Plant-based and organic: natural allies!

Denmark’s Parliament just voted unanimously for a new Fund for Plant-based Foods. Over 90 millon Euros will support farmers and food companies in developing new plant-based foods and encouraging consumers to shift to a more plant-based diet. And in a big win for sustainability, at least 50 percent of all funds must go to ORGANIC plant-based initiatives. Because it matters how those plants in plant-based have been grown! It matters for climate, biodiversity, soil, drinking water quality and health.

The Fund is part of Denmark’s Climate Strategy for Agriculture, that also includes a goal of doubling the organic farm area and reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from farming by 55-65% in 2030.

The plant-based + organic agenda is a powerful sustainability package. It requires real solidarity and collaboration between plant-based and organic organizations on a more plant-based, organic future. Such an alliance has worked in Denmark and has gained support from 7 leading green organizations and now from a broad political spectrum.

It didn’t happen on its own.

The Danish Vegetarian Society has built promotion of organic into its articles of association and daily work. Many plant-based associations around the world could learn from this. Too many strategies from plant-based organizations make no mention of how their plants are produced.

Organic Denmark has pioneered more organic AND plant-based meals in Denmark’s schools, canteens, hospitals, parliament, child care and even military barracks since the 90s, and used this success to inspire national policy, EU actions and the global C40 Good Food Cities Declaration on climate (2019) calling for more plant-based meals sourced from organic farms.

Organic Denmark has also proposed transformative policies for accelerating the shift to more plantbased agriculture and meals. This despite strong representation of organic dairy farmers, dairies and meat producers in its membership. Discussion has been lively. The goal now is “less but better” animal-based products, where all animals live a good life, out-doors under best possible organic conditions. And where grazing animals contribute to the carbon drawdown and soil regeneration so well documented by climate research.

Organic Denmark and the Vegetarian Society of Denmark launched the Plant-based Knowledge Center to support consumers and producers in a shift to organic plant-based, and together have utilized Danish organic policy lessons in building new policy for plant-based foods. The Fund for Plant-based Foods itself loans lessons from Denmark’s successful Fund for Organic Agriculture.

Natural allies

For the organic movement, promoting more plant-based diets that are healthy for people and planet is a natural. Health and Ecology are core principles. Plant-based movements are natural allies, deeply dedicated to health, climate and respect for animals as living, sensing beings.

These shared values should manifest much greater solidarity, and many more shared collaborations, policy agendas and market initiatives.

The plant-based movement will not embrace animal based organic products. And the organic movement will not embrace the whole vegan agenda. But there are huge opportunities for collaboration on shared goals, and a pretty substantial sweet spot in the market that these important movements can pursue together.

Denmark provides some inspiration for more collaborative initiatives at the global, EU, national, municipal, supermarket and even canteen levels.

Great success in organic, plant-based in public procurement

Based on successful pioneer cases with organic, plant-based meals at school, hospital and city level, Organic Denmark advocated for and achieved in 2011, a national goal for 60 percent organic in public kitchens and financing for transition in municipalities to more plant-based organic meals, with deep cuts in food waste.

This broad sustainability agenda provides healthier, better tasting meals with lower climate emissions and all the benefits of organic food for biodiversity, clean drinking water and absence of hundreds of additives, GMOs and use of antibiotics in agriculture. Reduced meat and waste covers the organic premium for farmers. Lessons from Denmark are found here: Best Practice in Organic Public Procurement: The case of Denmark.

With the organic plant-based agenda ticking most boxes on the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, more examples emerge where previously separate campaigns for organic and plant-based, are merged in the push for green public procurement. Work by ICLEI, IFOAM Organics Europe and the EU Food Policy Coalition, have brought the plantbased + organic agenda into the EU Farm-to-Fork plan, the School Food4Change effort and the European Manifesto for Sustainable Public Procurement (2022). Teamwork!

Respect the planet, and consumers

Organizations, food companies and retailers must also be aware of the market opportunities in organic plant-based products. Plant-based organic just makes sense for many consumers motivated by health and a greener agenda. In the US, one study showed 37 percent of plant-based buyers said that it was “Extremely” or “Very” important that plant-based alternatives are organic. 25% of plant-based alternatives sold in the US are already organic today. That’s an organic market share 4-5 times higher than the overall organic market share. In Denmark the most popular plant-based category – plant-based milks – has an organic market share of 65 percent, compared to a 40 percent market share for cow milk.

A recent study of consumers in Germany, France, Portugal and The Netherlands indicate strong preference for organic quality when going plant-based, and a willingness to pay more for it. Three out of four consumers buying plant-based alternatives already buy organic for 10-20 percent of their purchases. One third were willing to pay 10 percent more for organic plant-based foods, compared to conventional plant-based, and another one-third would pay 10-20 percent more. In Germany, many consumers were willing to pay 30-40 percent more for plant-based foods if producers provide organic varieties.

So, companies rushing to market with conventional plant-based products are missing some opportunities for both planet and profit. All the green packaging in the world can’t hide the origin of some plant products in clouds of pesticides and vats of food additives. There is no need to force consumers to choose between eating organic and buying new plant-based products. And we know that forced trade-offs generally hinder consumer action. Let’s get it right.

Retailers can help

Retailers can set concrete goals for increasing organic plant-based products on the shelves.  And market them!

Organic and plant-based associations can support retailers in these initiatives, and in communicating better with consumers about organic and plant-based. We can also team up to utilize the significant resources now available for organic market promotions within EU (and outside of EU) to promote organic plant-based products.

Policy Game changers needed

Together we can lobby public officials to boost more plant-based and organic meals in public sector kitchens. And we can design policy solutions and game changers needed to accelerate food systems and dietary changes.  The EU commission has recommended all 27 member nations to consider reducing the VAT (sales tax) on organic foods, to level the playing field in the market and ensure that pricing reflects better the low environmental impacts from organic food. Why not start with lower VAT on all organic plant-based foods? European agricultural policy supports the meat and dairy industry heavily via subsidies to animal feed crops. This could be shifted to subsidies for production of protein crops for people, increasing the number of people that European agriculture can feed.

We have science on our side. The need for a planetary health diet based largely on plants is expertly described by EAT Lancet.  While the FAO, Climate Panel IPCC, IUCN and World Food Security Committee explicitly point to agroecology, including organic farming as part of the solution to food security, climate and loss of biodiversity. The European Union’s Green Deal and Farm-to-fork plan have made organic food and farming a central pillar in the European strategy for climate, biodiversity and rural livelihoods. And set a goal of 25 percent organic in the EU.

So, plant-based actors, when looking for allies, look to the organic organizations. And likewise, the organic movement should seek allies in the plant-based movement. Together we can set a sustainability agenda on both farms and plates!

The law: Fund for Plant-based Food

Press release from ministry here

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