The Food Industry Won’t Change Because You’re Buying Organic. Here’s Why

Written by Josette Lewis

Health concerns over additives in food, along with worries about how food is produced, have built the organic food industry in the United States into a $45-billion business. Organic foods give consumers and farmers choices, creating value for both.

But consumer choice alone won’t revolutionize our food system or agriculture. Here’s why that is – and how we can build a system that helps people and nature stay healthy.

Economics of organic food are complex

To this day, only a small fraction of total United States food sales, about 1.1 percent, consists of organic products.

Organically grown food can cost consumers anywhere between 10 percent to 80 percent more than conventional foods, keeping shoppers on a tight budget away. Prices will continue to limit demand even as the organic market as a whole continues to grow.

Beyond consumers’ individual purchasing decisions, however, there are larger economic drivers keeping organic production from becoming a silver bullet for sustainable farming.

Why conventional farming will likely remain

Consumers are most likely to pay a premium for organic fruit and vegetables, which account for a third of all organic food sales.

But consumer priorities shift when we’re not directly touching a product. It means we’re less likely to pay more for, say, hamburger meat from a cow that ate organic grain – since we never come in contact with the cow’s feed.

That demand signal goes back to farms, which will then have little incentive to grow or feed organic grain to cows. It explains why a vast majority of corn and soy – commodities with by far the largest footprint on U.S. farmland – are still grown conventionally and why organic farms still account for less than half a percent of U.S. farm acreage.

Consumer priorities shift when we’re not directly touching a product.

Now consider this: Nearly 40 percent of corn and 90 percent of soybeans are used as livestock feed. Another 40 percent of corn is used to make biofuel, another organic non-contender. In addition, up to 20 percent of our corn and 60 percent of soy is exported to global markets that compete on price.

So it’s easy to see why conventional production will likely remain the largest share going forward.

What it’ll take to reshape our food system

If organic food alone isn’t the ticket to sustainable farming, what is?

By diversifying our food production – and by recognizing that people want different types of food and that farmers won’t all grow the same way – we can begin to tackle this question. Underlying it all is the fact that the world must soon feed 10 billion people, a challenge in which U.S. farmers will play an important role.

So while we recognize that organic food is part of a sustainable, resilient food system, our focus here at Environmental Defense Fund is to make conventional farms more sustainable. A few examples:

  • Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, has shifted half a million of acres of grain production to more sustainable practices. Taking the next step, Smithfield just announced it will invest in infrastructure and farmer incentives to turn hog waste into biogas, cut emissions and reduce the risk for harmful runoff at operations in three states.
  • Walmart, the largest food retailer in the United States, is asking its food suppliers to report on how many acres have changed farming practices to reduce losses of nitrogen-based fertilizer. Walmart has set as a goal to remove 1 gigaton of emissions from its supply chain by 2030, with food accounting for a significant portion of the company’s goal.
  • The National Corn Growers Association, which represents 300,000 corn farmers, and EDF are expanding farmers access to sustainability innovations and advice through collaborative efforts like the Soil Health Partnership.

We believe such efforts will multiply as these food and agriculture giants flex their muscles, bringing others with them.

Meanwhile, many of us will continue to pay extra for organic food, knowing it remains an important part of the puzzle. Those purchases, combined with the progress driven by food companies and conventional producers, will add up to measurable change and put the food industry on a more sustainable track.

This article originally appeared on the EDF Voices blog and is reprinted with permission.

Photo Credit: Scott Warman/Unsplash

63 comments

Beryl L
Beryl L17 days ago

Think again my friend organic doesn't necessarily mean it was grown without chemicals

SEND
Frances G
Carla G21 days ago

Thanks for sharing

SEND
Vincent T
Vincent T23 days ago

thank you

SEND
Chad A
Chad Anderson26 days ago

Thank you.

SEND
Mark Donner
Mark Donner27 days ago

Bill Arthur: "We evolved to eat meat". Bullcrap. And I don't know who you're referring to with "we"... your simian trailer trash cousins? Go away.

SEND
Mark Donner
Mark Donner27 days ago

I don't shop at giant food poison factories like Walmart. I avoid corn like the plague, it's all GMO, and avoid produce which is grown with pesticides and GMO. Definitely stay away from any meat. Still looking for good non dairy cheese and yoghurt

SEND
Bill Arthur
Bill Arthur29 days ago

Vasu M if you want to eat 'natural' then meat should be on our diet since we humans are omnivores that naturally evolved to eat meat. Those studies you quote did not consider the fact that much of the nutrition animals take in are not something humans can eat to survive. We evolved to eat meat and the protein that is in meat. Few plants provide all the amino acids that we need but meat does. Try growing (and eating) enough beans to get the needed amino acids and then tell me if there is enough land. Beans are hard on the soil and require other crops like forages to keep the soil in good shape. Omnivore diet is good for humans and the soil we need.

SEND
Anna R
Anna Rabout a month ago

Good article. Thanks.

SEND
Vasu Murti
Vasu Murtiabout a month ago

Even if you argue that shifting to a plant-based diet isn't enough to stave off global hunger, global warming, the energy, environmental, population, and water crises, in light of the data showing the depletion of energy, food, fresh water, land space, raw materials and resources as well as the heavy contribution to air and water pollution, deforestization, and global warming caused by a meat-centered diet, how do you justify consuming meat?!

SEND
Vasu Murti
Vasu Murtiabout a month ago

Nearly 75% of the grain grown and 50% of the water consumed in the U.S. are used by the meat industry. (Audubon Society) Over 260 million acres of U.S. forest have been cleared to grow grain for livestock. (Greenpeace) It takes nearly one gallon of fossil fuel and 2,500 gallons of water to produce just one pound of conventionally fed beef. (Mother Jones).

Half of all fresh water worldwide is used for thirsty livestock. Producing eight ounces of beef requires an unimaginable 25,000 liters of water, or the water necessary for one pound of steak equals the water consumption of the average household for a year.

The Worldwatch Institute estimates one pound of steak from a steer raised in a feedlot costs: five pounds of grain, a whopping 2,500 gallons of water, the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline, and about 34 pounds of topsoil.

Thirty-three percent of our nation’s raw materials and fossil fuels go into livestock destined for slaughter. In a vegan economy, only two percent of our resources will go to the production of food.

Even if you argue that shifting to a plant-based diet isn't enough to stave off global hunger, global warming, the energy, environmental, population, and water crises, in light of the data showing the depletion of energy, food, fresh water, land space, raw materials and resources as well as the heavy contribution to air and water pollution, deforestization, and global warming cause

SEND