Monday, April 15, 2013

Will Having Unified Organic Labeling Make Africa's Agriculture More Profitable?

The world’s leading nations are profiting from myriads of trade protectionism and marketing communication initiatives that dispose agricultural and agro-industrial produce to profitable returns. Is the African continent ready to learn or at least adapt some of such initiatives with potentials for positively impacting the socio-economic circumstances of its people?

For some time now, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Economy (DREA) of the African Union Commission has identified and has been holding consultations across the continent over one of those protectionist initiatives - Geographic Indications (GIs) which if well-articulated and exploited, would offer some elixir to the continent’s theming resource poor agricultural populace are largely peasant farmers.

Geographical Indications (GI)are signs or names conferred on products emanating from specific geographic regions or origins - e.g. a town, region, or country certifying or giving assurance that the products possess characteristics or have reputation of possessing qualities, made in consonance with the traditional skills peculiar to the geographic areas.

The DREA, African Union and the Legal experts - resource persons also explain Geographic Indications (GIs) as signs that attest that goods emanate from a geographical area and do possess characteristics, reputation or qualities that are specific to geographic regions.

GIs are aimed at conferring proprietary rights to communities that produce or add value to produce or products that are peculiar to their terrains. Much like trademarks and patents over industrial goods or technologies, GIs intend to win ownership rights for communities over their ancestral or traditional produce, skills, products and technologies that have been associated with their geographical regions.
Geographic Indications become necessary where over time, a product made in a specific place earn a unique reputation - often due to special characteristics present in the place: its people, its climate and its landscape.

Since the turn of the century, futuristic nations have been employing trade names and trademarks for identifying food products associated with particular regions, employing laws to forestall false claims or passing off, generally protecting against suggestions that a product has a certain origin, quality or association when indeed they do not. Willy-nilly, such curtailment of competitive freedoms does facilitate monopolistic employment of geographical indication which yield good dividend and consumer or producer protection.

The French are behind appellation d'originecontrôlée (AOC - Apellation of Origin), one of the first GI systems. The government issued stamps, which represented official endorsement or certification of the standard and origin of the product of the consumer. Many French wines and Gruyère cheese (from Switzerland) have such appellations.

Similarly, the European Commission has three schemes: 
 PDO - (protected designation of origin), 
PGI - (protected geographical indication) and 
TSG - (traditional speciality guaranteed) which promote and protect names of quality agricultural products and foodstuffs.

Through the schemes, the European Commission encourages diverse agricultural production, protection of product names from misuse and imitation and help consumers by giving them information concerning the specific character of the products.

According to the European Commission: 
PDO - covers agricultural products and foodstuffs which are produced, processed and prepared in a given geographical area using recognised know-how.
PGI - covers agricultural products and foodstuffs closely linked to the geographical area. At least one of the stages of production, processing or preparation takes place in the area.
TSG - highlights traditional character, either in the composition or means of production

Should Africa get its acts together, the continent with untold agricultural resources and processing technologies is eminently positioned to benefit from conferring  Geographic Indications on some agro-produce that are home to its peculiar endowments of soil and climatic conditions.

Commencing with a thorough grasps of GIs and implications for agro- industrial development in the continent, the DREA has strategized sub-regional enlightenment with conferences held in Abuja, Nigeria and Johannesburg, South Africa. The consultations which started two years ago, often involves academicians, legal, agro and allied experts, dissecting the issues and strategizing initiatives that would enable optimal realizations from the enormous products that deserve GI in the African continent.

Early March, it was the turn of the South African Development Community (SADC), the  consultation on Geographic Indications held at the Pan African Parliament, Midrand, Johannesburg,  in the South African rich Gauteng region. In attendance were participants from the sub- region viz Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Tanzania, Malawi and of course the host nation, South Africa. There were also on hand participants from Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya as resource persons or carefully selected to foster regional cross referencing. They were specialists in agriculture, organic agriculture, law, the media and government.     

There are enormous potentials in Geographic Indications to positively impact the agro industrial economies of beleaguered African nations if well exploited. GIs would enable the development of several farming communities as recognition and protection on the markets of the names of these products would encourage the community of producers to invest in maintaining the specific qualities of the product on which the reputation is built. After developing the technologies of production, there can be wholesome development of markets, employing tools of marketing communication to develop several brands while promoting the reputation of the products

Geographical Indications would also facilitate the structuring of the supply chains around products which have won such renown, translating to much-needed economic enhancement for African farmers and agro-allied industries.

The potentials are enormous, a product having won renown can be so developed that it would engage streams of idle hands, allow for out grower schemes as is visible in the Nigerian tobacco industry, have a chain of services as industrial production chains, logistics support at the local and international levels, national socio – economic, preservation of the natural resources on which the product is based, agro or eco-tourism, preservation of traditions and traditional technological know-how.

Lofty as the potentials in GIs are, much wouldn’t be realizable where nations states become slip-shod in galvanizing resources towards the attainment of GIs for products and services or backing them it with political and economic will, ensuring compliance with the process of developing the geographical indications (GI), adherenceto Codes of Practice, a philosophy of engaging and enlightening industry players and quality marketing initiatives.

Expectedly, the relatively advanced nations of the globe are reaping fortunes through Geographic Indications. Through strategic protectionism, engagement of marketing communication tools and positioning in the minds of consumers, European farmers are making fortunes from the likes of Parma ham, Roquefort Cheese, Scotch whiskeys. Americanpomologists and agronomists have been reaping fortunes from Florida oranges and Idaho potatoes respectively. In the food and drinks sector there are fruits and vegetables, wines, cheeses and cured meats: Champagne; Chedder and Tipperary turnips. Manufacturers in Europe, Asia and the US are profiting much from reputations built over the ages think Persian carpets, Murano glass, Toledo steel and Japanese electronics.

Importantly, through global, regional, bi- lateral or multi-lateral agreements, nations protect consumers, ensuring that they access the true qualities they demand, thus saving their farmers and industries from competition and keeping them in business and having their economies running.

There appears to be a ray of hope on the continent though. At least one nation seems to have woken to the realisation and that is Ethiopia. The well documented handling of Ethiopian coffee by the Ethiopian government may facilitate an appreciation of the viability of GIs and trademarks. An estimated 15 million people are directly or indirectly involved in the Ethiopian coffee industry with Ethiopian coffee alone generating about 60 per cent of the country’s total export earnings. The nation enjoys a strong reputation for its heritage coffees which command a very high retail price in the international market. Ethiopia is also the origin of some of the world’s finest coffees - Harrar, Sidamo and Yirgacheffee. These coffees have unique flavors and aroma that distinguish them from coffees of other countries and even other coffees within the country.

Despite the reputation of and Ethiopian heritage of the coffees, it is claimed that barely 5 to 10 per cent of the retail price actually goes back to the Ethiopian nation; most of the profit shared by distributors and middlemen in the marketing sector. Odd too, while a cup of these high priced coffees would sell for as much as US$ 4 in advanced nations, the poor Ethiopia grower earns less than a dollar a day.

These led to farmers abandoning coffee production due to low returns and engaged in growing more profitable narcotic plants. The Ethiopian government turned the tide by strategizing through intellectual property rights to differentiate their coffee in the market place and achieve higher returns. Through the Ethiopian Coffee Trademarking and Licensing Initiative, the Ethiopian Fine Coffee Stakeholder Committee comprising a consortium of comprising cooperatives, private exporters and the Ethiopian Intellectual Property Office (EIPO) as well as other concerned government bodies committed the nation to protecting its commercial origin through registering trademarks, steps that avoid the complexities in GIs .

This granted the government of Ethiopia the legal right to exploit, license and use the trademarked names in relation to coffee goods to the exclusion of all other traders. Unlike a GI, a trademark registration does not require a specific coffee to be produced in a specific region or have a particular quality in connection with that region. Using trademark registrations, the government of Ethiopia then produce greater quantities of specialty coffees from all over the country.

Now, producers outside the Sidamo region could grow Sidamo coffee, without necessarily having the characteristics unique to the Sidamo region. The Stakeholder Committee opted for the trademark-based solution, with the Ethiopian government as the owner of these marks. This strategy gave the Ethiopian government greater and more effective control over the distribution of its product, which ultimately increases revenue by exporting more goods, enabling a rise in prices and benefits to farmers.

What need border the African continent is the reality that there is continuous erosion of resources owing to inability to maximize or optimize potentials. Undoubtedly, more can be gained from putting some indication on a vast range of produce of the continent and employing the tools of marketing communication to draw gains from these produce. To drive the point home, imagine what losses the economy of a State like Kenya would have incurred if it hadn't showcased and built its economy on tourism and conservation of wildlife?

Africa for now is lacking compelling laws that control or protect its resources that necessitate Geographic Indication. There is the painful reality of absence or abysmal cohesion of efforts to reverse the ill-tide in the interest of millions of challenged farmers across the continent. What is needed is a development of strategies to stem further erosion of the rich array of agricultural products, handicrafts, foodstuffs, traditions and knowledge passed on over generations that are domiciled in the continent

Good enough, the Department of Rural Economy and Agriculture, African Union  is taking great strides at raising a crop of stakeholders that hopefully would develop strategies for wining for the continent, grounds lost by inertia and uncoordinated approaches towards GIs for agricultural goods. - Niyi Egbe, This Day Live

Has The National Organic Safety Board Restricted Use Of Antibiotics On Apples and Pears?

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) rejected a petition to extend the expiration date for the use of oxytetracycline to treat fire blight in apple and pear production beyond October 21, 2014. The decision is a victory for the organic standard and advances efforts to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics.

The vote came after a long and controversial debate because some apple and pear growers do not believe they have adequate alternatives to antibiotics. Consumer and environmental advocates urged them to end the use of tetracycline as soon as possible in order to meet consumer expectations and to respond to mounting evidence that antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a serious threat to public health. Antibiotics are not allowed in any other types of organic food, including production of organic livestock.

We applaud the Board for making the right decision to end the use of this antibiotic as soon as possible and we believe this timeline for ending the use of tetracycline is consistent with consumer expectations. This decision will drive the organic apple and pear market to a higher standard. 

We urge the USDA to help growers continue to find workable alternative treatments for fire blight that are compatible with organic production. The Board passed a resolution to encourage the USDA to investigate a transitional option for the emergency use of tetracycline until 2017. The agency must guarantee that any emergency use is extremely limited, ends as soon as possible and, most importantly, apples and pears from treated trees cannot be sold as organic. - Center For Food Safety 

Consumers Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports, Food & Water Watch, and the Center for Food Safety are urging the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to discontinue the use of antibiotics in organic apple and pear production, citing the potential undermining of the integrity of the organic label and threats to public health and consumer expectations. The NOSB—which meets in Portland, Oregon, this week and will vote on a petition to extend the use of oxytetracyline beyond the existing expiration date of October 21, 2014.

New data from a poll commissioned by Consumer Reports confirms that most consumers do not know that the USDA organic label can be found on foods produced with antibiotics and don’t believe they should be allowed to carry that label if antibiotics were used. Specifically:

When asked whether antibiotics are used to treat disease in apple and pear trees, two-thirds (68 percent) of people said they don’t know, 17 percent said they don’t think they are, and 15 percent said that antibiotics are used.

When told that apple and pear trees can be sprayed with antibiotics to treat disease and then asked whether fruit from these trees should be allowed to have an “organic” label, more than half--54 percent--said they don’t think they should be labeled as organic. Only 11 percent of thought they should be labeled as organic, and slightly more than one-third (35 percent) answered that they don’t know if they should be labeled organic.

Some organic apple and pear producers use oxytetracycline and another antibiotic, streptomycin, to manage a disease called fire blight. Antibiotics are not allowed in other types of organic food, including production of organic livestock.

The groups submitted over 35,000 public comments to the NOSB in advance of their meeting, raising concerns about consumer expectations and the mounting evidence that the public health threat posed by antibiotic resistant bacteria make it critical that all uses of antibiotics in food production be minimized.

The use of antibiotics is allowed for organic apple and pear production through a petition process to the NOSB, which has already extended the deadlines for this loophole to close several times since the organic label was implemented in 2002. Despite these extensions, there has been limited help for apple and pear growers to find alternative treatments for fire blight, although some alternatives do exist.

For example, U.S. farmers do not apply antibiotics to the organic apples and pears they sell to Europe, where the use of antibiotics is not allowed. The groups urge the USDA to work with the organic apple and pear industry to incentivize viable alternatives for producers and uphold the integrity of the organic label by rejecting the petition to extend the expiration date for oxytetracycline. - Center Food Food Safety

Has Costa Rica And Canada Agreed To Trade More Organic Produce?

Costa Rican organic producers will have increased opportunities to export their products to Canada following an arrangement reached between officials from the two governments.

A press release sent Friday by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency states the Canada-Costa Rica Organic Equivalency Arrangement is "the outcome of an extensive analysis of both countries' production and certification systems.”

The agreement will allow for easier import and export of certified organic products between the two nations without the need for additional certification, thus reducing costs and red tape for the industry.

"This arrangement with Costa Rica eliminates trade barriers to give organic producers a competitive edge," said Canada's Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz. "Canadian consumers will also benefit by having increased access to organic food options."

Costa Rica and Canada have had a free trade agreement since 2002, and it was updated last September. According Costa Rican Foreign Trade Ministry data, total trade between the countries has increased from $102 million in 2002 to $273 million in 2011, a cumulative increase of 168 percent. - Canadian Food Inspection Agency 

Do The Majority Of American Consumer See Organic Labeling As An Excuse To Increase Prices?

Does an uptick in the economy give people more reason to care about Mother Earth? That is what a March 2013 Harris Poll of 2,276 U.S. adults (ages 18+) interviewed online set to find out as Earth Day quickly approaches (full findings and data tables available here). Turns out that concern for the current state, and future, of the environment is on the rise in 2013 (38 percent vs. 31 percent in 2012), just as economic indicators point to all time stock market highs and a solid housing market recovery. However, as Americans start to feel better about reaching into their pockets, they still may not be ready to dish out the extra green on organic items. Turns out that more than half (59%) agree that labeling food or other products as organic is just an excuse to charge more.

"What surprised us most was that while Americans are showing more concern for the environment, they aren't necessarily willing to pay more to do anything about it," said Mike de Vere , President of the Harris Poll. "While Americans feel better about the economy, many are wary of the 'greenwashing' concept that gives companies a chance to cash in on consumers who want to help the planet but are confused by all the eco-friendly jargon."    

Fact vs. Fiction
Going green continues to be a gray area, as consumers try to decide where it makes sense to incorporate it into their lives. While recent research shows that organic produce and meat typically aren't any better for you than conventional varieties when it comes to vitamin and nutrient content1, more than half of Americans 

  • (55%) believe that organic foods are healthier than non-organic. In addition:
  • 41% think organic food tastes better and/or fresher than non-organic   
  • Only 23% know what the term "dirty dozen" (The Environmental Working Group's annual list of foods consumers should always buy organic due to pesticide levels) means in regards to organic food
  • 48% think washing dishes by hand is more environmentally friendly than using the dishwasher, though a study from Scientists at the University of Bonn in Germany found that the dishwasher uses only half the energy, one-sixth of the water, and less soap than hand-washing an identical set of dirty dishes.

Is it Easy Being Green?
Americans are divided on how easy, or not so easy, it is to live a more environmentally conscious lifestyle, with nearly equal percentages of U.S. adults perceiving it as difficult (49%) and easy (47%). When asked about sentiments towards going green, respondents indicated the following:

  • Eight in ten Americans (80%) say they will seek out green products, but only three in ten (30%) are willing to pay extra for them.
  • 60% of Americans prefer to use environmentally friendly cleaning supplies because of the chemicals contained in traditional cleaning products.
  • As noted, the majority of Americans agree that labeling food or other products "organic" is just an excuse to charge more (59%). 
  • Men are the most skeptical about organic, with 63% agreeing that the labeling of food or other products as organic is an excuse to charge more, versus 54% of women.
Overall, efforts to be green seem to have leveled off, with nearly two-thirds (63%) making the same amount of effort to be environmentally conscious as a year ago, up considerably from 2009 (51%). - Harris Interactive, PR Newswire 

Has The Organic Food Movement Increased Attention To Food Packaging?

Call it “greenwrapping.” From popcorn to peanut butter, from tuna to tea, the fancy food biz is increasingly looking to sustainable packaging to attract green-conscious consumers. Organic ingredients are no longer sufficient for green cred. What’s outside the product is starting to matter as much as what’s inside.

Tuna has made headlines in years past as a controversial catch, but now it’s the cans that are cause for conservationist’s contemplation. Metal cans use up more raw material than plastic pouches do, and they require more energy to transport. Now, Sea Fare Pacific is bucking tradition by packing wild-caught fish in sleek eco-friendly, BPA-free  pouches.

Popcorn bags may seem inconspicuous enough, but they’re increasingly drawing scrutiny. It turns out that many commercial microwave popcorn bags are lined with PFOA, which the FDA labels a toxin. Other sketchy stuff in the bags ranges from plastics to Teflon, not to mention artificial butter substitutes. Into the breach Quinn Popcorn arrived with a Kickstarter campaign and plans to clean up the much-beloved snack.

Here’s how the Quinn founders’ site describes their mission: “First, we tackled the bag. Gone are the chemical coatings (PFOA, PFCs, Poly, etc.). We even pulled out the susceptor (gray metal/plastic patch). What’s left is a bag that’s made from paper and paper alone. Well, it is special paper that is pressed to make it grease proof. That wasn’t easy to figure out. Did we mention, it’s even compostable?”

Bags are bound for even more change. Pipcorn of Brooklyn is another new-style popcorn company selling mini popcorn made from hull-less kernels. It comes in hand-stamped, simple paper bags.

Even tea packaging can be greened-up. Numi now packs organic tea in biodegradable filter paper. And wine bottlers have gotten into the green game, too. Alternative Organic Wine commissioned a super-green wine bottle from The Creative Method, an Australian design firm. The resulting package — which won a 2012 design award from The Dieline, a leading package-design blog was organic from head to foot. It included balsa wood, organic string and wax, and even organic inks for the bottle’s images.

Creative packaging comes in myriad shapes and sizes. Morning Ritual packs its organic strained yogurt with a bamboo bowl and spoon set, while peanut butter up-and-comer Justin’s uses already-recycled plastic for its jars.

Sustainability-conscious retailers looking to deliver fresh goods outside of their local markets face another challenge: how to ship temperature-sensitive materials without compromising their green ethos. Thermopod offers a solution in the form of biodegradable, temperature-controlled packaging made of recycled textile fibers. Thermopods come in crates and envelopes of varying sizes designed to protect everything from organic foods to chilled wine.

For organic food purveyors already focused on premium consumers with a discerning eye for sustainability, the recent wave of greenwrapping is just the start. A survey last summer by research and consulting firm EcoFocus found that more than two thirds of those who shop for natural and organic foods consider it important to choose foods packaged responsibly. Whatever they’re buying, they want it green.

More from UPS:
  • A Supply Chain for Temperature-Sensitive Pharmaceuticals Starts with Logistics
  • Sustainability: Packaging Matters
  • Sustainability Is a Key to Long-Term Success - Jeremy Caplan, Forbes