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May 8, 2012

Sustainable Business Oregon
By Christina Williams

Oregon has long been on the forefront of the local food movement but what started as a trend on Portland menus has grown into a global economic shift that has the attention of creative entrepreneurs and top-shelf investors.

Copyright (c) 123RF Stock Photos

Oregon’s head start in thinking about local food, sustainable agriculture and land-use planning has positioned the state to benefit from this new age of agriculture finance.

That new age is earmarked by a variety of approaches to finance. One example is the rise of a new class of impact investors — investment organizations looking to collect a return that delivers not only financial results, but also environmental and social good — has trained its focus on food. And for good reason.

A global view of the economy shows a planet with diminishing resources but large swaths of population in countries like China and India making more demands on the global food system. Narrowing the focus to the U.S. shows average grocery produce items traveling thousands of miles before landing in the cart, rising childhood obesity rates and a shrinking pool of farmers minding the fields.

A report released last year by The Springcreek Foundation documented a growing investment trend. The report covered 40 investment funds dedicated to sustainable agriculture endeavors.

“In general there has been an increasing interest among the impact investment community in sustainable food and agriculture investments,” the report states.

Springcreek found that foundations and governmental organizations had been the go-to sources for food system investment, but the scale of the changes needed to meet demand and address environmental challenges has opened the door to investment dollars.

And the interest has been good for entrepreneurs. The report cites Mike Tohai, founder and CEO of CityScape Farms, an urban agriculture company in San Francisco, saying that a few years ago he had trouble getting investor attention. Now, he says, investor interest has increased tremendously.

A COOPERATIVE ENDEAVOR

Narendra Varma isn’t interested in getting investor attention, but that doesn’t mean he’s not forging an exciting new financial model to support local food.

Community by Design LLC is a 60-acre farm operation putting down roots in Sherwood — as Varma puts it, 15 miles south of Powell’s Book Store.

The site isn’t an accident.

Varma, a former Microsoft employee with a background in finance, became interested in food and agricultural issues and wanted to do something that would make an impact. He started looking around Seattle to find some farmland that would be close to the metropolitan area and support the kind of farm-incubator idea that was starting to form in his mind.

“Around Seattle, with the lack of comprehensive land use and zoning, it was difficult to find decent farm land that was affordable and close to the city,” Varma said.

Portland proved the better option and $1.3 million later, a Sherwood farm plot with water rights and Measure 49 support for up to three houses, proved the perfect spot.

Varma calls Community by Design an “investment in a nontraditional sense of the word.”

“I’m not looking for a return measured only in dollars and cents,” he said. “It’s a long-term investment in the community and in the soil.”

Varma is finishing up the legal paperwork to establish Community by Design as a cooperatively owned farming operation. It will comprise three residences — one for Varma and his family and two that he will lease to other farming families — a farm stand, a food processing facility, food storage and other farm infrastructure like barns and irrigation.

The cooperative will lease Varma’s land and farmers and food producers who are members and shareholder will sell their wares through the farm stand to consumers who can also buy into the cooperative.

“The cooperative will be the brand,” Varma said. “There’s a huge marketing advantage in that.”

Noah Marquis has signed on to Varma’s vision and is one of the farmers pioneering the Community by Design concept.

Marquis, who is raising geese, chickens and goats, will also run a blueberry u-pick operation called Berries to Bellies.

“We’re such a fractured nation,” Marquis said.

What he likes about what Varma is trying to do is that it emphasizes community and local food, and also that it removes the financial burden for people like him who want to farm but don’t own land.

INVESTORS CIRCLING

Farmland LP, a private equity fund that’s buying farmland in the Willamette Valley and San Francisco’s Bay Area and converting the acreage to sustainable farming practices, also leases land to farmers.

Farmland bought its first Oregon acreage last year with two plots in the Willamette Valley. Under the management of Jason Bradford, who is based in Corvallis and oversees the fund’s farming operations, the land is being transformed and is going for organic certification. Farmland partners with Cattail Creek Lamb of Junction City to raise lamb on newly acquired pasture land.

Bradford said that with 64 investors and $10 million raised to date, interest in what Farmland is doing is running high.

“Once we’re at this scale it becomes easier to raise more money,” Bradford said.

Farmland buys property as the money comes in and for now is only looking at the Willamette Valley and Northern California for land to buy.

“We could by the end of the year be ready to look at other areas,” Bradford said, “once we get over the $30 million threshold.”

Portland-based Meyer Memorial Trust, with $650 million currently under management, is exploring ways to put more of its endowment funds to work in agriculture-related investments as part of an overarching plan to invest in Oregon’s economic development. The details of what those investments will ultimately look like is still under construction, but the interest is there, said Kipp Baratoff, who was selected as a Meyer Fellow to work on the trust’s economic development strategy for Oregon.

Investing in regional agriculture systems is investing in Oregon’s economic resiliency, Baratoff said. Goals and desired outcomes include jobs, more access to agricultural and ranching land, more acres of sustainably managed land, better access to local food and supporting the development of the sustainable regional food system.

In addition to his work with Meyer, Baratoff runs a firm called Sea Dragon that aims to build and finance companies using for-profit business models to create regional social and environmental change.

“Why? Because integrating natural, human and financial capital yields superior investment returns and is critical to humanity’s path forward,” Baratoff said.

Food systems, along with water, shelter and energy is at the top of his interest list.

Portland-based Equilibrium Capital, an impact investment group co-founded by David Chen and Bill Campbell, is also looking at agriculture as part of its focus on sustainability-driven investments.

In April, Equilibrium announced an investment in a fund called Australian Pastoral Funds Management Pty Ltd., which is investing in sustainable pastureland Down Under. The investment is attractive because it focuses on improving sustainable farming practices and positions Australia to become a protein supplier to a growing Asian middle class.

As Chen put it: “The outcome is more profitable business, a better product and greater capital value growth of the underlying asset — the land.”

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Posted: May 8, 2012 12:40pm
Mar 24, 2011
Focus: Consumer Rights
Action Request: Write E-Mail
Location: United States

Protect Babies’ and Children's Health

March 21, 2011

In conventional foods, the government allows the use of toxic pesticides, genetically engineered crops, and novel synthetic additives that have not been tested for safety. As organic consumers, we say: “No thanks, we’d rather not be part of this huge uncontrolled experiment!”

Organic foods offer an alternative, but some pro-corporate members of the National Organic Standards Board (NOS, the panel set up by Congress to advise the Secretary of Agriculture on organic standards, would like to open the door to all synthetic additives to be added freely to organic foods—as long as they have, theoretically, nutritional value.

Any “nutrient” synthetic additive that comes on the market would become fair game for organics, even those that have never before been part of the human food system, chemically extracted with toxic solvents, grown in genetically engineered feedstock, and otherwise produced in ways that would shock any organic consumer.

Synthetic “nutrient” additives often have no scientifically proven benefits, and act primarily as corporate agribusiness marketing gimmicks.

We must reject this outrageous proposal! The USDA is encouraging citizens to send them your comments. The members of the NOSB and the National Organic Program need to hear the following message from organic consumers, farmers and businesses:

  • The NOSB Handling Committee’s proposal to allow any and all “nutrient” additives —without the required vetting as required by Congress—in organics is outrageous.
  • Essential nutrients that are required by the Food and Drug Administration should remain allowed in organics—but the organic standards should not be broadened to allow any synthetic, novel, untested “nutrient” additive created by agribusiness and biotechnology corporations.
  • Please reinforce that all synthetic additives should continue to be individually reviewed and approved for use in organics.
  • Reports from parents and health care professionals suggest that some infants react with diarrhea, vomiting, and other gastrointestinal symptoms to two unreviewed synthetic additives already in organic infant formula. This should not be tolerated in organics!

The synthetic “nutrient additives” DHA and ARA, added to infant formula despite extremely weak scientific evidence of their benefits, and reportedly linked to serious gastrointestinal side effects in some infants, provide a striking example of the importance of keeping the organic standards strong.

The committee proposal is couched in terms of consumer “maximum freedom of choice” and “harmonizing government agency rules.” Consumers who wish to consume synthetic nutrient additives that were not carefully regulated by the National Organic Program are always free to buy conventional foods. If this proposal is accepted by the full Board at the April meeting, there will be one clear winner: corporations whose synthetic, non-organic, novel and untested additives will be allowed freely in organic foods.

Take Action

To submit your comment electronically, follow the link:

http://www.regulations.gov/#!submitComment;D=AMS-NOP-11-0014-0001

and submit comments before the April 10 deadline.

To submit your comment via mail:

Address your comment to:

Ms. Patricia Atkins,
National Organic Standards Board,
USDA-AMS-NOP
1400 Independence Ave., SW.,
Room 2646-So., Ag Stop 0268,
Washington, DC 20250-0268.

Identify the following docket number on your letter: AMS-NOP-11-0014.

Tell your family and friends to submit their comments as well!

Join us on Facebook

To speak in person at the NOSB meeting:
In addition to sending their written comments, organic consumers living in the Seattle area, or willing to travel, are encouraged to also sign up for a five-minute speaking slot at the meeting at the end of April. Individuals can find more information about the meeting, and can pre-register for a slot by April 10, 2011, by visiting http://www.ams.usda.gov/nosbseattleslots or by calling (202) 720-3252.

Sample Letter

Please use the sample letter below, but remember that personalized, individual letters are much more effective and powerful than sample letters (please feel free to edit, add your own words, or construct your own message)!

Dear Members of the National Organic Standards Board,

Please reject the Handling Committee’s proposal to allow any and all “nutrient” additives in organics. This outrageous proposal, if accepted, would indiscriminately weaken the integrity of the organic label.

Currently, the organic standards allow the addition of synthetic vitamins and minerals in organic foods. Any other nutrient additives, however, must be individually petitioned, reviewed and approved. This rigorous system is what sets organic foods apart from conventional foods.

Please do not weaken the organic standards by opening the door to any nutrient additive—many of which are untested for safety, lack scientific evidence of benefits and have been produced in ways that do not conform to the organic standards (fermented in genetically engineered feedstock, extracted with the use of toxic solvents, etc.).

Want to Become an Expert? In-depth Background:

Under current federal organic standards, any manufacturer of a synthetic nutrient additive must petition the NOSB, have the additive reviewed by experts for safety and environmental sustainability concerns, give the opportunity for all members of the organic community to comment, and finally, gain approval from the Secretary of Agriculture before it can add the synthetic nutrient to organic foods.

This rigorous process protects consumers from novel, synthetic additives that could potentially be dangerous to human health or the environment. It is what sets organic foods apart—not just any additive developed in a laboratory and chemically produced in a factory can be added to organic foods without first being carefully reviewed by experts and accepted by the organic community.

Since federal regulations favor strong organic standards and work on behalf of organic consumers seeking safe and wholesome foods, it should come as no surprise that corporate agribusiness, and their friends on the National Organic Standards Board, seek to change this regulation—in favor of corporate profits.

Why the Battle over “Nutrient Additives”?
The battle over the role of “nutrient additives” in organics has come to the forefront after the Cornucopia Institute discovered, through Freedom of Information Act requests, that the previous administration at the National Organic Program (NOP) had inappropriately allowed the synthetic additives DHA and ARA in organic infant formula.

As reported in a Washington Post investigative report, the manager of the NOP under the Bush administration had brokered a backroom deal with a corporate lobbyist to misinterpret the federal organic standards in order to allow these profitable additives in organic foods.

In April 2010, the current manager of the National Organic Program at the USDA admitted publicly that this was an improper decision. The current NOP administration publicly shared its view that the decision to open the door to any additives allowed by the FDA was based on an “incorrect interpretation” of the organic standards, and encouraged the NOSB to clarify the situation. The Board should have reinforced that only vitamins and minerals required by the FDA should be allowed freely in organics—all others should be petitioned and carefully reviewed, as the law currently requires.

As a shock to the organic community, the corporate-affiliated members of the NOSB committee have proposed the exact opposite—to allow any synthetic additive, with alleged nutrient value, that comes on the conventional market to also be allowed in organic foods.

An example of “nutrient additives”—DHA and ARA
DHA and ARA are striking examples of why the committee’s proposal would indeterminably weaken the integrity of the organic label. Synthetic DHA and ARA would qualify as “nutrient additives.” They are produced by Martek Biosciences Corporation from fermented algae and fungus that have never before been part of the human diet. They have never been formally approved for use in organics, yet food manufacturers that believe they are above the law are already adding them anyway.

According to Martek, these organisms are cryogenically frozen, fermented in corn syrup (that is likely genetically engineered), chemically extracted with a toxic solvent, deodorized and bleached. The resulting oils, added to infant formula, contain nutrients that are structurally different from the nutrients found naturally in breast milk.

Numerous scientific review studies and meta-analysis studies conclude that there are no benefits to infant development from these additives—yet they are advertised as “supporting brain and eye development.”

Most disturbingly, reports from parents and health care professionals suggest that some infants react with diarrhea, vomiting, and serious gastrointestinal symptoms from these additives.

The NOSB Committee Proposal—A Sellout of Organic Values

The proposal by the NOSB’s Handling Committee will be voted on by the full Board at their April 26-29 meeting in Seattle, WA. The committee vote was split, 4-3, along pro-corporate profit/pro-consumer interest lines. With enough public outrage over this proposal, the full Board is likely to reject this outrageous proposal.

We urge the rejection of this proposal, not only to protect the future integrity of the organic label, but to ensure that synthetic additives like DHA and ARA, which have been linked to serious symptoms in some infants, are taken out of organics immediately.

The committee proposal is available on the NOP website. The proposal would change the organic standards to allow the following synthetics:

Nutrients, Vitamins and Minerals, Materials required or allowed by law for the purpose of enrichment, supplementation or fortification of foods, including infant formula, and materials the use of which is supported by the FDA or the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.

There is currently no federal definition for “supplementation” of foods (a company looking to boost the protein level of an organic energy bar could therefore add chemically-extracted, conventional soy protein isolate, and argue it qualifies as a “nutrient additive&rdquo. There is currently no standard for what is “allowed by law.”

The proposal is poorly researched and poorly written—clearly with the intent of opening loopholes and allowing food manufacturers free rein to add any “nutrient” additive they’d like to organics.

Most importantly, the proposal’s authors clearly do not “get” organics. To say that any nutrient that is allowed by law or supported by the FDA should be allowed in organics is equivalent to stating that any pesticide that is allowed by law or supported by the EPA should be in organics.

It is a nonsensical statement—the whole point of organics is that the standards are stricter than those set for the conventional food supply. Organic consumers actually want strict standards, precisely because we are not interested in consuming anything that corporations develop to boost their own profits—especially when they are not tested for safety.

Say No to Synthetic Additives!
The strength of the organic label lies in the trust that consumers have in the strict standards and third-party certification system. Consumers like to know that their organic foods were grown without dangerous pesticides, genetically engineered crops, and other dangerous inputs, and that unapproved synthetic additives are kept out.

Organic consumers, farmers and business owners must send a strong message to the NOSB: the committee proposal on “nutrient additives” would allow untested, synthetic additives to organics—and we can not allow that to happen.

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Posted: Mar 24, 2011 2:23pm

 

 
 
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