The organic movement has touched a variety of products, including clothing, cosmetics and home products. Possibly the most emotive area is organic food, because food products are directly taken into the body while other products have a limited and external contact.
In a sense, before the appearance of industrial agriculture and the application of synthetic nutrients and pesticides, all farming was organic. In fact, the traditional Sanjeevan system of India dates back several millennia.
Even the existing organic farming movement has been around since its founding in Europe in the early-1900s. This was initially treated as fad and its proponents were seen as eccentric (at best) or insane. However, as damage to the environment and to human health became a bigger concern, organic farming emerged as the healthier option.
Organic farming is based on the following fundamental premises:
The aim is to drive a more healthy approach all around – for the environment, for people, as well as for the animals and plants.
The organic trade (all products) is currently estimated at over US$ 40 billion globally, with an annual growth of approximately US$ 5 billion. Organic production is driven today more by demand than by supply – in many cases supply constraints of certified organic produce is more of a concern than the market demand.
Every year, increasing numbers of consumers consciously buy organic products regularly or occasionally on the basis that it is good for them and good for the planet. Certainly, true organic farms do not use synthetic materials, avoiding damage to the environment and can help to retain the biodiversity. Whether measured by unit area or unit of yield, organic farms are more sustainable over time as they use less energy and produce less waste.
It is not as if, after decades of individual enthusiasts pushing their ideas from the fringes, consumers have suddenly become more environmentally conscious. This mainstream awareness has possibly been pushed up in recent years by the involvement of large companies which have spotted the tremendous growth of a profitable niche. “Organic” is the new speciality or niche product line that can be priced at a premium due to the greater desirability amongst the target consumer group, with potentially higher profits than inorganic products or uncertified products. Today, at least in the two largest markets (the USA and Europe), large companies have the lion’s share. For instance, statistics from Germany show that in 2007 conventional retail chains sold over 53% of organic produce, while specialist organic food retailers and producers lost share during the year. Similarly in the US, after the development of the USDA National Organic Standard in 1997, significant merger and acquisition activity has been visible.
However, as the interest in organic products has grown, so have the noise levels in the market. With that the potential for confusion in customers’ minds has also grown.
In day-to-day conversations, we tend to treat organic as superior to inorganic. But the reality is a little bit more complex.
For instance, we expect organic products to contain more nutrition and be better for our bodies. While this may be true of organic animal products compared to their inorganic counterparts, it has not been demonstrated for plant products, other than anecdotal experience of taste and appearance.
There are studies that suggest that inorganic farming can produce more crop per acre and more meat per animal, and is, therefore, the better option for a planet bursting with overpopulation. (Some proponents extend that argument to genetically modified foods as well, but let’s stay away from that for the moment.)
However, there are also other studies that counter this argument by suggesting that the organic farms can end up being more efficient and productive in direct costs, yield and long-term sustainability.
Then, the big question is: if organic foods are no better nutritionally than inorganic and could be as productive for the farmer, are organic brands just skimming the gullible customer while the going is good?
We might expect certification and regulation to clear the air, but in many instances these leave out as many things as they include. Labelling is yet another concern. Countries where labelling is more stringently monitored allow logos such as “100% organic”, “organic” (more than 95% organic ingredients) and “made with organic ingredients” (over 70% organic ingredients). In other countries logos and where labelling may be less strictly monitored, the use of the term organic is far looser and even more confusing. What’s more, the usage of terms such as “Bio” or “Eco” can also mislead consumers into believing that there is something distinctly superior about the product they are about to buy when, in reality, it is often only a marketing gimmick.
Further, just because something is certified as organic does not mean it is a higher grade of product. Organic produce may end up having a shorter shelf-life, or may also be otherwise inferior to inorganic produce in the store. In fact, as the KRAV (Sweden) website states: “The KRAV logo is a clear signal that the product is organically produced but does not say anything about the quality. That must be guaranteed by the producer, i.e. yourself”. This is similar to saying that the fact that someone has a management certification from a certain institute means that he or she passed the tests of that institute in a particular year, but that does not automatically make him or her a good businessperson.
Countries and regions that have a poor record of environmental consciousness, poor transparency norms, are also not seen as the best source for organic produce even if it is apparently from a certified producer. In some cases, certification may be carried out second-hand and unverified, leading to instances such as the one in 2008 where the US retailer Whole Foods pulled out pesticides-laden “organic-certified” ginger that was shipped from China. The mixing of inorganic ingredients of uncertain origin, especially in blended products such as juices or snacks, can also make a mockery of the organic labelling.
Another visible concern today is the carbon footprint, and some people raise the question whether buying local (whether inorganic or organic) may be less environmentally damaging than importing produce from distant countries. In such instances, the evidence of lax certification, such as the Chinese case mentioned earlier, takes support away from the cause of organic imports.
Arguments have also been raised about whether the larger “organic” factory farms merely follow the letter of the law rather than the principles behind the organic movement? Small organic farmers allege that large organic-certified factory farms – especially those selling animal products – do not really follow the core principles of “natural” growth, and confine their animals in unnatural surroundings.
With all these arguments and counter-arguments flying about, some organic (or nearly organic) producers elect not to be certified, letting their customers vote with their wallets. Some of these smaller farmers may be driven by economic necessity since certification could be costly and cumbersome, while others may just find it more feasible to stick with a local sales strategy where the customers are able to physically see the organic nature of the farm.
It’s clear that all of these questions will take years to sort out – through debate, research, legislation, as well as social and commercial pressure. Meanwhile, most conscientious retailers and concerned consumers will need to do their own studies to educate themselves, and will need to examine each product for genuineness of the organic promise.
And, if you are not quite that savvy, the final message would be: “caveat emptor” (“let the buyer beware”).