Ten years ago organic food was still generally stereotyped as part of the New Age subculture, and organic farmers were assumed to be hippy pot farmers who needed a cover story. Now, a majority of Americans eat organic food at least once in a while and you can find something organic in almost any grocery store in California. Popular parodies and studies of questionable worth could be seen as just another confirmation of the success of the organic movement.
A few years back, at the start of the recession, dire forecasts from business analysts predicted that the success of organic food was directly connected to the economic boom and that sales would dry up as consumers were forced to trim their spending. Instead, recent data released show that sales increased every year of the recession, including last year by 9%. It seems people have “held onto organic” as they shifted their dining habits from eating out to cooking more at home. To me that seems like a fairly dramatic behavioral shift reflecting the importance that people are putting on the food they eat and how it was grown.
Could the current popularity of organic simply be a trend that is peak? Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of the oldest organic certification agency in the U.S. — CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers) — and our certifier here at Terra Firma. It’s easy to forget now that organic certification was a concept invented and implemented completely by farmers themselves as a way of proving the integrity of the organic label to their customers. As early as the late 1990s, certification was still a peer-to-peer process with no government involvement. This set the tone for a slow and steady growth both in production and consumption that appears to have created lasting loyalty and preserved the public’s image of organic integrity.
Organic certification is now a much more top-down process, with the rules governed by federal laws and overseen by the USDA — as a befits a multi-billion dollar market that depends on consumer confidence. And while conventional food producers continue to push to weaken the standards governing organic, the original ethics pushed by the grassroots farmers and consumers who started the movement win out most of the time. Economists and “social scientists” should be studying organic as the forerunner of other efforts to integrate ethical standards into consumer markets and examining its success.
Why and how has organic food managed to maintain its integrity in the face of the corrupting influence of profits? Why has the number of people who are willing to pay more for food grown according to a set of standards continued to rise, instead of falling as pure capitalism would suggest? The Loyola “study” suggests that “organic people” are spending less on other forms of “perceived altruism” — giving less money to charity, for example. (With no data backing this up!) Economic data instead points to people shifting their spending priorities a bit in recognition that the way food is grown makes a difference, not just to their own health, but to the world around them.
From my own limited “research” of the attitudes of the “organic people” who subscribe to Terra Firma, I would say they are among the nicest people I’ve ever met and I would guess that they have an above average leverage of altruism. But then again, I don’t have a PhD in “Psychological Science” so how would I know.