Quest for Organic Food Market Share Pits Purists Against Pragmatists

The organic food industry is experiencing growing pains as it attempts to gain market share and assume a more prominent place among U.S. food growers, processors, and consumers.

U.S. organic food sales exceeded $26.7 billion in 2010. While this represents only 4% of the $673 billion combined market for all food, organic sales increased by nearly 8% over 2009, compared with a less-than-1% growth rate for all foods, according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA). Over the past decade, organic food sales have grown at an average annual rate approaching 20%.

As dramatic as that growth is, industry experts say it will take a concerted effort for organic food to make additional gains. Part of the difficulty lies in consumer confusion, with many believing that foods labeled “natural” or “locally grown”—designations with no specific requirements—have as much value as those labeled “organic,” foods that are grown and processed according to USDA standards and certified by state agencies and USDA-accredited organizations (see Food Quality magazine, November/December 2010).

Another challenge, especially during periods of prolonged economic downturn, is the price premium commanded by organic food. Nevertheless, many consumers believe organic food is safer and more nutritious than conventionally produced products. Two-thirds of U.S. consumers buy organic foods at least occasionally, and nearly one-third purchase some organic products weekly.

But as the organic industry continues to mature, long-simmering internal tensions are beginning to bubble to the surface. Some experts believe these differences, unless resolved, may hinder industry efforts to expand.

Purists and Pragmatists

Two-thirds of U.S. consumers buy organic foods at least occasionally; one-third buy them weekly.

Two-thirds of U.S. consumers buy organic foods at least occasionally; one-third buy them weekly.

Generalizations can be misleading, but analysts speak of two main camps in the organic food movement: purists and pragmatists. Purists tend to be passionate about the superiority of organic food for human and animal health as well as for the sustainability of farming and protection of the environment. To purists, organic is more than a food choice; it is also a philosophy and a cause.

“They feel it is more important to keep organic farming pure,” said Charles Benbrook, PhD, chief scientist at The Organic Center, a nonprofit research institute in Boulder, Colo. “They want to promote all sorts of social, cultural, and economic justice issues.” For instance, purists tend to believe that organic farms should remain small in acreage and not contract with agribusiness. They reject the notion that organic crops should “coexist” with transgenic or genetically engineered (GE) crops, such as alfalfa, sugar beets, or corn. “This demand for purity is one of the things holding back the growth of organic food and farming,” Dr. Benbrook told Food Quality magazine. “It denies the benefits of organic food to the vast majority of Americans.”

In the other camp are the organic pragmatists. They also believe in the health and environmental benefits of organic farming and food, but they argue that meaningful agricultural change is more likely to come about through compromise and cooperation with government and agribusiness than through unconditional opposition. Many pragmatists acknowledge that trace amounts of GE contamination can be present in organic crops but argue that those are unlikely to harm people, livestock, or the environment. Pragmatists are more interested in promoting the growth of organic food than in waging war against big business and big government.

“This demand for purity is one of the things holding back the growth of organic food and farming. It denies the benefits of organic food to the vast majority of Americans.”

—Charles Benbrook, PhD, The Organic Center, Boulder, Colo.

“Should we avoid GM [genetically modified] contamination? Absolutely. Should we tell consumers that GE contamination threatens the future of organic food and farming? Not at all,” Dr. Benbrook said. He was referring to recent protests against Whole Foods Market, a nationwide chain of more than 300 natural and organic food stores, organized by the Organic Consumers Association, a nonprofit group that campaigns for “health, justice, and sustainability.” In May, the group urged consumers to boycott Whole Foods because it claimed the food chain was not strong enough in its opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food. “It’s a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater,” Dr. Benbrook said.

About Ted Agres

Ted Agres is an award-winning writer who covers food safety regulatory and legislative issues from the nation’s capital. He has 40 years of experience in reporting on issues such as health policy, medical technology, and pharmaceutical development. He holds an MBA from Johns Hopkins University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago. He enjoys playing the piano, amateur radio, and paintball. He lives in Laurel, MD. Reach him at

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