Organic Food

Premium Prices and Uncertain Benefits

By | Updated July 11, 2017 9:45 PM UTC

Organic food sales have gone through the roof. It’s no wonder. It’s widely believed that organic foods are more nutritious and safer than non-organic — they’re even said to fight cancer — even though the evidence is far from clear. Consumers have been paying a lot to eat organic; food certified as organic sometimes costs twice as much as conventional products. The premium prices may not be buying everything that’s promised.

The Situation

Organic products make up just 5 percent of all food sales in the U.S., but the market is growing. Total agricultural land farmed organically has expanded to almost 51 million hectares worldwide in 2015, up from 11 million in 1999. Australia farms the lion’s share, with 22.7 million hectares, but Liechtenstein’s organic farms claim the highest percent of all agricultural land, at 30.2 percent. (The global average is 1.1 percent.) The demand for organics is driven in part by rising interest in locally grown food — two-thirds of U.S. farmers markets have at least one certified organic producer. About three-quarters of grocers in the U.S. now sell organic food, including mass-market retailers, like Wal-Mart and Target, and big supermarket chains like Kroger. The increased competition has cut into the bottom lines of traditional organic and natural-foods stores like Whole Foods, which is being acquired by Amazon.com Inc. Amazon hopes to reduce prices at the chain, nicknamed “Whole Paycheck,” in part by automating distribution. To be labeled organic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says food must be grown without synthetic fertilizers and must be free of genetically modified organisms; meat must be raised without antibiotics and growth hormones and the animals must have access to the outdoors. There are similar standards in the European Union and Japan. In China, demand for organic food skyrocketed after a series of scandals over tainted food made consumers willing to pay double for organic kale and other items.

The Background

Until the invention of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, all agriculture was organic. Sulfuric acid was first used to extract phosphate from bones and rock for use as fertilizer in the mid-1800s. Poison gas research in World War I led to bug-killing nerve gases, including sarin and DDT, which was so effective at killing malaria-carrying mosquitoes it won its inventor a Nobel Prize. After Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” documented the dangers of DDT, the chemical was banned for use as a pesticide in the U.S. in 1972. In the 1970s, industrial-scale animal farms in the U.S. began popping up, first for egg production, later for pigs and cattle. Yields increased, but so did worries: These animals are often treated with antibiotics and consumption of the meat has led to more drug-resistant infections in humans. The term “organic farming” dates to a 1940 book by Lord Northbourne, “Look to the Land,” which promoted the use of biodiversity and natural fertilizers. Health-food stores began appearing in the 1960s. In 1990, after the USDA passed the Organic Foods Production Act to develop national standards, organic products became more common. Mainstream grocery chains started their own lines of organic food, while large foodmakers began snapping up smaller organic startups.

The Argument

Proponents say that organic produce has more nutrients, including antioxidants and vitamins that may prevent or delay cell damage, than conventionally grown fruits and vegetables. They also argue that eating organic produce and meat reduces diners’ exposure to toxic chemicals, such as pesticides and fertilizers, which may increase the risks of certain types of cancer. A 2016 study found that organic milk and meat have more essential fatty acids and other key nutrients. Eating organic can also help the environment by supporting farms that send less toxic runoff into water and soil. But non-organic makers have seen the commercial appeal and have piggybacked on the organic reputation by using labels like “all-natural” or “local,” though these can contain pesticides and chemicals. Just because food is organic doesn’t mean that it won’t make people sick — fertilizing crops with improperly composted manure can result in E. coli contamination. Some researchers say that eating organic food doesn’t, in fact, improve health. Plenty of foods labeled organic aren’t inherently healthy. (Organic gummy bears?) And perceived fears of pesticides, fueled by organic marketing, may be driving some people away from eating enough fruits and vegetables.

The Reference Shelf

  • The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements’ guide to global organic agriculture.
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture overview of the organic food market.
  • The Mayo Clinic weighs in on whether organics are safer and more nutritious than conventionally-grown food.
  • The “Dirty Dozen” list of foods with the highest amounts of pesticides, including apples and strawberries.
  • Bloomberg Intelligence analysts say organic food’s growth has hit adolescence. 

First published Aug. 18, 2014

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Leslie Patton in Chicago at lpatton5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Anne Cronin at acronin14@bloomberg.net