The International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR)

Non technical abstract

Marketing & the Organic Food Industry: A history of food fears, market manipulation and misleading consumers

Alex Avery and Graydon J. Forrer
John Carlisle, Contributing Editor

  Presented by Graydon J. Forrer


This presentation explores the widespread practice of creating and then exploiting broad public misperceptions over food safety issues in the U.S. and abroad in order to divert profit from conventionally produced food to so-called “organic” or “natural” food. Years of evidence demonstrate that organic and natural product retailers are today engaging in a broad range of fear-based marketing activities.  They malign safe and more affordable products to win customers over to more expensive “organic” and “natural” marketed products.  Tactics and tools of this marketing strategy include direct marketing programs, trade and consumer association lobby groups, and the establishment, funding and coordination of numerous tax-sheltered non-profit groups.  The organic industry’s campaign against irradiated and genetically engineered food in the U.S. also reveals the powerful role the Internet plays in supporting for-profit and other special interest group campaigns to market products and influence public policy.


Today the organic food industry is big business in the United States and Europe.  In the U.S., organic product sales represent a $6 billion industry.  Combined with organic sales in Europe, this industry now tops $10 billion annually.  Growth in overall sales for organic products rose 20 to 30 percent annually over much of the past decade.


This boom in sales is attributable to strong economic conditions, increased consumer environmental concerns and, in significant part, to a variety of well publicized food and health concerns over chemical pesticide use, mad cow disease and most recently genetically modified “Frankenfoods.” Indeed, polling and other market data suggest food scares to be the single most important factor in organic sales growth.


Consequently, American organic retailers have launched a “black” marketing campaign against genetic engineering of crops.  At the 1999 Summit on Organic Food Technology in California, organizer Gay Franklin noted, "Right now, Europe is freaking out about genetically altered produce. That's an opening for U.S. organic growers.”  Evidence suggests that organic retailers’ prices and profit margins far outpace sales increases.  These double and triple digit growth in profits coincide with anti-biotechnology food marketing campaigns.


Major supermarket chains have increased the availability as well as the cost of premium priced organic offerings.   A 1999 study by the Observer Newspaper found prices for “organic” offerings in some markets increased by well over 100% as more consumers began looking for organic or natural produce in the wake of the health scares about genetically modified food. According to Consumers Report, in 1997 organic produce cost an average of 57 percent more than conventionally grown foods.



CNN recently quoted a range of organic advocates who claimed weight loss, relief of disease and increased health associated with their conversion to organic foods.  Organic Trade Association director Katherine Di Matteo issued warnings about conventional foods and pesticides focusing on their "impact on children, on women and the elderly."   In response, Dr. Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California-Davis, noted, “There is no evidence that is true.  I hope (consumers) will understand what organic means and make this an informed choice.”


Surveys show consumer willingness to pay the premiums required for organic food comes from the belief that in doing so they protect the environment while safeguarding their own health and that of farm workers.  Bruhn and other experts note that foods produced conventionally or with biotechnology are equally safe -- for the consumer, the farm worker and the environment.  According to Bruhn, the application of pesticides approved for organic farming actually may be more harmful to farm workers and the environment than synthetic pesticides because the natural are apt to be shorter lived, and therefore may have to be applied more often.


Unlike other agriculture practices such as use of biotechnology-improved crops, organic agriculture production is not currently regulated by any government agency and has no independent safety oversight body.  Individual states and certifying organizations decide what is required to meet organic standards under their jurisdiction.  Although the standards are becoming more uniform across the nation, there is no regulated or consistent definition for what constitutes organic agriculture.  In fact, according to the Organic Trade Association, half of all food sold today as organic is not even certified.


Independent studies found an increase in bacterial contamination from certain organically produced produce over that of similar conventional, non-organic products. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that as many as 250 deaths and 20,000 illnesses per year are caused by a strain of E. coli found in pig manure used by organic farmers.  The former chief of the food borne and diarrheal disease branch of the CDC, and the director of the Center for Food and Nutrition Policy at Georgetown University, have both noted concern over risks associated with eating organic food if farmers ''use improperly composted manure.”  It seems clear, despite widespread resistance by the organic food industry, that the rise in profitability of organic products in the past decade has made a nationally regulated standard for the term “organic” important to protect both consumers and producers.


The organic industry has profited handsomely from its own provocation of consumer distrust of the safety and quality of conventional food production.  Food fear is promoted directly by organic marketing programs, and indirectly by organic industry-funded and supported activist organizations who attack the safety of conventionally grown foods.   Larger players and industry coalition groups tend to avoid litigation and negative regulatory exposure by funding “independent” activist groups.  These groups make unsubstantiated benefits claims for organic foods, as well as misleading or false risk statements about conventionally grown food.


The continued failure to restrain the organic industry from making false claims and engaging in “black marketing” programs may have dire consequences for consumer trust in the regulatory system, as well as for safer and more efficient methods of agriculture.  While the current growth rate being enjoyed by the organic industry may never exceed its current one percent total market share, its ongoing smear campaign may wreak lasting damage in other sectors, such as biotechnology.  

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