USDA Certified Organic: 28 Years of Changing Consumer Preferences
August 21, 2018
Since the passage of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has had the authority to promulgate regulations that certify certain food production as ‘organic.’ These regulations were meant to make sure that organic farms wishing to certify their products as organic “must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances.” As of 2016, over 5 million acres of farmland are certified organic by the USDA (about equally split between rangeland and crop land). Furthermore, Organic product sales topped $49 billion in 2017. Even though the amount of organic farmland is still less than 1% of total farm acreage in the U.S. (>900 million), organic products represent over 12% of the market value of agricultural products. Over the last 28 years, USDA organic certification has not only changed farming practices, but it has also greatly affected consumer habits, subsequent regulation, and even, questionably, consumer health.
The organic movement may have started in Europe, but the popularity of organic products is widespread throughout the U.S. A 2014 poll found that 45% of Americans actively seek out organic options when purchasing food. Additionally, a 2016 poll found that 68% of U.S. adults had purchased organic food within the previous month, and that 40% of that same group said most of the food they ate was organic. The consuming public prefers these products at the register even though, on average, organic products are 47% more expensive than their conventional counterparts. USDA organic certification can not only increase the price one can charge for their crop but can also increase demand, yet why are consumers willing to pay this premium? A study found that three main factors positively influence consumers to buy organic food: health, consumers bought organic food as an investment in positive health outcomes; availability, as organic products were carried at more ‘conventional’ supermarkets the likelihood of a consumer buying organic grew; and education, consumers with higher education were more likely to buy organic food. Also, people studied were more satisfied after eating organic food, even though they thought it was more expensive. Similarly, another study surveying research in the area found that the main factor driving organic consumers was health benefits followed by taste, environmental concerns, food safety, animal welfare, and a variety of other lesser factors.
Many consumers pay a premium for food certified as organic due to health concerns, yet there is uncertainty among the scientific community as to the health benefits of organic food when compared to food produced through ‘traditional’ methods. A review of 12 health studies found that a majority of this research had “no evidence of differences in nutrition-related health outcomes that result from exposure to organic or conventionally produced foodstuffs,” and the study concluded that there was a lack of evidence to substantiate any finding that there was a nutritional-benefit from organically produced food products. However, other studies testing organic crops that also use less pesticides (something not true of all organic production) have found higher nutrient levels, which scientists suspect is linked to the lower pesticide use. Even if there is scientific controversy over whether there are health benefits associated with organic food, a majority of Americans believe that organic crops provide some health benefits that other conventional food products do not.
However, some groups argue that continued organic growth as a proportion of food production is not sustainable for the environment. With rising population and a subsequent need for more food, organic growing may require too much acreage. The standards set by the USDA require certain practices that are inefficient, and that loss of efficiency may prove fatal to global food systems, especially given the decline in arable land. However, as the world continues to battle growing starvation, organic production may become less and less justifiable.
Even in this age of hyper-partisanship, organic food regulation has somehow maintained bipartisan support. The most recent, bipartisan attempt at a Farm Bill included increased funding for organic oversight and research. This bipartisan support likely stems from a diversified set of interest groups involved in organic food production with overlapping agendas. For example, various farmers, typically conservative leaning segment of the population, have invested large amounts of money and land into the USDA’s organic guidelines, and more left-leaning groups have traditionally advocated for organic growing methods as opposed to traditional, industrial agriculture. Unlike the hotly contested issue of genetically modified labeling, organic food certification has been able to remain out of partisan warfare.
However, consumer demand for organic products will likely slow in growth or decline in the coming decade if problems of inequality continue to proliferate. Increased price for organics can only be primarily justified by public belief in health benefits for so long. If prices of organic products continue to rise with inflation and stay at about 47% higher than traditional counterparts, then it may be quite tenuous for most Americans to choose an organic option given slow wage growth. Still, the OFPA has done far more than change farming practices. Many Americans now think about food, health and how they spend their money differently thanks in part due to organic regulation.
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