a growing population.

On the traditional farming front, one audience member noted that GPS systems on farm equipment had helped lower the amount of fertilizer needed because it can be applied to specific areas instead of blanketed on whole fields. That, along with advances in crop biology, has reduced fertilizer use by 77% per bushel produced from 1970.

Monsanto’s sustainability officer, Jerry Steiner, said the focus on sustainable farming should be on the final result – things like whether the practices have reduced fertilizer use or resulted in less harmful water runoff – rather than dictating what the practices themselves should be.

“If we focus on outcomes, and take away this practice-related thinking, we’d all be better off.”

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