High Expectations For Organic Food Could Be Off


"Thinking big." Image credit:The Economist.

Everything has limits. Case in point, regarding generally high expectations for organic food growing in importance, and as reported in Environmental Leader, 'based on recent national survey of consumers, organic food is expected to grow greatly in importance over the next decade,' let's review the powerful limits to that expectation being realized. According to a report in Bloomberg, "33.8 million people in the USA received food stamps in April of 2009, up 20 percent from a year earlier." Poor people can't afford to pay premiums for food. With the current "jobless" recession still underway in the USA, numbers of food stamp recipients are likely to increase.

People have widely varying understandings of what terms like organic and natural mean, and which type is more healthful or better for the environment. There is no better illustration of this than provided by the recent post: US Consumers Prefer "100% Natural" Food Label. Big business gets that a strong preference for "natural" exists with consumers, and is prepared to offer a lower priced product that meets that preference (matched with reduced food buying power among consumers). Organic Consumers Association reports, for example, that:

A division of Dean Foods, the organic industry's largest namebrand manufacturer, rocked the organic world this week when it was reported that the agribusiness giant intended to create an entirely new, lower-priced, product category, "natural dairy," aimed squarely at pirating away organic customers.

Long time fans of organic food remain a subculture in America.
Those who appreciate organic food now likely learned about it from friends and family. (When did you last see an advertisement for organic produce?)

The majority of Americans are confused or even alienated from the term "organic" as applied to foods. As one or our regular TreeHugger writers pointed out, "people who did not discover the value of food and vegetables grown without chemical pesticides and fertilizers have no respect for the term 'organic' and think that it is just a way to charge more for an inferior product."

Semantics matter.
In finance, organic growth means business expansion due to increased output, sales, or both. To an economist "organic growth" is shaped by access to basic materials or markets; to a chemist it means a carbon-based molecule; and, to a physician, organic alludes to an underlying disease of internal organ(s).

No other nation has a proscribed definition of "organic" food that precisely matches the one in use in the USA. Add to that, recent immigrants to America have no familiarity with the cultural traditions, beginning in the late 1960's, that led to the US' government codified definition of "organic."

After years of corporations working at diluting the government organic standard, those who know what organic meant in the first place also realize that the organic standards were manipulated through lobbying, and have lost some of their value. Once trust is lost, people are more willing to look to other identifiers of the food qualities they seek.

Understanding is based on word of mouth.
The meaning of the term "organic" is not taught in US schools.  Almost nobody actually reads and understandings the government sanctioned definitions; and the Agriculture Department, beholden to the more powerful agribusiness interests, does little to promote the sales of organic food.

What will happen to the organic market?
I really have no idea how much more sales growth in organic foods we should anticipate. Much is dependent on the economy and the extent to which local growers' markets, home vegetable gardening, and home canning grow in popularity.

A couple of large scale food contamination scandals certainly would do a lot to shape the outcome (either way - organic is not immune to contamination).

We'd love to hear your ideas.

More organic food posts.
Has the 'Organic' Label Become the Biggest Greenwashing Campaign ...
Organic Food: Healthier for You and the Planet
There's No Such Thing as Local vs. Organic Food

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