Organic food directly to the consumer’s door.

Organic food directly to the consumer’s door.

In the spring of 2009, Anette Dieng of the Swedish company Ekolådan was nominated as one of four finalists for the “Excellence in Environmental Leadership” award presented annually by the Swedish Association of Environmental Managers. Although the prize ultimately went to another deserving candidate, Ekolådan’s business concept—delivering organic products directly to the customer’s home—gained a great deal of valuable attention.

The company started some six years ago delivering 13 “eco-boxes” in Stockholm’s Södermalm neighborhood. The first Internet-based system in Sweden for direct shipment of organic food to consumers, Ekolådan is driven by the simple notion that it should be easy to eat organic. Today Ekolådan delivers more than 4,000 cases a week to subscribers throughout the country. Eight employees work from Sunday to Thursday to pack the boxes for delivery by Ekolådan’s ten drivers.

The company’s traffic controllers see to it that each box reaches the right subscriber on the right day. Many go directly to individual customers, but in some areas subscribers join together and have their boxes delivered to a common address.

“Delivery of fresh organic vegetables directly to the door creates a secure market for growers, saves time for consumers and decreases the use of chemicals in agriculture. At the same time, this is a profitable business,” Dieng says.

Growing interest in organic

A basic principle in organic farming is that it should be conducted in cooperation with the environment, where the farm is treated as part of a natural cycle. Central to this philosophy is the use of crop rotation, in which different plant types are cycled over successive years on a given plot of land.

To be designated as organic, vegetables and grains must be grown on fields where chemical fertilizers or pesticides have not been used for at least two years before sowing. An application for organic status must be on file for a monitored two-year “withdrawal period” prior to first harvest. Organic livestock farming is also subject to special rules. Animal feed must be organic and mainly produced on the farm.

Shifting from conventional to organic farming—known as transitioning—is often challenging for the farmer, as it may be characterized by decreased harvests and problems with weeds and parasites. During transitions, the grower must learn new ways of working and identify the plant varieties that thrive best under the new conditions. In Swedish agriculture, yields from organic farms are generally lower than in conventional agriculture, although this may be partially offset by lower production costs, higher prices for the products and government environmental subsidies.

Prices paid by consumers for organic foodstuffs still tend to be higher than those for conventionally produced food. Financial support for growers, engagement among retailers and consumer demand have resulted in increased use of organic practices in recent years.

The system of inspection, certification and labeling is regulated by European Union legislation on organic farming. Each Member State designates the organizations that monitor organic cultivation and issue certificates. In Sweden, there are currently four such approved bodies, which are in turn controlled by Swedac (the Swedish Board for Accreditation and Conformity Assessment). The Swedish Board of Agriculture and the National Food Administration are ultimately responsible for ensuring that the system for monitoring organic certification complies with EU law. The most widely recognized organic food consumer labeling scheme in Sweden is known as Krav.

Contents of the Ekolådan box

Ekolådan has some 30 employees.

Ekolådan has some 30 employees.

The basic selection in the Ekolådan box, a variety of fruits and vegetables, may be supplemented with breads, juices, milk, eggs and other products. The Swedish growing season is short, so Ekolådan imports organic food from around the world. This may be vegetables from a French gardener, apples from a grower in South Tyrol or bananas from a small operation in the Dominican Republic. Stiftelsen Biodynamiska Produkter (the Biodynamic Products Foundation) is responsible for the selection of suppliers. One of Ekolådan’s objectives is to guarantee growers that they will have a market for their products. This limits customer influence on the contents of the box, but increases growers’ economic security. In addition, Ekolådan ensures that there are enough products to fill the boxes throughout the year. For consumers who only want locally grown vegetables, the company offers a “Swedish box” during part of the year.

One might well question the environmental wisdom of importing food from far-flung countries for distribution to individual consumers in Sweden, since this entails fairly substantial carbon emissions from transportation. But Ekolådan points out that cooperation with organic farmers in other parts of the world supports environmentally sound agriculture by providing reliable markets and fair compensation, at least partially offsetting the emission issue.

Since Ekolådan decides what to include in the box, the company is in a position to improve the efficient delivery of healthful organic food. This, the company argues, makes Ekolådan markedly different from other e-shopping sites.

Article published in October, 2009