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Companies like Kashi and Bunge are introducing ingredients and products certified by Quality Assurance International as “certified transitional,” which the companies say provides a pathway for farmers who want to convert their farmland to organic.
At last week’s Natural Products Expo West trade show in Anaheim, CA, Kashi (La Jolla, CA) explained how, in the face of limited organic farmland in the U.S., the company’s certified-transitional ingredients are helping to meet high consumer demand for organic ingredients by formulating with ingredients that, while not 100% certified organic, are grown on farms that are transitioning to organic crops. At the show, another company, ingredients supplier Bunge North America (White Plains, NY), also highlighted the role of certified-transitional ingredients as U.S. farmers transition their land to fully organic farmland.
Currently, less than 1% of U.S. farmland is certified organic, which means that even as consumer demand for organic ingredients continues to grow, U.S. farmers are finding it difficult to keep up with that demand.1 The traditional transition process for converting conventional farmland to organic farmland is time- and labor-intensive. According to USDA guidelines, it can include a three-year transition period and myriad up-front costs, which can be prohibitive for farmers who want to make the switch.
With this in mind, companies like Kashi and Bunge are turning to certifier Quality Assurance International (QAI) and its Certified Transitional program. QAI is a USDA-accredited certification body associated with organic food products. Its Certified Transitional program certifies crops grown on farms that are transitioning from conventional to organic practices. In order to be deemed Certified Transitional, ingredients must be grown using sustainable processes and ensure that no genetically modified seeds and synthetic pesticides are used. The program is designed to “recognize and incentivize farmers to transition their land from conventional to organic growing methods,” according to the organization’s website.
Kashi says it was the first company to establish a partnership with QAI under the Certified Transitional Program. The brand first introduced a product featuring QAI’s certified-transitional seal back in 2016, and now, more companies, such as ingredients firm Bunge, are participating in QAI’s Certified Transitional program.
At Natural Products Expo West, Bunge introduced its own certified-transitional corn ingredients. Gregg Christensen, vice president, sales, Bunge Milling, explained why the program is important in a recent press statement: “The Certified Transitional market gives farmers an opportunity to sell this corn at a premium…during their shift to certified organic, incentivizing them to make the move into organic farming. Bunge is taking the lead in corn by connecting farmers with food manufacturers who are interested in Certified Transitional products as a way of building a more scalable and reliable future supply of organic products.”
Tina Owens, director, sustainability and strategic sourcing, Kashi, told Nutritional Outlook at the show that Kashi “saw a need in the marketplace for conversations around helping farmers transition. We looked into the issue and found out that less than 1% of the farmland in the U.S. is organic, even though the size of the market for organic foods is 5%-6% of the market. We decided that we needed to create a path for ourselves and other brands to be able to help more farmers convert to organic.” She added that much of the growth in the organic products category comes from imported ingredients, which is not something that consumers-or even many in the industry-know.
Owens elaborated on how QAI’s certification process works: “We call it ‘organics in training’…because in many ways it’s mirroring the organic process all the way through. The farmer is following the National Organic Program’s three-year transition process. The USDA outlines what it takes for a farmer to transition in those three years, and then QAI is certifying that at the farm.” She added that QAI’s certification process goes beyond the farm and through the production process as well.
For example, she said, the farmer’s corn “goes into a facility that cleans and mills it into flour, and then it comes into our facility and we run it on a line that has been certified transitional. The farmer has treated it like [an organic ingredient]; it just doesn’t have the certification yet. And then everybody else that’s touching it is treating it as if were organic, all the way through the process.”
Bunge, for its part, noted that all of its certified-transitional corn ingredients are made from U.S.-grown transitional corn that has been certified by QAI. Added Christensen: “Thanks to our robust supply chain and longstanding network of farmers-including those progressing to certified organic-Bunge is uniquely positioned to provide a reliable supply of Certified Transitional corn ingredients to complement the rest of our USDA Certified Organic and Non-GMO Project Verified grains and oils portfolio.”
But will customers who are more informed than ever today where their ingredients come from, including organic and non-GMO ingredients, be satisfied with a product that is in transition, rather than 100% certified organic? Kashi says it has been straightforward in introducing consumers to the concept of transitional organic. In fact, the packaging for all of Kashi’s certified-transitional products features photographs of the farmers whose land is in transition to becoming fully organic, along with a message to consumers explaining that while the product is not 100% organic, “that’s the whole point.” Owens said that educating savvy consumers about the issues facing the organic farming industry empowers them, and that in purchasing a product that features certified-transitional ingredients, consumers can “vote with their dollars” to support U.S. organic farmland, as well as the farmers who work it.
As to whether a “transitional” product would turn off consumers for whom organic is a must, Owens said that Kashi doesn’t “expect that [consumers are] choosing between organic and transitional. We expect that they’re choosing products they want to eat.” Megan Hagist, storytelling, Kashi, added that the company’s educational efforts on its product packaging, as well as social media efforts, allow consumers to help drive positive change in the industry.
Kashi’s first product to feature the certified-transitional seal launched in May of 2016. Now, Kashi’s Certified Transitional portfolio includes six products-the newest of which is its Cinnamon French Toast cereal, launched roughly six weeks ago. Owens said that the new cereal has already received “tons of positive feedback.”
Since the launch of Kashi’s Certified Transitional portfolio, the company has increased the farmland from which it sources Certified Transitional ingredients by a whopping 400%. “We started off with two growers with 860 acres, and now we’re at 14 growers and 4,272 acres.” In addition, Owens said, Certified Transitional farmers have received more than $1 million in premiums made possible by Kashi to support their transition to organic since 2016.
Owens noted that while Kashi’s certified-transitional product was the first and foremost on the marketplace, other companies are now in conversation with Kashi about what the transitional process entails. She added that while interest in the concept of certified-transitional ingredients is growing, widespread change takes time.
“We know that there are multiple other brands that are looking into this,” she said. “But they have to get it on their innovation calendars.” Nevertheless, Owens said, “We’re expecting a groundswell” of companies who want to participate in the Certified Transitional program. As issues like supply-chain transparency and traceability near industry imperative, efforts like QAI’s Certified Transitional program offer companies a way to band together to effect positive change for the organic ingredients space. Said Owens: “It’s about working together to make the industry better.”