Why Are Supplement Companies Underrepresented at Esca Bona?

Last week I wrote about the second Esca Bona conference in Austin, Texas.

It was three days of inspiration as hundreds of food leaders convened to change the food system. Now that a few weeks have passed, a single thought lingers for me: why was the dietary supplement industry so underrepresented?

Only a tiny percentage of the 250 overall participants were from supplement companies.

No one understands more than the supplement sector that our food system has contributed to poor nutrition.

Surely we all share the common desire for a better food system, and no one understands more than the supplement sector that our food system has contributed to poor nutrition. The way Americans eat, how our food is grown, and how we source our food is why there is such a need for nutritional supplementation. In all of our research studies, whether it’s a consumer or practitioner study, the distrust of the food system always ranks high. By not participating in venues like Esca Bona, the supplement industry is essentially saying, “We like the food system the way it is because it creates more need for our products.”

I personally know this isn’t how leaders in the dietary supplement industry really feel. Many supplement companies care deeply about the state of our food system and take meaningful action to address it through their sourcing or growing practices, or how their brands participate with other organizations and initiatives. Here are some outstanding examples, including some of our own clients:

  • Standard Process maintains Wisconsin’s largest certified organic vegetable farm. It grows more than 6 million pounds of raw materials on its 600+ acres in Palmyra. These raw materials are juiced and concentrated into whole food supplements just one mile down the road from the farm.

  • Gaia Herbs manages over 350 certified organic acres outside of Asheville, NC, where it grows over 30 different varieties of medicinal plants that are then extracted onsite. In addition, the company supports Cirenas, a non-profit in Costa Rica that empowers high school students to become active environmental stewards. Gaia is also working to expand the organic infrastructure by training the next generation of organic growers for their own supply chain. Furthermore, Gaia has a CSA that provides tens of thousands of pounds of fresh organic produce to its employees and a local community food bank.

  • Herb Pharm grows over 60 medicinal herb crops on its 85-acre certified organic farm in Williams, Oregon. It is also designated as a United Plant Savers Botanical Sanctuary due to Herb Pharm’s research on the cultivation of wild medicinal plants that are at risk of extinction due to overharvesting and habitat loss.

  • Reserveage Nutrition developed a sustainable partnership with the indigenous Kuna people in Panama to help in restoring the tribe’s natural cocoa production operations, and to preserve the cocoa farmers’ livelihood.

  • Natural Factors maintains over 1,000 acres of certified organic farmland in British Columbia, Canada, where it grows raw materials for its products. It runs the Plant A Seed & See What Grows Foundation, which supports outdoor learning experiences, school and community gardens, seed preservation, school breakfast programs, subsidized natural health products for the financially disadvantaged, and health education throughout Canada.

  • Country Life’s Realfood Organics was the first certified organic whole food supplement brand sold through natural food stores. The 40 fruits, vegetables, grains, sprouts and legumes that go into its whole food supplements are sourced from certified organic farms across the U.S.

  • Get Real Nutrition, a new brand recently launched by Garden of Life founder Jordan Rubin, sources organic botanicals from around the world with the intention of supporting indigenous farmers. They also are cultivating 350 acres on Jordan’s ranch in the Missouri Ozarks for Heal the Planet Farm, a regenerative permaculture educational center that is training the next generation of organic farmers.

Despite these amazing individual commitments, there is a noticeable lack of dialogue between the supplement sector and the food sector. This isn’t just noticeable at Esca Bona; the NBJ Summit has the inverse problem. It’s seen as the gathering of the supplement industry leadership and many food companies attend — but the “Nutrition” in NBJ refers to the whole food system, not just dietary supplements.

Both sectors of the natural products industry — food and dietary supplements — are intrinsically connected to the future of food, and we need to act that way. Let’s commit to more dialog and cross-pollination.