In this research-driven post, we question whether the $85 billion annual premium price paid for organic food is justified by the value delivered by the industry. Organic food is marketed as safer, more nutritious, and environmentally friendly. Some of these claims may be true of food that is truly grown organically, but only to a limited extent as we learn in this article. There is an even darker side to the industry, involving fraud and deception where non-organic food is rampantly sold as organic, exposing the flaws in the certification process and raising doubts about the integrity of organic claims.
That’s $ 208 billion. The estimated size of the global organic food and beverages market.
$85 Billion - the premium paid for choosing organic food over non-organic alternatives.
In this research-driven post, we ask the question, is this premium worth it?
Organic food has been positioned as being safer, more nutritious, and environmentally better; and of course, something to be consumed if you’re a more conscious, aware, and responsible human. Obviously, something this good deserves a premium – averaging nearly 70% over non-organic food produced via conventional agriculture and translating to $85 billion annually. A big prize, which merits an equally big marketing budget to create the hype around organic.
Let's embark on a journey together as we uncover the truth about organic food and farming practices and dig deeper beyond the marketing hype.
Understanding Organic and its Claims:
Organic farming is a set of farming protocols that utilises organic nutrition for plants, uses natural methods and approved organic chemicals for pest and disease control, avoids synthetic chemicals and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and embraces other soil regenerative practices. Advocates for organic make several claims to promote organic food as the superior choice among consumers.
Claim 1: Organic produce is more nutritious
The first claim suggests that organic produce is more nutritious, promising abundant, nutrient-rich crops. However, there is no scientific evidence that backs this claim.
“let me make it clear about one thing. The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.” - Dan Glickman, Secretary US Department of Agriculture 2000
For example, in this study conducted in Denmark, organic and conventional cultivation methods were compared for carrots, kale, peas, potatoes, and apples over two years. The results revealed no significant differences in nutrient content. Furthermore, the study demonstrated that mineral retention was unaffected by the cultivation systems, as plants assimilate nutrients from synthetic and organic sources equally. Similarly, Jenny Wan-Chen Lee's research exposed the "halo effect" of perceiving organic food as healthier, despite having identical nutritional value.
Claim 2: Organic food is safer for the consumer
The claim that organic farming provides chemically safe products by avoiding synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is often promoted as a key advantage of the organic industry. However, there are important caveats to consider:
- Pesticides and chemicals are permitted in organic farming as long as they are of natural origin. It is a misconception to assume that natural origin always guarantees safety. For instance, rotenone, once widely used as an insecticide in organic farming, was banned in 2011 by the EU and the US due to suspected links to Parkinson's disease. Yet, it continues to be extensively used in organic farming in India.
- Copper sulphate (CuSO4), a carcinogen linked to kidney cancer, is permitted in organic farming, despite its substantial risks to human health. It also poses a significant threat to the environment, being toxic to aquatic life and honeybees, and capable of accumulating to toxic levels in the soil. Consequently, numerous organic wine growers in the US and Europe have chosen to relinquish their organic designation rather than use CuSO4 as a fungicide.
Organic farmers rely on a limited range of approved organic chemicals to manage pests, diseases, and nutrients. However, these chemicals are often less precise in their control and can harm both beneficial and harmful organisms. Consequently, organic farmers may need to use higher quantities or apply them more frequently. It is crucial to recognize that the term "natural" does not automatically guarantee safety, and this approach can have negative impacts on human and environmental health.
Claim 3: Organic food is better for the environment.
Apart from pesticides, it is also important to consider other factors such as land use, energy consumption, and water usage when assessing the environmental impact of organic farming. In comparison to conventional farming, organic farming can result in reduced crop yields of up to 35%. To compensate for these lower yields, organic farming requires an estimated 50% more land and water for each unit of produce, leading to significant negative ecological consequences, such as an increased carbon footprint.
Claim 4: If there is a certificate, it must be organic
Many countries have certification mechanisms to regulate the production of organic food. These mechanisms assess farms and supply chains to certify them as 'organic', allowing them to sell their produce as such. Ideally, if all actors in the supply chain, including certifiers, do their jobs diligently and ethically, the system would produce genuinely organic food.
However, in reality, the high price premium of organic produce and the difficulty in verifying its authenticity create a strong economic incentive to manipulate the certification process. Unfortunately, certifiers and regulators lack the capacity and resources to prevent such manipulation.
Explore the account of one of the largest organic farm scams in history, involving a staggering $140 million, by clicking here.
Here are some examples of flaws in the current certification process:
- Limited testing and inspections: The certification process relies primarily on periodic visual inspections and examination of farmers’ records by approved certifying agencies, with little or no laboratory testing. Further, the visual inspection is limited to both a fraction of the producing farms’ acreage (typically at the farm’s periphery), and to a minuscule fraction of the cultivation period. Farmers have been known to exploit this loophole by using conventional farming methods in the majority of their field while neglecting the periphery, creating a visual impression of an organic farm.
- Conflict of interest: Certifying agencies are compensated for their service by the farmer seeking the certification, which creates conflicts of interest. If a certifying agency becomes known for rejecting farmers’ organic certification requests, how many farmers would line up to pay them for an inspection / certification?
- Neglecting factors in certification: Furthermore, the focus of the certification is mainly on the final product, overlooking crucial factors like soil quality, seed sources, transportation, and storage practices, which can indirectly impact organic integrity.
Fraudulent practices in the Indian agriculture sector have exposed loopholes in the certification system. A report by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) revealed widespread fraud in the organic sector, attributing it to the lack of clear guidelines and inadequate penalties imposed by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).
So, what should you do as a consumer?
As a consumer, remember that the premium you pay for an organic label is enough economic incentive for unethical suppliers to take you for a ride. If despite this realisation you must consider buying / consuming organic food, consider also doing the following:
Don't rely solely on claims of organic status: Demand to see the producing farm’s organic certification, and proof from the seller that the offered produce is actually from the farm whose certificate is being offered
Wash your produce thoroughly: Keep in mind that any agro-chemical residues on a product (organic or conventional) are likely to be present on the surface. Thoroughly washing the produce with clean water is more likely to ensure a residue-free or low-residue product than relying solely on its organic claim.
Try growing your own food: If you truly want the guarantee of organic, consider growing your own food using your garden or small indoor farming (hydroponic) setup. Or find a small true organic artisanal farm / hydroponic venture from where you can directly source your products.
Explore residue-free foods, the emerging alternative to organic: Residue-free farming protocols ensure that the end product is compliant with regulated residue standards. It delivers many of the same benefits as true organic to the consumer, without any material impact on farm yields (and therefore with none of the environmental costs associated with higher land requirements for farming).