The food industry likely won't change because you’re buying organics. Here’s why.

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.

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