More than ten years after it began appearing on everything from apples and beef to yogurt and zucchini, it appears that the majority of Americans think the USDA organic label is just that—a label.
According to the results of a new Earth Day–themed Harris Poll, an overwhelming number of Americans—some 59 percent—believe that calling a product “organic” is simply an excuse for food companies to charge more.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way—even though hardcore organic advocates have long predicted that it would.
Lots of work (not to mention millions of tax dollars) went into the effort to wrest “organic” out of the ad-driven circus of market-tested verbiage and transform it into something more than just another green-letter word in the toolkit of food marketers to conjure a nebulous aura of all-natural, wholesome goodness.
Of course, that’s what “organic” was before 2002, when the USDA wrapped up the arduous process of defining what, exactly, “organic” means vis-à-vis the food industry, and launched the National Organic Program, which requires pretty much anyone who wants to slap the word “organic” on the food they sell to undergo a rigorous certification process. (Or not nearly as rigorous as it should be, depending on who’s bending your ear.)
Even before Walmart announced it would start carrying more organic food in 2006 (while still keeping the premium a mere ten percent above conventional food), Big Food could smell big profit in organics. A frenzy of buying up established organic brands ensued: Coke now owns Odwalla; Kellogg’s snatched up Bare Naked; Kraft immediately bought Boca Foods, etc. etc. And “organic” became the golden label, often yielding double-digit sales growth in a grocery industry where doing better than one percent a year is considered pretty stellar.
As Michael Pollan wrote in the New York Times when Walmart raised the stakes in the organic game: “To say you can sell organic food for 10 percent above the price at which you sell irresponsibly priced food [i.e., conventional food] suggests you don’t really get it—that you plan to bring the same principles of industrial ‘efficiency’ and ‘economies of scale’ to a system of food production that was supposed to mimic the logic of nature rather than that of the factory.”
Which is all true, as anyone who takes a more holistic approach to the food they eat should appreciate. But even as “organic” came to be defined by a federal certification process, the dirty little secret behind the label is that it has still benefited from its own hazy penumbra of “wellness” that’s not really supported by the science.
Interestingly enough, this, too, is borne out in the Harris Poll: Nearly 60 percent of Americans may think “organic” is hype, but 55 percent also say organic food is healthier than non-organic food. Yet the science disagrees. (You’ll recall the big study from last fall that found no nutritional advantage in organic fruits and vegetables.)
But can you really convince Americans to spend more on a product that is arguably, demonstratively better for the environment (organic farmers can’t use pesticides, for example, nor synthetic fertilizers), even if there may be nothing in it for them, at least in terms of health benefits?
Well, according to the Harris Poll, eight in ten Americans say they will seek out green products—but only three in ten say they’re willing to pay more for them.
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Jason Best has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council. He writes about food, sustainability and the environment.