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Green or Blue Genes?

February 28th, 2010 by Devangshu Dutta

Who knew that a mere vegetable – the humble purple, shiny brinjal, eggplant, aubergine – could create such an uproar?

And why retailers and consumer product companies should be concerned about genetically modified (GM) crops is a complicated story with multiple twists and turns across political, economic, social, scientific and philosophical landscapes.

At their basic level, brinjals have so far been possibly equally hated and loved for their flavour and texture across the world. But their newest avatar – Bt Brinjal – is now being viewed on the one hand as an evil alien transplant that will kill everything good and natural, and the first step of capitalist monopolies to dominate food crops in a large and growing market, while on the other hand it is seen as a saviour of the embattled farmer, an eco-friendly alternative to pesticides and a well-thought out scientific solution to agricultural productivity.
 
Though it might appear that genetically modification is a 20th century invention, the fact is that such food is not new. Since the time we began farming some 10,000 years ago, we have been carrying out genetic screening and selection, and modifying to create plants and animals that suit our purposes. All farmed products are a product of artificial rather than pure natural selection, as humans have pure-bred and cross-bred strains of crops that are seen as more beneficial in terms of nutrition, hardiness and ease of cultivation.

However, there are some important differences between earlier efforts and now, which underlie the recent loud and violent debate. Let me outline the concerns as seen from the anti-GM side of the table.

  • Firstly, time.

Previous genetic selections and modifications happened not just over generations of plants, but generations of human beings. By default, this allowed time to try and test different variants and arrive at varieties that met multiple criteria – profitable cultivation, nutrition, taste, durability and safety. There are concerns that not enough is known about the eventual impact of the new GM crops on human and environmental health, and the speed of adoption frightens people. (In 1948 a Swiss chemist was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on DDT’s effectiveness as a pesticide, just a few short decades before it was banned from widespread agricultural use for – among other things – apparently causing cancer, and being acutely toxic to organisms other than the pests at which it was targeted.)

  • Secondly, variety as an insurance.

In the past, if some variety was wiped out due to climatic variation or pests, it was very likely that alternative varieties were close at hand to substitute it. (Estimates about the number of brinjal varieties in India alone vary widely, from 2,000 to over 3,500 though most of them are not actively cultivated in any significant number.) On the other hand the agricultural information and supply chain today is far more integrated, allowing a previously unknown speed and completeness of adoption of new technology and inputs, frequently at the cost of traditional knowledge. Extinction of natural species is not just due to hunting or disasters, whether man-made or natural. If a new engineered variety is profitable in the foreseeable future, farmers would very likely replace other varieties without examining the long-term impact. (This is true also of other inputs, like overuse of heavily promoted synthetic fertilisers or pesticides.)

  • Third, the methods of genetic engineering itself.

Previous ‘engineering’ was restricted to pollination, grafting and selection, whereas now we are attempting to manipulate individual genes or sets of genes, and transplanting genes across species (from a bacterium in the case of Bt). This approach is similar to how we look at most things, today – individually, separate from or devoid of the natural context, ignoring any interaction with other elements (other genes, in the case of genetically modified crops). While in some cases there may be no significant impact on the outcome, our knowledge of genetics is far from complete and holistic to be able to confidently make the statement about no long-term harm.

  • Finally, the politics of economics.

All agriculture in the last 10,000 years was based on the assumption that future generations of the crop could be raised from seed saved from previous generations. Current genetically modified varieties, on the other hand, are seen as corporate intellectual property created with huge investments, where the return of investment is sought from fresh seed being sold by the company to the farmer for each planting. This is one of the most violently opposed aspects of GM crops, not just in developing economies like India but in developed economies such as the US as well.

I believe I’ve listed the major concerns of the anti-GM side of the debate above, with the rider that not everyone on the anti-GM side shares all the concerns equally.

Unfortunately, the debate is neither simple nor clear as emotions and stakes run high on both sides of the debate.

Pro-GM groups and individuals express the view that their opponents are stuck in the past and are standing the way of progress that is urgently needed to solve immediate human problems.

For one, proponents of genetic modification will point out that the humongous increase in human population needs new strains of crops that can grow more with fewer inputs in terms of water, fertilisers and pesticides. Without such crops, we run the risk of widespread food and water shortages around the world. ‘Green’ concerns may also be quoted in favour of GM crops. The argument is that using genetically modified crops would actually do less damage to the environment than conventional crops, for instance by needing lower doses of pesticide, or producing more crop from smaller patches of land.

Another concern quoted by the pro-GM group is that publicly funded organisations do not have the skills, the scale or the funding to undertake massive and rapid research for the breakthrough agricultural solutions needed in the short term, and that fundamental research needs to be carried out by commercial for-profit organisations. Obviously, as an outcome of that, the profit from the intellectual property needs to be protected such that it can provide adequate returns over a period of time.

For now, most governments (including in India) are playing it safe by maintaining the current status, and disallowing the introduction of GM crops, although there are opposing viewpoints even within each government.

As consumers, also, we could take the view, as many consumers are taking, that what exists (or what existed many years ago) is the best and safest option, since it is the most proven. We could give more muscle to producers and sellers of natural, organically grown varieties, by choosing to buy only such merchandise and rejecting GM foods completely.

I wish it was that simple.

I wish we could say that everything artificial is harmful and everything natural is beneficial. I wish we could blithely accepts labels such as ‘Franken-foods’ for genetically modified crops, treating them as a monster creation.

I wish we could say that one side or the other is adopting more robust scientific methods so that we can take clear and well-informed decisions.

As consumers, unfortunately for us, the truth is not so clear. There are pros and cons on both sides, which will get quoted in and out of context, to support different arguments, for and against genetic modifications.

More importantly, both for consumers and the industry, what is not clear is how complete separation of GM and non-GM products can be maintained. Once GM foods enter the supply chain, it is likely that they will mix with non-GM produce, whether at the farm, in storage or in processing. The current compliance standards in the global food sector offer no confidence that the non-GM and GM supply chains can be sealed off from each other and monitored separately, such that retailers and consumers can make their choice with complete confidence that they are buying what it says on the label.

In this case, more time, and a more robust and holistic investigation may be the only solution. The Environment Minister has asked us to ‘watch this space’.

Now what we end up with in terms of individual, social and economic health will depend on what kind of effort and intent goes into that space. Industry, consumers, scientists, farmers, and governments, all have a role to play in shaping that intent. We all choose whether we want the green organic genes – or the other kind, be they blue genes, purple or yellow.

Posted in COLUMN-Progressive Grocer, Corporate Social Responsibility, Food & Grocery, India, Retail, Strategy, Supply Chain, Uncategorized | No Comments »

Private Label Maturity Model

January 5th, 2010 by Devangshu Dutta

If we were to look at phrases that have cropped up during the recent recessionary times in the consumer goods sector, “private label” has to be among those at the top of the list.

From clothing to cereals, toothpaste to televisions, there is hardly a category that has not seen retailers trying their hand at creating own labelled products.

The first motivation for most retailers to move into private label is margin. On first analysis, it appears that the branded suppliers are making tons of extra money by being out there in front of the consumer with a specific named product. The retailer finds that creating an alternative product under its own label allows it to capture extra gross margin. Typically the product category picked at the earliest stage of private label development would be one for which several generic or commodity suppliers are available.

At this early stage, the retailer is aiming for a relatively predictable, stable-demand and easily available product whose sales would be driven by the footfall that is already attracted into the store. A powerful bait to attract the customer is the visible reduction in price, as compared to a similar branded product. If the product can be compared like-for-like, customers would certainly convert to private label over time.

However, maintaining prices lower than brands can also be counter-productive. In many products, while customers might not be able to discern any qualitative difference, they may suspect that they are not getting a product comparable to one from a national or international brand. And while private label can drive off-take, the price differential can also erode gross margin which was the reason that the retailer may have got into private label in the first place. Over time, such a strategy can prove difficult to sustain, as costs of developing, sourcing and managing private label products move up.

The other strong reason a retailer chooses to have private label is to create a product offering that is differentiated from competitors who also offer brands that are similar or identical to the ones offered by the retailer. Department stores, supermarkets and hypermarkets around the world have all tried this approach – some have been more successful than others. The idea is to provide a customer strong reasons to visit their particular store, rather than any of the comparable competitors.

Of course, when differentiation is the operating factor, the products need more insight and development, and closer handling by the retailer at all stages. A price-driven private label line may be sourced from generic suppliers, but that approach isn’t good enough for a line driven by a differentiation strategy. In this case, costs of product development and management increase for the retailer. However, to compensate, the discount from a comparable national brand is not as high as generic nascent private label. In fact, some retailers have taken their private label to compete head on with national brands – they treat their private labels as respectfully as a national branded supplier would treat its brand.

So what does it take to go from a “copycat” to being a real brand?

Third Eyesight has evolved a Private Label Maturity Model (see the accompanying graphic) that can help retailers think through their approach to private label, whether their product offering is dominated by private label, or whether they have only just begun considering the possibility of including private label in their product range. The model sketches out a maturity path on five parameters that are affected by or influence the strength of a retailer’s private label offering:

  • consumer knowledge and insight
  • product design and quality
  • pricing
  • promotion
  • supply chain & sourcing

Private Label Maturity Model - Third Eyesight

(Click here for a larger image)

In some cases, retailers may have multiple labels, some of which may be quite nascent while others might be highly evolved, clear and comparable to a national brand. This could be by default, because the labels have been launched at different times and have had more or less time to evolve. However, this can also be used as a conscious strategy to target various segments and competitive brands differently, depending on the strength of the competition and their relationship with the consumer.

The interesting thing is that size and scale do not offer any specific advantage to becoming a more sophisticated private label player. Some extremely large retailers continue to follow a discounted-price “me-too” private label strategy where even the packaging and colours of the product are copied from national brands, while much smaller players demonstrate capabilities to understand their specific consumers’ needs to design, source and promote proprietary products that compare with the best brands in the market.

For a moment, let’s also look at private labels from the suppliers’ point of view. As far as we can see, private label seems to be here to stay and grow. Suppliers can treat private labels as a threat, and figure out how to ensure that they retain a certain visibility and relationship with the consumer. On the other hand, interestingly, some suppliers are also looking at private label as an opportunity. They see the growth of private label as inevitable, and would much rather collaborate in the retailer’s private label development efforts. This way they can maintain some kind of influence on the product development, possibly avoid direct head-on conflict with their own star branded products and, if everything else fails, at least grab a share of the market that would have otherwise gone over to generic suppliers.

If you are retailer, I would suggest using the Private Label Maturity Model to clarify where you want to position yourself, and continue to use it as a guide as you develop and deliver your private label offering.

If you are a supplier concerned about private label, my suggestion would be to gauge how developed your customer is and is likely to become, and ensure that you are at least in step, if not a step ahead.

Of course, if you need support, we’ll only be too happy to help! (Contact Third Eyesight to discuss your private label needs.)

Posted in Apparel, Branding, COLUMN-Progressive Grocer, Food & Grocery, Footwear, India, Lifestyle & Fashion, Marketing, Product Development and Design, Retail, Soft Goods, Strategy, Supply Chain, Textiles, Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

Numbers and Stories

November 23rd, 2009 by Devangshu Dutta

Just after noon, on a weekday, I bumped into a family acquaintance at one of the more successful shopping malls in the city.

The question, “What are you doing here?” was underlined by a mildly accusatory look and the subtext, “Why are you spending a week-day shopping?”

My response that I was “working” wasn’t enough; the further explanation that I was doing “research” received a dismissive smirk and ended the conversation. The fact is that I was repeating the time-honoured ritual of RBWA (research by walking around), with its seemingly aimless strolling, sidelong glances, and possibly turning over a hundred items in a dozen shops without reaching for the wallet even once. This is a ritual that is not taught in our temples of management learning. In fact, it is one of the many tens of methodologies that seem to be missed out during the course of our formal education. And very often, what we do get taught is so remote and opaque to most people that they will promptly forget it the moment they walk out of the examination hall.

I was reminded of this walk-about incident during a conversation with two members of the faculty of a professional institute on the subject of research. Most of their students, I had observed, had a narrow interpretation of research – focussed only on consumers being interrogated through a questionnaire. The students were working from the guidance they had received during the previous semesters at the institute.

Unfortunately, the students are not alone – this is also how too many people identify research, including many executives in decision-making positions. I have been frequently puzzled by the confident (brash?) statement I have heard many times: “We don’t need research.” It is only when I probe further do I, and they, discover that while they perhaps don’t need consumer surveys, there are large gaps in their decision making toolkit which can only be filled by inputs from various other kinds of research.

Sometimes the roots of that statement lie in the perception of research as an impenetrable jungle in which it is easy to get lost but difficult to find something immediately useful. Researchers, like all other vocations, have their own professional shorthand (also known as “jargon”) which they sometimes use to identify their own kind, and perhaps sometimes to exclude people who are not from the trade. Very often this jungle is created by “research-as-a-foreign-language”, which many executives are just too apprehensive or too busy to tackle.

But before you pick up the axe and start cutting away at the creepers of bi-variate analysis, quota samples, correlation and projective techniques, let me give you my very simple definition of research which I like to keep in mind when I am asked the question: “Do we need research?”

To me, research is the discovery and collation of diverse pieces of information from various sources, so that it can be analysed using multiple tools, to discover relationships, patterns and directions that can be used to draw conclusions and take decisions.

There is a purpose for which we would discover or collate that information. There may be a set of questions that we need to answer. We need to understand what are the various places where that information may lie, the different forms it might take or the different ways in which we might need to look at the information before anything useful emerges.

And, in the business context (as in many other situations), research is meant to come up with something that is applicable and directly beneficial to the business. So once we’ve got most of the answers we were looking for, it is certainly useful to stop and apply the newly gained knowledge rather than try to refine and perfect it to the infinite degree.

If this definition of research frames the context well enough for you, then you’re on the way to doing and using research well.

Despite the wealth of information available today, far too many bad business decisions are being made in the absence of good information, either because the executives have not bothered to carry out research, or have not had the capability or the time to question the research which is being presented to them.

Worse – perhaps because of the abundant data and the ease of access to it – today many business decisions that turn bad are taken on the basis of information that is presented by someone else (“secondary research” in research language), without questioning the validity of the conclusions, the structure of the study, the context in which the data was analysed. It’s almost as if we couldn’t be bothered to think, because someone has apparently already done the thinking for us – especially if it comes from a “reputable source”. (Ok, that might be smart sometimes. So let me give you a more graphic analogy – could you think of an adult bird regurgitating pre-digested food to feed the chicks? Hmm, not so pleasant an image after all, is it?)

Also, research (especially the number-oriented kind) seems too dry for most people to take in. And I think that is one place market researchers could do themselves a huge benefit if they could tell the story – especially a story with a moral at the end. That is, create the picture for the user as to what all of that information means in simple language, and also show the user how to use the information in the context of his situation or problem. Bedtime stories during childhood and good movies in adulthood work well because there is a coherent narrative, a start, a middle that is interesting and an ending that stays in the mind. You can see the relationships between the characters, and the consequences of those relationships. A good research project report could be seen as something very similar.

Having said that, of course, there are also some researchers go far beyond, who would never let boring facts get in the way of a good story! Apparently a letter to the editor of the National Observer (London) as far back as 1891 complained: “there are three kinds of falsehood: the first is a ‘fib,’ the second is a downright lie, and the third and most aggravated is statistics.” (Mark Twain famously paraphrased this in his autobiography as “lies, damned lies and statistics”.)

How many stores can you think of which are located at sites where their chances of success are exactly the same as that of a snowball in hell? How many products or brand launches come to mind, where you wondered, “what is this company thinking?!” Of course, there would have been pre-launch studies which would have showed just how successful these would be, where the stories were possibly based more on imagination than on facts.

For a decision-maker, the only way to tell the difference between bad statistics (lies) and the true story of the market is to make sure that he or she is equipped with multiple sources of information, and various tools with which to analyse them. Also, if you recall my earlier definition of research, the starting point was the definition of the objectives which a research is supposed to fulfil – if the objectives are vague or undefined, so will the research outputs be.

Numbers (quantitative research) and narrative (qualitative research) can tell us many wonderful stories about the market. Some of those stories are highly imaginative “fairy tales” because of a bad study – that shouldn’t lead us to ignore all the others which can direct us to our objectives.

Posted in Apparel, COLUMN-Progressive Grocer, Consumer, Food & Grocery, Footwear, India, Lifestyle & Fashion, Market Research, Marketing, Retail, Soft Goods, Strategy, Textiles, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Retreating Retailers, Crumbling BRICs?

October 23rd, 2009 by Devangshu Dutta

Trade, of course, has been global for millennia, so it seemed hardly unusual for retailers in the US, and in Europe to begin sourcing from distant countries in Asia where certain items were more readily available or significantly cheaper. Imports have also been encouraged as a political and developmental vehicle to aid friendly countries.

So, on the sourcing-end, large retailers have been comfortably operating beyond international borders for several decades even while the stores-end of their business was entirely domestic.

For most large modern retailers however, after the post-Second World War economic boom their core markets have grown relatively slowly (and rather predictably). While the sheer size of the US market kept American retailers busy domestically, planning and legal restrictions in terms of store size, locations, market share etc. limited manoeuvrability for retailers in Europe.

Among the current major retailers, the early retail explorer, Carrefour set out into neighbouring Spain in 1973 and then into distant Brazil in 1975. Soon after, Dutch retailer Ahold landed in the USA in 1977.

However, it took the opening up of East European economies in the 1990s to really prime the pump for growth of international retail. Suddenly, many more millions of consumers became available to European retailers close to their existing markets – both geographically and culturally – and western European retailers jumped at the opportunity.

At the same time, China seemed to have become steadily more open over the previous decade and in the early-1990s India looked accessible again. Some of the Latin American markets were also steaming up.

And, obviously, the prospect of 3-4 billion new consumers in emerging or developing markets was clearly not going to be ignored. In 2001, post dot-com, another inspiring idea hit the business world that was desperately looking for hope – the golden BRICs – the four countries focussed upon by Goldman Sachs as the biggest economies of the future: Brazil, Russia, India and China.

As incomes grew in these “developing” or “emerging markets”, the hypothesis was that consumer would want products and services similar to those in the more developed markets, creating the opportunity for retailers to cross borders. In the last 15 years or so, retail internationalization (and gradually “globalization”) has become an increasingly acceptable theme – in conceptual thinking, in retail boardrooms, in white papers, and finally in trade and mainstream media. The world has witnessed a network of retail subsidiaries, joint-ventures, franchise and other relationships spreading across continents.

Certainly, through the 1990s and 2000s, growing tele-connectivity, fashion, portable TV programming concepts, movies and print media seemed to give the impression that consumers around the world are becoming more similar, and can be reached by common formats and brands. Led by the FMCG companies on the one hand and fashion brands on the other, insights, concepts, products, formats, advertising campaigns are routinely extended across countries. (Unilever’s TV commercial for Close-Up in West Asia is a great example of this – an Anglo-Dutch company’s international brand of toothpaste, Indian models in Thailand, an Arabic voiceover and a Hindi song (“Paas Aao” – “Come Closer”) by Sona Mohapatra – surely you don’t get more global than that?)

But wait! Is the picture really as clear as that?

In 2006 Wal-Mart pulled the plug on its €2 billion German business that was a combination of German chains that it had acquired. In Russia it still has only a development presence since 2005, though it is reported to be looking at opening 10-15 stores in the following three years. According to Newsweek, Wal-Mart’s 13 year old Chinese business – even after an acquisition that is still to be approved – will have fewer stores than it would have opened in the US just in 2009. In the past it has struggled in Japan and Brazil.

In June 2009, Carrefour opened its first 86,000 sq. ft. hypermarket in Moscow, and a second one soon after that. In September, the company affirmed that the BRIC markets were its highest priority for international growth. However, in October it announced that it was pulling out of Russia. Within 4 months of the first store, Russia has gone from a market with “outstanding long term potential” to being a market to exit. In previous years the company has moved out of Japan, South Korea and Mexico. The Economist reports that significant Carrefour’s shareholders are forcing it to look at selling its Chinese business as well – obviously a move that would be politically very sensitive in China. The same shareholders are also reported to be urging a sale of its Latin American business. For now, the official statement from the company maintains an ongoing interest in all these markets.

Ikea has decided to freeze further investments in Russia, and has decided not to enter India until the Indian government allows 100 per cent foreign ownership of retail operations. It entered China in 1998, and has only 7 stores so far.

Even as Carrefour and Ikea announce plans to pull out of Russia, Russian retailers have pulled out from Ukraine, while Metro is cautious in its outlook about that country. French retailer Auchan has opened three stores in Ukraine since 2007, while the German retailer Rewe has opened all of nine since 2000.

Could the juggernaut of global retail be slowing, stopping or even – shock! – reversing? Are the BRICs and emerging markets falling out of favour?

Before we jump to conclusions, as they say in the television world: please don’t adjust your sets. As the French author Karr wrote: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (the more things change, the more they are the same).

It is a fact that, no matter how international or global a company becomes, when it gets to the business of retail, it needs to be intensely local. While elements of the business – concepts, products, people, money – can travel across borders, it is extremely difficult to take across an intact retail mix and expect to address a significant portion of the population in the new country. And given how important scale is to mass retailers, lack of localization would be a significant hurdle.

A company sourcing products from a developing country can fully expect his suppliers to adapt to his practices and customs. On the other hand, the same company entering that country as a retailer needs to do exactly that – adapt to the customers – rather than expecting them to fall in line because the “best practice” manual dictates certain processes or because central merchandising found some deals that were great for the home market which are totally irrelevant in the new market.

However, there are encouraging signs that retailers looking to grow internationally understand this more and more. Tesco, for one, has been following a localized approach in Thailand and South Korea, while Carrefour, Ikea, Wal-Mart have all steadily modified their approach in China and other markets. Wal-Mart’s cautious steps in India, including the stores opened by its joint-venture partner Bharti, are a complete contrast to the aggressive “plans” that were being reported in the press 2006-onwards. Recently Wal-Mart’s international chief C. Douglas McMillon was quoted by BusinessWeek as saying “we know you can’t run the world from one place”.

For the larger international retailers this means that, the benefits from international scale would be limited by the amount of localization that they carry out in their operations. For smaller and local competitors that are based in an emerging market this means a fighting chance to remain in business and even remain market leaders.

Lastly, as far as all the dark clouds gathered over international retailing and all the retreats being announced – stay tuned – this weather will change, too.

Posted in Apparel, Branding, COLUMN-Progressive Grocer, Consumer, Food & Grocery, Footwear, India, Lifestyle & Fashion, Marketing, Retail, Soft Goods, Strategy, Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

Organic Truth – Facts and Interpretations

August 18th, 2009 by Devangshu Dutta

Four months ago in this column (“Organic – Hope or Hype?”) I wrote about the need for customers to make themselves aware of the true nature of organic products, and it is time to reopen that discussion.

Food is an emotive subject with us as consumers, food distribution and retail is big business with us as the trade, and agriculture is a sensitive area of governance.

On top of that, studies are seldom exhaustive enough in terms of sampling, duration of the study, establishment of controls etc., and for every study that proves the superiority of organics, you will be able to find counter-studies and opposing arguments.

In recent years brands have tended to make much of their organic certification. Marketers are known for overstatement anyway, and the promotional language used by some implies (or even explicitly states) that these products are superior to other alternatives. Surely, then, the consumer should be willing to pay higher prices for these “better” products?

If only, if only, facts were that straightforward.

In the earlier column I’d written: “We expect organic products to contain more nutrition and be better for our bodies. While this may be true of organic animal products compared to their inorganic counterparts, it has not been demonstrated for plant products, other than anecdotal experience of taste and appearance.” I had also raised the question: if organic foods are no better nutritionally than inorganic and could be as productive for the farmer, are many of the organic brands just skimming the gullible customer while the going is good?

Well, the debate just got messier. Recently a study sponsored by Britain’s Food Standards Agency last month (July 2009) really set the cat among the pigeons. The report was based on review of existing research papers to find out if organic products were nutritionally superior to inorganic products. And their conclusion was that the studies reviewed did not provide enough evidence that organic food is more nutritious.

Well, what the report really said was that on the basis of the limited number of studies that were deemed to be rigorous enough, there was not enough evidence to prove that organic food is more nutritious.

Okay.

Imagine an examiner saying that he does not have enough evidence to prove that a student who has passed did not cheat. Notice, he is not saying that the student actually cheated. But wouldn’t this statement alone raise suspicion in your mind about the student’s integrity?

Unfortunately, newspapers and electronic media sell headlines, and headlines need to be short and snappy. Here are a couple of examples about this study.

  • Organic ‘has no health benefits’ (BBC)
  • The benefits of “bio” in question (Le Figaro)

These clearly raise questions about any benefit at all from organics.

In the noise, the disclaimers by the team that prepared the report seem to have been ignored. For instance, this one: “It should be noted that this conclusion relates to the evidence base currently available on the nutrient content of foodstuffs, which contains limitations in the design and in the comparability of studies.” The report also states: “This review does not address contaminant content (such as herbicide, pesticide and fungicide residues) of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs, or the environmental impacts of organic and conventional agricultural practices.”

Like any good research report, it admits that “it is important to recognise the potential limitations of the review process”. And the final line in the Conclusion section of the detailed report says: “Examination of this scattered evidence indicates a need for further high-quality research in this field.”

As a reader or TV viewer, how many of us would be motivated to go to the original source and read these disclaimers as well?

Promoters of organic farming, such as Britain’s Soil Association, of course, have trashed the study saying that it is too narrow having excluded most of the available research papers since they did not meet the review standards, and that it ignored the biggest long-term health impact – that of pesticides and other chemicals used in inorganic produce.

Their opponents, in turn have trashed defendants of organic farming by calling them unscientific and narrow-minded in their own right. They point out that high-output inorganic farming is far more useful to serving the exploding human population, than low-intensity organic farming.

One of the readers of the British newspaper Daily Mail was emphatic that she didn’t “eat organic stuff to get extra nutrition”, but was “happy to pay more to be free from additives”. Certainly that is a significant benefit that motivates most people who are well into organic products. In an unusual open letter, the Chief Executive of the Food Standards Agency clarified: “Pesticides were specifically excluded from the scope of this work. This is because our position on the safety of pesticides is already clear: pesticides are rigorously assessed and their residues are closely monitored. Because of this the use of pesticides in either organic or conventional food production does not pose an unacceptable risk to human health and helps to ensure a plentiful supply of food all year round.”

The other motivation for organics is our attitude towards the environment, which can either benefit us over the longer term or, if we are irresponsible, it could accumulate toxins which only show their impact over decades and generations. But, let’s be honest, are most consumers likely to buy products because of some distant benefit to the environment, or products that benefit themselves immediately?

Possibly the answer lies in the organic sector cleaning up its message.

Are consumers any wiser after this study and the debate? I’m not sure. For now, my take on this issue remains: be aware and make up your own mind about what you want to ingest, because this debate isn’t over yet.

Posted in COLUMN-Progressive Grocer, Food & Grocery, Marketing, Supply Chain, Uncategorized | No Comments »

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