Importance of Topic to Practice
Organic food (OrgFd) sales are a growing retail food sector worldwide with customers typically paying a premium price for these foods. It is important for dietitians to be aware of the differences between conventionally and organically grown produce and animals.
Internationally, organic agriculture is defined “as a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people; relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects; and combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved.” (1). Organic agricultural crops emphasize maintaining and developing soil quality, using manure for fertilizer as needed, the use of a limited number of herbicides and insecticides (e.g. pyrethrin, copper sulfate) and do not use genetically modified organism seeds. Strategies include “crop-rotations, inter-cropping, symbiotic associations, cover crops, organic fertilizers (compost, animal or green manure) and minimum tillage” (1). Temperate climates with sub-zero temperatures decrease crop pest pressures and support reduced pesticide use (2).
Organic livestock and flocks are raised with appropriate outdoor and indoor space for protection from heat, cold or wet weather, fed organic grass and grains, no antibiotics are included in the feed and growth hormones are not used (3). Aquaculture organic standards have been established in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada (4-7).
Conventional farming often includes many of the same practices as organic farming. For example, both farming types use crop rotation and both may spread animal manure on plant crops as fertilizer (8).
OrgFd sales and organic hectare production continue to rise worldwide (9). Australia (from undeveloped grazing lands), Argentina and China have the largest land area for organic agriculture. In 2017, the retail value of the OrgFd market in Canada was US $3.4 billion; the United Kingdom at US $2.6 billion; Australia’s retail value was US $1.29 billion and New Zealand was US $175 million. About 90% of all organic sales are in North America or Europe.
Relevant Basic Information
The Organic Food Consumer
A summary of five European studies indicate OrgFd consumption was closely associated with factors such as a higher education, higher income, lower body mass index, higher rates of more physical activity and overall healthier diets than those who do not or seldom consume OrgFd (10). Higher OrgFd consumers tended to be both young adults (<25 years) or older adults (>40 years) or those in families with children (8). In addition, a large prospective French survey identified high OrgFd consumption was associated with higher rates of vegetarians or veganism at about 24% (11).
A 2019 Australia Organic reported on Australian consumer interest in OrgFds and organic cosmetics (12,13). Of the consumers surveyed, 12% considered themselves to be highly committed organic purchasers. Over 90% of consumers shopped for organic products some of the time. Organic products' (including food, personal care or household cleaning products) benefits were perceived as chemical-free (80%), environmentally friendly (71%) and additive-free (65%). Forty-nine percent reported purchasing OrgFd for personal health.
Online consumer research of Australian OrgFd consumers was published in 2017 (14). Based on 1011 responses across all states and territories, Australian organic consumers can be classified into two main psychographic categories: 1) excitement defined as: enjoy shopping and eating OrgFds, accept new culture and experiences and 2) well-being defined as health and environmentally conscious, look for organic quality standards and maintain a healthy lifestyle. As for demographics, OrgFd consumers tend to be urban and buy from retail outlets that are convenient. This study found slightly more than 60% of OrgFds were purchased at two major food retailers, either Coles or Woolworths.
In 2020, the Canadian Organic Trade Association (COTA) reported the following survey results (15):
- Purchasers of organic food are typically younger.
- Individuals aged 18 to 24 years (centennials) chose organic foods for 46 per cent of weekly grocery purchases.
- Individuals aged 25 to 34 years (millennials) chose organic foods for 32 per cent of their weekly grocery purchases.
- Individuals aged 35 to 44 years (xennials) chose organic foods for 25 per cent of their weekly grocery purchases.
A 2015 New Zealand survey of 12.600 people reported that 66% of New Zealanders buy organics at least some of the time (16). Heavy users of organics were under 30 years old, urban, working full-time and had no children. The main reason for 70% of organic buyers purchasing OrgFds and beverages is the perceived health benefit for themselves and their families. For those who do not purchase organic, cost or price is more important in the purchasing decisions.
A 2015-2016 U.K. Organic Trade Board market research identified the United Kingdom organic consumer was more likely to be (17):
- younger (20 to 44 years)
- AB social class (higher management and professional)
- lived in a larger household with children
- cared about their health, social and environmental issues.
What motivates consumers to purchase organic foods?
The 2017 U.S. Organic Trade Association noted that consumers reported reasons for purchasing OrgFds are the perceived effects of pesticides, hormones and antibiotics on their health and their children’s health, along with the desire to avoid highly processed food (18).
Approximately 23,000 self-selected adults in France completed three parts of a study: i) a food frequency questionnaire, ii) an OrgFd frequency questionnaire and iii) a food choice motives questionnaire with 63 questions based on "When I purchase food, I take into account. . . ". (19). Taste was the number one reason for a specific food choice (scored 8.9/10), followed by health (7.68/10), and the absence of contaminants (7.66/10). OrgFd consumer clusters (“standard OrgFd small eaters”, “green organic” and “hedonistic organic”) rated tasted statistically significantly higher than conventional food (ConvFd) eaters. This study had a high proportion of women (almost 75%), older (average age 53.7±13.6 years) and higher income earners.
Do organic foods taste better than conventionally farmed foods?
OrgFd consumers in many countries report choosing OrgFds for sensory properties, including taste (20). A 2013 qualitative review of consumers’ perceptions of organic product characteristics identified 12 studies that included sensory properties such as taste, flavour, texture, smell and appearance. Seven of twelve studies included in the review identified these sensory properties as very important in food purchasing decisions.
Taste test results are mixed on OrgFds and conventionally farmed foods (21). For vegetables and fruit, this may be due to different plant cultivars, shorter timelines between harvesting and consumption and organic farming may emphasize ripening prior to harvest.
What is the price difference between organic and conventionally farmed foods?
There is little documented evidence to understand the size of the price premium. The USDA Agriculture Marketing Service tracks food premiums for U.S. food products with the Weekly Retail organic Price Comparison (22). Periodically, a summary of premium costs is published by the USDA Economic Research Service. The last report summarizes organic price premiums from 2010 (23). The price premium for wholesale OrgFds was:
- milk: 72%
- carrots 27%
- fresh spinach: 7%
- salad: 60%
- eggs 82%.
OrgFds cost more than ConvFds because farming practices require more labour, are often from small farms and smaller food processing volumes that lead to low economies of scale (24). European organic crop yields may be on average 80% of conventional crops and the U.S. ranges from 67% less to similar yields, depending on the crop (25,26). Reasons for lower yields with organic crops are due to relying on crop rotation with legumes and organic manure as fertilizer, as well as the challenge with pest management (25,26). Organic livestock have higher costs in part due to feed, higher transportation costs for abattoirs or dairies, fewer animals on a farm or ranch, and animals must have access to the outside (24). Yields can be lower for organic livestock. In the case of organic farm dairy cows, 10-23% less milk is produced because of not feeding grains (27,28).
What are the Organic Food Standards?
Each country has specific standards and expectations for producers and processors of OrgFds. When there is legislation, it focuses on what agricultural and food processing inputs are not included and secondly, the quality control process for ensuring foods are accurately labelled organic.
The Australia Department of Agriculture has six approved certifying organizations for organic and biodynamic foods and mandatory certification of OrgFds. Foods labelled as organic must be labelled based on the Food Standards Code from Food Standards Australia New Zealand (4).
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) regulates the Safe Food for Canadians Act (29). CFIA has agreements with organic accreditation bodies responsible for assessing and monitoring the certification agencies (30). The certification agencies inspect farms and facilities for compliance with organic standards. Farmers and food processors can choose from several certification agencies that will recognize their practices are consistent with OrgFd standards (30). OrgFd standards are developed and updated by the Canadian General Standards Board (31,32). Aquaculture organic production standards were mandated in 2021 (7).
The CFIA and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recognize each other's national organic certification programs. This agreement allows Canada and the U.S to export certified organic products to each other (33). Food grown and sold within some provinces that can be labelled organic without meeting Canadian organic standards includes Saskatchewan, Ontario, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador (34). Provinces that require OrgFds sold within the province to be consistent with federal OrgFds standards are British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia (34,35).
The Ministry of Primary Industries recognizes several third party agencies that will certify producers, processors and sellers for OrgFds (36). Organic labelling must comply with the Fair Trading Act, 1986, which allows products to be labelled “organic” or “certified organic” (37). Organic producers and processors may voluntarily choose to be involved with organic certification programs such as AsureQuality, BioGro or Organic Farm NZ (36). For consumers, these organizations and their labelling is assurance the product is produced and processed under organic standards.
OrgFd standards were legislated in 2009 and are consistent with the European Union standards (38). There are also aquaculture organic standards established by the Soil Association (6).
Resources for Professionals
Clinical practice guidelines, web links, and other professional tools and resources can be found under the Related Tools and Resources
tab. Use the Audience, Country and Language sort buttons to narrow your search.
- International Federation of Organic Movement. Organic basics. 2020. Available from: https://www.ifoam.bio/en/our-library/organic-basics
- Government of Canada, Canadian Food Inspection Agency. 2015/16 Annual Report National Chemical Residue Monitoring Program and Chemistry Food Safety Oversight. Available by request from: https://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/chemical-residues-microbiology/food-safety-testing-bulletins/2019-04-17/annual-report-2015-2016/eng/1554904884535/1554905013036
- Canadian Organic Growers. Animal welfare - role of organic standards in animal welfare. [cited 2019 Oct 11]. Available from: https://www.cog.ca/home/about-organics/animal-welfare/
- Government of Australia, Department of Agriculture and Water Resources. National standards for organic and bio-dynamic products. [cited 2019 Oct 16]. Available from: https://www.agriculture.gov.au/export/controlled-goods/organic-bio-dynamic/national-standard
- BioGro New Zealand. Organic standards: module 6 aquaculture production standard. [cited 2019 Oct 16]. Available from: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5783012e1b631b1a87b5f0de/t/5bb43295e4966bb9626b58a8/1538536091357/Module_6_Aquaculture_May+2009.pdf
- Soil Association. Soil launches new aquaculture standards. [cited 2018 Oct 16]. Available from: https://www.soilassociation.org/certification/certification-updates/2016/february/01/soil-association-launches-new-aquaculture-standards/
- Government of Canada, Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Organic aquaculture products. 2021 Feb 18. Available from: http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/requirements-and-guidance/organic-products/aquaculture-products/eng/1526564977758/1526565100440
- Caradonna JL. Organic agriculture is going mainstream but not the way you think it is. 2018 Apr 23. Available from: https://theconversation.com/organic-agriculture-is-going-mainstream-but-not-the-way-you-think-it-is-92156
- Research Institute of Organic Agriculture and the International Federation of Organic Movement. The world of organic agriculture statistics and emerging trends 2019. [cited 2020 Jun 3]. Available from: https://www.organic-world.net/yearbook/yearbook-2019.html
- Brantsaeter AL, Ydersbond TA, Hoppin JA, Haugen M, Meltzer HM. Organic food in the diet: exposure and health implications. Annu Rev Public Health. 2017 Mar 20;38:295-313. Abstract available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27992727/
- Baudry J, Alles B, Peneau S, Touvier M, Mejean C, Hercberg S, et al. Dietary intakes and diet quality according to levels of organic food consumption by French adults: cross-sectional findings from the NutriNet-sante cohort study. Public Health Nutr [Internet]. 2017 Mar;20(4):638-48. Abstract available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27731291/
- Australia Organics. Australia’s appetite for organics is growing at record levels. Part 1. 2019. Available from: https://austorganic.com/publications/ao-market-report-2019/
- Australia Organics. Australia’s appetite for organics is growing at record levels. Part 2. 2019. Link not available.
- Sultan P, Wong HY, Sigala M. Segmenting the Australian organic food consumer market. APJML. 2018;30(1):163-81. Available from: http://dro.deakin.edu.au/view/DU:30106517
- Canadian Organic Trade Association. New data from Canada Organic Trade Association showing dramatic growth in organic food sector as Canadians spend $6.9 billion annual on organic groceries. 2020 October. Available from: https://canada-organic.ca/en/news/new-data-canada-organic-trade-association-showing-dramatic-growth-organic-food-sector
- Organics Aoteroa New Zealand. 2016 New Zealand organic market report. Available from: https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/ofa/pages/237/attachments/original/1460079394/OANZ_Market_Report_2016_EMBARGOED.pdf?1460079394
- The Organic Research Centre. U.K. organic sector and market trends. 2017. Available from: http://orgprints.org/31200/13/padel-2017-uk-market-biofach2017.pdf
- Organic Trade Association. Today's millennial: tomorrow's organic parent. 2017 Sep 14. Available from: https://ota.com/news/press-releases/19828
- Baudry J, Peneau S, Alles B, Touvier M, Hercberg S, Galan P, et al. Food choice motives when purchasing in organic and conventional consumer clusters: focus on sustainable concerns (the NutriNet-sante cohort study). Nutrients. 2017 Jan 24;9(2):10.3390/nu9020088. Abstract available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28125035/
- Schleenbecker R, Hamm U. Consumers' perception of organic product characteristics. A review. Appetite. 2013 Dec;71:420-9. Abstract available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24012637/
- Bourn D, Prescott J. A comparison of the nutritional value, sensory qualities, and food safety of organically and conventionally produced foods. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2002 Jan;42(1):1-34. Abstract available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11833635/
- U.S.D.A Economic Research Service. Organic prices data set. [cited 2019 Oct 16]. Available from: https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/organic-prices/
- Carlson A and Jaenicke E. Changes in retail organic price premiums from 2004 to 2010. 2016 May. Available from: https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/45547/59472_err209.pdf?v=4
- Canadian Organic Growers. Consumers. [cited 2021 Mar 15]. Available from: https://www.cog.ca/faqs/#consumers
- de Ponti T, Rijk B, van Ittersum M. The crop yield gap between organic and conventional agriculture. Agriculture Systems. 2012 April; 108(1-9). Abstract available from: https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0308521X1100182X
- Kriss AR, Savage SD, Jabbour R. Commercial crop yields reveal strengths and weaknesses for organic agriculture in the United States. PLOS One. 2016; 11(8). doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0161673. Abstract available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4995028/
- Średnicka-Tober D, Baranski M, Seal CJ, Sanderson R, Benbrook C, Steinshamn H, et al. Higher PUFA and n-3 PUFA, conjugated linoleic acid, alpha-tocopherol and iron, but lower iodine and selenium concentrations in organic milk: a systematic literature review and meta- and redundancy analyses. Br J Nutr. 2016 Mar 28;115(6):1043-60. Abstract available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26878105/
- Palupi E, Jayanegara A, Ploeger A, Kahl J. Comparison of nutritional quality between conventional and organic dairy products: a meta-analysis. J Sci Food Agric. 2012 Nov;92(14):2774-81. Abstract available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22430502/
- Government of Canada. Organic products. [cited 2020 Jun 3]. Available from: https://www.inspection.gc.ca/organic-products/eng/1526652186199/1526652186496
- Government of Canada. Overview of the Canada Organic Regime. [cited 2020 Jun 3]. Available from: https://www.inspection.gc.ca/organic-products/operating-manual/eng/1389199079075/1554143470958?chap=2#s1c2
- Government of Canada and the Canadian General Standards Board. Organic production systems. Amended 2018. Available from: http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2018/ongc-cgsb/P29-32-310-2018-eng.pdf.
- Government of Canada and the Canadian General Standards Board. Organic production systems permitted substances list. Amended 2018. Available from: http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2018/ongc-cgsb/P29-32-311-2018-eng.pdf
- Government of Canada, Canadian Food Inspection Agency. United States-Canada organic equivalency arrangement (USCOEA) - overview. [cited 2019 Oct 16]. Available from: http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/requirements-and-guidance/organic-products/equivalence-arrangements/uscoea-overview/eng/1328068925158/1328069012553
- Government of Canada, Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Regulating organic products in Canada. [cited 2019 Oct 18]. Available from: http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/requirements-and-guidance/organic-products/regulating/eng/1328082717777/1328082783032
- Province of Alberta. Supporting Alberta’s local food sector act. Statues of Alberta 2018, Chapter S-23.3. Available from https://www.qp.alberta.ca/documents/Acts/s23p3.pdf
- Government of New Zealand, Ministry for Primary Industries. Organics. [cited 2019 Oct 16]. Available from: https://www.mpi.govt.nz/growing-and-harvesting/land-care-and-farm-management/organics/
- Government of New Zealand, Ministry for Primary Industries. Growing organically to sell in New Zealand. [cited 2019 Oct 16]. Available from: https://www.mpi.govt.nz/growing-and-harvesting/land-care-and-farm-management/organics/growing-organically-to-sell-in-new-zealand/
- Government of the United Kingdom. The organic products regulations. [cited 2019 Oct 16]. Available from: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2009/842/contents/made