Consumers around the world are turning to healthy, organic food grown and sold by people with a heart.
For every study that says organic food is more nutritious, there’s another that says it isn’t. However growers, suppliers and buyers of organic produce say the reasons more people are buying organic go far beyond simple nutrition. The shift towards buying organic food is a revolt against industrialised food that puts profit before quality.
Noel Josephson, managing director of NZ’s largest certified organic company, Ceres Enterprises, says anyone who chooses to buy organic, fair trade or even locally produced products is part of the anti-industrialised food movement.
“All the major players in the industrialised food segment owe their allegiance primarily to their shareholders. Their focus is on the economics of food – delivering profits. They don’t necessarily have an eco- or socio-value base guiding their operations,” he says.
To increase profits, the cost of food has to be reduced and, according to Josephson, there are essentially three ways to do this: making the supply chain more efficient; reducing food quality by lengthening its shelf life or substituting the more expensive ingredients of a product with inferior ones; or by paying the farmers less. To remain profitable, the farmer is then forced to find ways to produce greater volumes of food at a lower cost, which is one of the reasons why fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides were introduced in the first place.
“There’s nothing in that culture that promotes quality,” Josephson says. “It’s all about quantity and price.”
Chemical-based agriculture forces a plant to mature early to produce maximum volume for maximum profits. “It’s like pushing a child to grow up faster than they should,” Josephson says. The artificial ways most fruit and vegetables are grown, and their resulting effect on the environment, is what prompted the first wave of people to buy organic produce. The second wave of consumers to convert were those concerned about the chemicals in food and the health of their families, and Josephson says the appeal has now broadened further to a third wave – those who appreciate the value of the people growing and supplying organic food.
“All these arguments about nutrition, it’s just missing the point,” he says.
Newcomers to organics usually start by buying fruit and vegetables, and later broaden their purchases to grocery lines such as bread, grains or packaged goods. The next step is usually cosmetics, hair care products and household cleaners.
Like most companies involved in the growing, distribution or retail of organic goods, Ceres is showing no sign of slowing down and has had double-digit growth every year for the past 20 years.
According to the latest figures from Organics Aotearoa New Zealand (OANZ), the economic value of New Zealand’s organic sector is about half a billion dollars, with 163,000 hectares of agricultural land now under organic management – an increase of 155 per cent in the past two years.
Globally, organics are also in demand. OANZ CEO Dr Jon Tanner says 10 per cent of all fresh fruit and vegetables sold in the US were organic in 2008, as were 5 per cent of all dairy products. Organic sales in the US increased by 17 per cent in 2009. Ethical standards are non-negotiable for organic consumers, he says, and they are willing to pay a premium for products that meet those expectations.
In Australia, a 2008 Newspoll survey found that 61 per cent of Australian grocery buyers regularly buy some organic products and the Organic Federation of Australia (OFA) says ‘organic’ is now the fastest growing food category in the world. In October 2009, an Australian Standard was introduced to provide a uniform framework for how to grow, produce, distribute, market and label organic and biodynamic products … and to stamp out companies who have been peddling misleading products.
OFA chair Andre Leu says although the economic crisis has slowed sales of some of the more expensive packaged organic goods, market information from Australia, the US and Europe is showing a “considerable increase” in the sales of organic products that people use to prepare meals, such as fruits, vegetables, dairy products, grains, bread and meat. And this is despite the fact that organic products can cost up to twice as much.
Honest to Goodness, an Australian distributor and online retailer of organic and natural wholefoods, imports organic products from NZ and around the world. Founder Matt Ward says consumers are becoming more aware of the fact that what you eat becomes part of you.
“We’ve seen the boom times and the heady days where we have everything at our disposal and people still aren’t happy – people are coming back to question whether they really need a huge plate of food, or just the best food,” Ward says.
Honest to Goodness has had year-on-year growth of 30 per cent for the past four years. The company has never needed to hire a sales rep to boost sales, relying instead on responding to existing customers by stocking the goods they ask for. Ward says caring for the environment is paramount for his customers, as is supporting the ethics of the small businesses and growers in the industry. “There’s more to us than just buying and selling, it’s not just about the money,” Ward says.
Mother of two Catherine Rickwood has been buying organic food for the past 10 years but it wasn’t until she was pregnant with her first child that she opted to go completely organic. As well as supporting farming practices that are ethically and environmentally more responsible, she is also conscious about not putting chemicals that have gone into growing food into the mouths of her children, aged six and eight.
“What I also like about eating organic is that I know I am supporting small businesses all the way through – they aren’t major chains dividing profits among directors and board members and shareholders,” Rickwood says.
“These are people that have a consciousness and awareness about healthy living and the sustainability of the environment, about things other than profitability – they have similar values and beliefs and philosophies to my own.”
IS ORGANIC FOOD REALLY BETTER FOR YOU?
If we are to believe some of the advertising hype surrounding organic foods, they are packed full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, more so than conventional produce. But is this really the case? There have been numerous studies on the topic. Most recently, the French Food Safety Agency published a report in September 2009 in the scientific journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development claiming organic foods do have higher levels of minerals and antioxidants. But this study followed a UK Food Standards Agency study published a month earlier that claimed there was no difference in health benefits between organic and conventionally produced food. So, as far as nutrition goes, the jury is still out.
What a ‘certified organic’ label does guarantee is:
1. That food has been grown without the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides or fertilisers.
2. Healthy seeds have been planted free from techniques of Genetic Modification and Genetic Engineering.
3. That foods have been processed without the use of artificial preservatives or additives.
4. That ethical and environmentally sustainable practices of farm management and food production have been adhered to.
5. That the food has been grown in tune with nature’s cycles and ripened naturally.
And for the increasing numbers of consumers turning to organic food, that’s more than enough.