Tuesday, September 25, 2012


Research out of Stanford University has shown that organic produce has no greater nutritional value than non-organic produce.

That’s not news to me, but I don’t think people buy organic food because they feel it is has a higher nutritional value, but rather because it is not covered in sprays and pesticides.

Jacqueline Rowarth points out repeatedly that organics generally produce 20% less yield than conventional farming methods. These farmers need to receive the premium that organics provides in order to stay profitable. But as the world begins to meet the needs of a growing population, all the figures I’m seeing require more product being produced from less and with a lower environmental impact. I’m doubtful that organics can achieve this.

The debate whether organic produce is worth it or not is irrelevant, in my mind. Consumers are buying organics because it means something to them and they are prepared to pay more for it.

None of us buy products based on logic; many people pay an arm and a leg for RM Williams clothing. They then try and justify their purchase with logic, like “its great quality clothing, it lasts such a long time” or “I struggle to find pants that fit me and these RM Williams jeans fit perfectly”. The fact is they buy RM Williams clothing because that’s what outback cowboys wear and they identify with the lifestyle and the image of the cattle rustlers from the outback.

People tell themselves that they buy European cars for the safety, but we all know it’s for the image.
When I was a kid at school in the 80s, Adidas three stripe tracksuit pants were the fashion item of the day. After pleading for some months, my Mum went and bought me some tracksuit pants that were the same in every respect to Adidas tracksuit pants except they had 4 stripes not three. What a tragedy!  Everybody would know that I was wearing the cheap knock off version. My poor parents couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t wear them, logic would suggest that they looked almost the same but were 50% cheaper.

It’s all about the image and what that image says about us.

Consumers or should I say middle aged, mothers put a value on the term “Organic”. To them it means natural, environmentally friendly, small scale, local, animal welfare, wholesome and safe. Many consumers are attracted to an image of a simpler time and this is compounded by a mistrust of corporates who, in their minds do “things” to their food in order to make it last longer on supermarket shelves or cheaper to process. These are all factors in their decision to buy organic.

Many people attach attributes to the term “organic”, which are simply not true. In the case of milk, an organic cow is farmed in almost the exact same way as a non-organic cow. They still walk to and from the cowshed and get sore feet. An organic cow leaches just as much Nitrogen as a non-organic cow, organic cows produce just as much effluent as traditionally farmed cows. The only difference between the two systems is, traditional dairy farmers use antibiotics and Nitrogen fertilizer.

Organic farmers will dispute what I have just said; they will say that their soils are much improved due to the additional organic matter in their soils. Therefore more Nitrogen is absorbed and not leached. I am sympathetic to biodynamic farming practises, but I’m not sure some of the claims have been proved.
Organic dairy farmers will point to excessive Nitrogen fertilizer use, as the modern farming industry promotes a short term view with an emphasises on more production. They will also point out irresponsible antibiotic use by farmers.

I have to say that I can’t disagree with the points they make on fertilizer and antibiotics. But I doubt very much that the milk from an organic herd is in any way different to a non-organic herd. Will the milk be in any way contaminated if a farmer sprayed the gorse at the back of the farm or if a farmer applied 25kg of Nitrogen fertilizer behind the cows? I doubt it very much.

But it’s not about the features or the facts of a product that matter. Is someone really that better off buying a $60 Rip Curl T shirt with the logo on the front as opposed to the same colour shirt at Hallenstiens for $15? Are those RM Williams shirts that cost $319 really so much better than the $80 ones at your local menswear store? They certainly are in the eye of the purchaser.

I think the average middle class person in New Zealand wants food that is produced ethically and sustainably. They want to know that the farmer puts a high priority on animal welfare and that the product is safe to eat. “Organic” is not necessarily the term that needs to be used. Organic has become the generic term for produce that is ethically produced and safe to eat in the minds of many customers. They only want organic because they think it has to be organic to meet their needs. Henry Ford made the famous quote "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.". If you ask many customers what they want, they will say “organic”, because they don’t know any different.

If a farmer can show the average customer that their particular product meets the standards that they require, such as animal welfare, environmental impact and food safety, then they can receive the premium that is paid for organics without being certified organic. That’s because farmers can meet these high expectations without being organic. They just need to communicate the promise better. For a brand to do that, it requires total transparency with the consumer and open communication, which is easier to do these days.

When the debate arises about whether it is a sensible choice to buy organic or not. We spend most of the time discussing the logical facts. One side will point out how much pesticide is on your carrots the other side will show how organics produce 20% less yield and therefore have a higher carbon footprint, which will no doubt be rubbished by the other side and round the debate goes. But we forget that it is very rare that the logic or the facts are what drive us to purchase. It’s our emotional beliefs.

If I was selling milk to consumers, I would be communicating how my product meets the emotional beliefs that are satisfied by the term “organic”. Which is quite different to pointing outing out the differences between organic and non-organic milk.

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