Consumers increasingly buy organic, but for the wrong reasons
Sales of organic food have risen considerably in the United States. The 2019 NASS Organic Survey released in October finds that U.S. organic sales rose a whopping 31 percent from 2016–2019, though certified organic farms still make up less than 1 percent of all U.S. farms and less than 3 percent of sales. And large organic farms dominate these sales — though the largest make up only 17 percent of all organic farms, they supply an overwhelming 84 percent of total sales.
While proponents celebrate the growth of organic, the irony is that consumers fueling this growth choose organic for the wrong reasons.
Additionally, many practices that may give organic an environmental edge are actually widely used on non-organic farms.
All of which erodes the usefulness of organic certification for consumers and the environment.
Surveys show that most consumers who choose organic do so for personal health — 90 to 95 percent to specifically avoid pesticides, and 76 percent “to get healthier foods” — but this perceived benefit is not supported by the evidence. While organic produce does have lower pesticide residues on average, over 99 percent of all organic and non-organic produce has extremely low pesticide residues — so low that one would have to eat hundreds or thousands of servings per day in order to experience any negative effects. And while the opposite is often claimed, comprehensive studies show no evidence of a nutritional difference between organic and non-organic produce.
Less salient for organic consumers are environmental benefits. Only a third of organic consumers choose organic “to help the environment.” Ironically, this is where organic production has the best claim to superiority.
Specifically, research has found that organic farms have better soil health on average. This is thanks to widespread use of practices that increase soil organic matter, like cover cropping, mulching, crop rotation, and reduced tillage. Organic matter makes soil less susceptible to erosion, better able to retain water and nutrients, and more hospitable to beneficial organisms. And while these specific practices are not required under the organic certification, they are widely used on organic farms: in 2019, 46 percent of U.S. organic farms planted cover crops, 36 percent practiced no-till or minimum till, and 35 percent used organic mulch or compost.
However, some of these beneficial practices are also widely used on non-organic farms. Most strikingly, non-organic farms practice reduced tillage as much or more than organic farms: in 2017, twice as many U.S. farms reported using no-till or reduced tillage as intensive tillage. And over 80 percent of U.S. crops are grown in some sort of rotation (though many are simply alternating corn and soy, whereas organic crop rotations tend to be more varied).
Cover cropping is where we find the greatest distinction in practices on organic farms. In 2019, almost half of organic farms planted cover crops, compared to just 7 percent of all U.S. farms. But cover cropping is growing on non-organic farms, with a 50 percent increase in total acreage from 2012–2017.
Unfortunately, non-organic farmers who employ soil health practices don’t get a price premium like that from organic certification, and farmers who don’t might be persuaded by the incentive.
Certifications like organic should give consumers useful information about how their food is produced, but the organic vs conventional or non-organic dichotomy is not as useful as it seems. It has created a black and white picture of farming practices as either organic and environmentally friendly or conventional and environmentally harmful, which misleads consumers and leaves out many farmers — like “conventional” farmers who practice reduced tillage and crop rotation.
In theory there are two ways out. The first is to create new certifications based on environmentally beneficial practices, regardless of whether they’re traditionally considered organic or not. In this vein, various competing regenerative certifications are emerging, some with organic certification as a prerequisite and others without, which does give farmers and consumers more options. The problem, however, is that no farming practice is always beneficial — the outcome also depends on context including factors like crop and soil type, and climate.
The second and less common approach solves this problem: outcome-based certifications indicate particular positive outcomes rather than specific farming practices, which gives farmers more flexibility with what practices to use (allowing them to experiment and innovate) and consumers more reliable information. The difficulty is in measuring these outcomes, which can be time-consuming or face technical barriers, but certification organizations are finding ways to improve measurement.
Overall, outcome-based certifications give farmers flexibility, encourage innovation, and provide clarity that would help consumers make choices for the right reasons.