The Growth of Organics

The Growth of Organics

Standards and science debunk fears about a growing organic marketplace.

By Lisa Proctor

As retailers like Wal-Mart, Target and Safeway enter the organic marketplace, many longtime organic shoppers and advocates are skeptical. Some believe that organic food purchased from big retailers, is not as trustworthy as organics purchased from other venues. But thanks to U.S. national organic standards, this is simply not the case.

Organic standards offer powerful protection

Strict and unbending, organic standards require every business that wants to sell food, beverages and farm products as organic, regardless of size or ownership structure, must meet the same stringent national organic standards.

“Companies investing in organic products are investing in the certified organic label and the commitment not to use synthetic pesticides and herbicides, genetically modified organisms, antibiotics and hormones and not to irradiate products. It would be unwise for them to undermine the confidence that consumers have in such a certified label,” said Caren Wilcox, Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association.

The science of organic is proving what we’ve long believed to be true

But standards are just part of the story. Until recently, organic growers, food companies and retailers had only their own experience, intuition, and a few credible scientific studies to defend the benefits of organics on health and the environment.

In the last five years, much has changed in the world of science. An important breakthrough came in May 2002 with The Organic Center’s publication of the first peer-reviewed comparison of pesticide residues in conventional and organic food. The research showed that pesticide residues were far more frequent in conventional food compared to organic, that multiple residues in a given food sample were more common with conventional food and that residues appeared at generally higher levels in conventional food.

“While these results may seem obvious, this report provided everyone in the organic community a solid reference for backing up claims that organic food reduces pesticide risks,” according to Charles Benbrook, Chief Scientist, The Organic Center.

Organic Center research has also shown that organic foods average about 30 percent higher in antioxidants, compared to the same foods grown conventionally.  In fact, simply switching from conventional ketchup to organic can make a dramatic difference.  A USDA study showed that lycopene (an antioxidant that helps fight disease) in organic brands was 57 percent higher than in conventional brands.

The Organic Center compiles and synthesizes peer-reviewed science in these areas and more. It is available free for download at www.organic-center.org. “In 2007 our research will continue to focus on documenting the benefits of organic food, but we will also start exploring why organic farming tends to produce more nutritious foods.  Understanding when and why organic farming enhances food quality is an essential step both in bringing new consumers to the organic marketplace and helping organic farmers expand and solidify nutrition and food safety benefits,” said Benbrook. 

Mission Organic—from 2% to 10% organic by 2010

Even though the market for organic products has experienced tremendous growth in the past decade and has now reached $14.6 billion in consumer sales only two and one half percent of the food now purchased in the U.S. is organic.

But if consumers nationwide chose at least one organic item for every ten purchased, the amount of organic consumed would skyrocket to ten percent by 2010.  Such is the charter of The Organic Center’s consumer education campaign—Mission Organic 2010.  Launched last spring, this campaign is quickly gaining traction. Americans and LOHAS businesses across the country are responding to the call.

And the market continues to grow.  The most recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service (ERS) show that in 2005 there were at least 8,445 certified organic farms in the United States, up from 8,035 in 2003. This growth represents slightly more than 4 million acres now under organic management, almost double the number (nearly 2.2 million acres) in 2003. Also, for the first time, all 50 U.S. states have some certified organic farmland.

As sales of organic products increase, more and more farmland will be converted to organic agriculture. And more households will be introduced to organic alternatives. With strict U.S. organic standards in place to protect the integrity of farming and processing methods, with science supporting the benefits of embracing an organic lifestyle—the day is approaching where organic food choices will no longer be the exception. They’ll be the norm.