Guess who was the host country at Biofach this year?
Yep it was the Dutch. They put quite a lot into their show – building this dome (the largest I have seen - Eden Project excepted) as a ‘chill out’ space (though those weren’t the words they used).
They enticed their ‘Agricultural Minister’ to stay for two days. I put Agriculture Minister’ in quotation marks as the
doesn’t (at least the
time I last looked) have a dedicated Ministry of Agriculture. It was subsumed into the Ministry of Economic
Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation some five years ago. It might possibly be
the only country in the world (some city and Netherlands excluded) that doesn’t have a dedicated
ministry of agriculture. gulf states
The last thing I did at Biofach, after all the meetings and seminars, was to pass by the novelty display – the area where all the new products are displayed. It’s the first (or last) stand you see if you go in or out through the man entrance. And that says a lot about the importance given to product development and innovation by the BioFach team. I rarely get passionate about new products. In fact that’s an overstatement – they usually singularly fail to excite me: aren’t there enough artefacts and products in the world already?
It was a thought provoking experience. I have always felt uncomfortable with the emphasis on commercialism and product development at BioFach. To me the organic movement –has (historically at least) always had simplicity and scaling back as implicit - if not core - values. I find it strange – and some what distasteful - to see it caught up in this Darwinian adventure of varietal destruction. Schumpeter terms it creative destruction; the process by which a capitalist market economy reshapes and refines the products and services it provides. I had real problems when I first exposed to this first few times (the first was fifteen years ago) I went to BioFach. I came into organics through the world of wholefood shops and brown rice and would have thought of the product range available now as a betrayal of ‘core principles’. But in that intervening period organic market share (in the EU) has gone up from less than 0.5% to more than 5% - that’s a huge growth and has involved a large amount of ‘mainstreaming’ without compromising on core values. Mostly I think the balance has been achieved. There are now organic supermarkets in most large (and some small) towns and cities in mainland Europe (a phenomenon that one speaker pointed out has not yet taken off in the UK and is a potential market opportunity) and a range of outlets from farmer’s markets and delivery schemes for the dedicated consumer to supermarkets to the occasional or time-pressed organic consumer.
But back to product development: there were 7055 new organic products on display at Biofach this year. I didn’t count them all: they were numbered sequentially. They ranged from cheeses to chutneys; sauces to oat bars to a vac-packed fresh pasta with pipe holes at the bottom that allows the user to serve ‘fresh pasta’ at home – straight out of the fridge. I’ll say that again: that’s 7055 new products from the organic sector. Given that the organic sector accounts for about 5% of the European food market (and most of the innovations were food) that suggests that there might be 140,000 new food products launched onto the market every year (perhaps a bit less given that the organic sector is more innovative and buoyant than the conventional ones). I don’t know if they all been launched or if some are just prototypes. How many will survive or succeed? Underneath this it’s interesting to conjecture how many people have been involved in developing them: how many peoples hopes and dreams resting on gaining success, recognition or even sales order from this one competition?
One of the projects I work with had a partner who exhibited a new line in this competition (a line of pure berry extracts). Though they didn’t win a prize they did get much recognition and commercial interest and were ‘chuffed’. I am sure that if I came up with a new recipe or processing idea that I wanted to commercialise then I would eat my words about my apparent distaste for innovation. But its not innovation as such that I am uncomfortable with but with the overwhelming emphasis that is placed upon it – as illustrated by the Dutch Ministry’s choice of name. Yes there is role for innovation but it seems that other values get lost in the rush for something new and better.
On the journey home I had much time to digest the latest (now in its 16th edition) version of the World of Organic Agriculture. Helga Willer and team at FiBL and IFOAM have once again done a wonderful job tracking the changes in organic land – under different regimes of cultivation and consumption – combining detailed statistics with snapshots of the most interesting developments. Its not easy counting (or estimating the number of organic producers / hectares in Say
– where government statistics of any sort are in short supply. We’re now up to
11 countries in the world with than 10% of their land certified organic – a sort
of psychological breakthrough when claiming that that organic is no longer
marginal. And while some of those countries
are micro-states or very small – they do also include Mali Sweden, Italy
and the .
Well done to Helga and her team at FiBL
and IFOAM for publishing another excellent and as ever better informed book
(which is also available online). Czech Republic