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Report: Organic Industry Achieved 25 Years of Fast Growth Through Fear and Deception

A 3,400-percent increase in sales in 24 years makes organic the fastest-growing consumer food and lifestyle trend in modern history, say independent researchers looking into the industry’s strategies and marketing practices.

What they’ve found, though, isn’t pretty. Those robust sales, they say, were built on the backs of American taxpayers with deceptive practices involving the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as a willing participant.

With sales of $35 billion in the U.S. and $63 billion worldwide, the organic marketing industry has become very sophisticated, researchers found, working through advocacy groups brought in to practice fear-mongering, but without exposing the pricey organic brands that have grown up during this period of explosive growth.

When expanded to the so-called “natural products,” the organic industry’s sales reached $290 billion last year in the U.S. alone. But it seems the organic industry acts mostly out of fear that more consumers may come to accept the cheaper, conventional products as safe.

The “Organic Marketing Report” by Academics Review looks at the 25-year history of the modern organic industry. The independent international organization, founded by professors from the University of Illinois and the University of Melbourne, only accepts unrestricted monetary contributions.

What the report refers to as “intentionally deceptive” marketing is simply organic companies disclosing truthful information about how their food is produced, responded Scott Faber, executive director of Only Organics.

“Under the USDA organic standards, organic food must be grown without persistent pesticides and the use of GMO seeds, and organic livestock must be raised without antibiotics and hormones. Organic companies have the right to disclose these practices just as orange juice companies have the right to print ‘not from concentrate’ on their packaging,” Faber said.

Consumers want “more and more information about how their food is produced and organic gives them that,” he added. “This report will in no way deter consumers from seeking out transparency and making purchasing decisions based on this information.”

The report also wants more transparency, suggesting that both government and the organic industry currently fail to disclose that the USDA organic seal says nothing about food safety. However, they know through USDA’s own consumer polling that food sold under a USDA organic seal is seen by 65 percent of respondents as healthier, by 70 percent as safer, and by 46 percent as more nutritious.

None of these factors is included anywhere in USDA organic standards. The report quotes Michigan State University Law Professor Brandon Lupp as saying that those USDA organic seals are often found on products making false or misleading claims about health and safety benefits.

“These (health and safety) preferences are clearly driving consumer purchase decisions in the grocery store, but the correlation between the establishment of national organic standards, increased consumer confidence in organic products, and the resulting increase in production and sales cannot be ignored,” Lupp explains about the USDA organic seal’s influence on consumers.

Lupp also notes the USDA organic seal is sometimes associated with other government food safety agencies that have no connection to it, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

By contrast, the study points to the effectiveness of the Organic Trade Association’s marketing campaign, “Organic: It’s Worth It,” to justify the higher prices it requires consumers pay for its products. In its analysis of collaboration between organic brands and activist organizations, the report notes that the vice president of marketing for the organic company Nature’s Path was asked about whether fear is a smart way to market against genetically modified organisms.

“I don’t think you lead with fear about a brand in food, but you can, and perhaps should, lead with fear as an industry,” said Nature’s Darren Mahaffy.

“As illustrated in this report, organic companies market their products by promoting alleged health benefits connected to the absence GMOs, hormones, antibiotics and pesticides juxtaposed to health risks they associate with less expensive competing conventionally produced products, which may use their production tools,” the report states.

Academics Review goes back 25 years in its study of the organics industry. Included in the analysis are more than 1,000 news reports, 500 website and social media accounts, and reviews of hundreds of marketing materials, including advertisements, analyst presentations and reports by advocates. The report’s findings were reviewed by an independent panel with expertise in food science, economic and legal affairs.

“Our report finds consumers have spent hundreds of billions of dollars purchasing premium-priced organic food products based on false or misleading perceptions about comparative product food safety, nutrition and health attributes,” it states. “The research found extensive evidence that widespread, collaborative and pervasive marketing activities are a primary cause for those misperceptions. This suggests a widespread organic and natural products industry for these misperceptions.

The report further charges the organic industry with “intentionally-deceptive marketing and paid advocacy” that is “enabled and conducted” by the U.S. government through the USDA organic program.

“It is our hope that responsible members of the organic food industry and government officials will use these findings to address consumer misperceptions about important issues of food safety and nutrition,” says Professor Bruce Chassy, professor emeritus University of Illinois Department of Food Science & Human Nutrition. “Accurate food safety, nutrition, and health information combined with consumer pocketbook protections should be a threshold standard for any U.S. government program that cannot be cooped by special interest marketing groups.”

© Food Safety News
  • Michael Bulger

    The report appears to be very well put together. It focuses almost entirely on the marketing practices, and assumes that we can accept that there are no differences between conventional and organic products. I think that is the reports main limitation. Other researchers will note that at least some marketing claims are supported by sound scientific research or represent a precautionary approach.

  • Megan

    Am not convinced – of course foods produced without persistent pesticides are safer!

  • Michael Bulger

    Unfortunately, a closer look at the Academics Review shows the journal to be clearly slanted in favor of GMO agriculture. The principals behind the publication are well-known to post unfounded and sweeping anti-Organic mischaracterizations on blogs like GMO Pundit and Biofortified. While this report is put together rather well, it focuses almost entirely on the marketing practices of the organic industry. The author assumes that there is a scientific consensus debunking organic marketing positions. A neutral researcher would be forced to acknowledge that, at the very least, the jury is still out on issues of pesticides, antibiotics, etc.

    This research topic would have been very interesting if engaged by researchers who focus primarily on business ethics and marketing, and not solely on promoting GMOs. I would welcome closer scrutiny of the Organic industry. While this report provides a substantial bibliography for future researchers to sort through, I find the conclusions predictably brash and overstated.

    • Dominick Dickerson

      First off I would not characterize the work of dr. Tribe and dr. Chassey as “promoting GMOs” but rather to discredit the psuedoscience peddled by charlatans like Jeffrey Smith, author of “genetic roulette” and disseminated through social media. So since there is clearly quite a large over lap between the organic industry and anti biotech sentiments, I think its well within the scope of their expertise.

      Secondly, they are not a journal. They never claim to be a journal. They are an advocacy organization, you know the type, like the dozens if not hundreds that advocate on behalf of the organic industry or environmental causes or what ever else. They just happen to be researchers and scientist involved in genetic engineering. That doesn’t make them suspect of conflict of interest, as your trying to imply, but merely qualified to speak on the science surrounding the issue, which is far more than I can say for the bulk of anti genetic engineering organizations, which cater to people who’s eyes glaze over when you start to talk about the finer points of plant breeding and agriculture.

      Lastly, all this talk of “A neutral researcher would be forced to acknowledge that, at the very least, the jury is still out on issues of pesticides, antibiotics, etc.”, I hope you advocate for “neutral researchers” anytime there’s a story or “research” promulgated by anti-genetic engineering Luddites. In what ways are the jury still out? Pesticides are used in all agriculture, their origin, synthetic vs organic has no bearing on their safety. Making a statement that there is some contention over the efficacy or safety of “pesticide” senso lato borders on the inane. Do there need to be assessments to ensure that pesticides are used in ways that minimize collateral harm. Of course there is. Do we need to figure out which pesticides are best used for different management practices and environmental conditions. You betcha. But The issue at heart is not whether pesticides are good or bad, but to me is mostly about the fact that consumer beliefs about organic agriculture often times include the myth pesticides aren’t used.

      • farmber

        No surprise that the the Tribe Tribe is nestled in the deep pockets of the pesticide-dependant Biotech Industry. And let’s not call GMOs transgenic manipulation of our food crops, but “Biofortified”. And in the same vein, the journal-sounding “Academics Review” is really a GMO advocacy platform…

        Who knew? More and more eaters, that’s who.

        And in this Orwellian atmosphere not surprisingly a growing number of consumers want — and have the right — to choose foods that are grown and processed without toxic synthetic pesticides or GMOs.

        Because Industrialized Ag makes their $$$millions on large scale production and distribution volume with relatively slim profit margins every food purchase going toward the organic and local alternatives in the marketplace substantially impacts their bottom lines — and their political hegemony. Their fight against the transparency GMO labeling only digs them into a deeper and deeper hole….

        • SciAnon

          You say “pesticide-dependant Biotech Industry”, however all other food growers (organic and non-organic) are at the very least equally dependent on pesticides. For instance, GMO corn which produces its own BT keeps you from having to spray the BT onto the plants throughout the year; which all other farmers (even organic farmers) would do anyways.

          Having plants which produce the same pesticide that other farmers spray onto their crops means you use less pesticide.

          • farmber

            On the contrary SciAnon — under conventional agriculture farmers need to use an arsenal of highly toxic pesticides to bring in a crop and many of those also kill the “non-targeted species” — the beneficial insects that organic farmers cultivate and rely on for pest control.

            And Bt was deemed a “national treasure” because for over 40 years the spray applications would do the job and also break down quickly in the environment — avoiding resistance. Then GMO Bt came along where a more virulent toxin is expressed in all parts of the crop — including root exudates and Bingo — Bt is fast losing its effectiveness thanks to the persistence of GMO Bt in the environment. Bye bye Bt. Biotech should be sued — but USDA made it “legal”.

            And actually, because GMO crops engender resistance — GMO farmers have to use MORE and more toxic pasticides. That’s why the latest USDA application is for nasty 2,4-D compatible GMO crops –because Roundup is no longer effective due to weed resistance ….

          • Robert M

            As an organic farmer, we have NEVER used BT. In fact every organic farmer I know don’t use it. Educate yourself before you go making accusations.

            Healthy soil = healthy crops. Bugs prefer weak plants.

  • BarryThoele

    Here we go again. Two ducks fighting over the same grain of rice.
    Industrial ag. can’t take the heat of a 300% increase of organic ag. So they have to throw stones and make it look like everyone is wasting their time buying anything but their product.
    And organic did the same thing. Wow what a shock.
    People have the right to choose and if you look at the history of ag since the small farms were pushed out of business and the track record of chemical contamination not just to crops but to surface and groundwater and now the depletion of freshwater aquifers unbeknownst to the average person. Come on this is getting juvenile.
    People have the right to choose. Big ag wants that right limited and has done everything in it’s power and it’s power is considerable with the USDA, FDA, and EPA basically their biggest promoters paid for not by them but by the American taxpayer.
    I don’t buy organic based on fear. I buy it based on knowledge of how ag is practiced since the small farmer was driven out of the picture.
    Industrial ag does not care about the environment. Neither do the chemical companies that make their massive profits from sales of seeds, herbicides and pesticides to support the industrialized profile they have created.
    Organic using scare tactics is no different than the propaganda used by industrial ag. Feeding the world (and polluting it) Eliminating hunger (by creating it) and reducing our choices by monopolizing the food supply under monocultures that they know are doomed.

    • April

      Well written Barry! You make some very good points!

    • BB

      Well said Barry! The American people need to get informed and stand up to these corporations that are destroying our environment. We should be demanding organic practices and not buying conventional. When conventional no longer becomes profitable, they will have no choice but to go organic. We have the power and potential to influence big ag-we just need more informed people demanding change.

    • Barry Hamilton

      “I don’t buy organic based on fear. ”

      …and then a few lines later: “Industrial ag does not care about the environment. Neither do the chemical companies that make their massive profits from sales of seeds, herbicides and pesticides to support the industrialized profile they have created.”

      Not out of fear then, eh? Next time think about what you’re going to say a little bit more than not at all.

  • pawpaw

    Dan,
    Thanks for sharing this. A few of my thoughts as a direct market organic producer: An organic grower and educator at our market publicly states, during regional conferences and training, that the organic label says NOTHING about food safety. Have heard that message shared multiple times in multiple venues. Processed products are a different ballgame, and processors are trying to cover their higher costs of certain ingredients and increase market share, through all manner of labeling. Welcome to modern American food advertising.

    As for price differential: depends on the crop. See recent discussion on organic prices at “Food Politics” blog, where it’s been noted that Walmart’s efforts may bring many organic prices down to conventional levels. In part due to economies of scale. For cut salad green prices, organic price is only a few % higher, already. Bulk carrots is another area where we’ve seen close prices. Will be interesting to see how successful Walmart is in closing the price differential, for other organic products.

    Left out of this discussion thus far, is what organic production includes:
    My records are required and checked regarding: documentation of soil improvement over time, pollinator habit (farmscaping) and other conservation efforts, documented practices to prevent nutrients and sediment from entering our watershed, which feeds the Mississippi. Fertilizer use and rate (whether manure or not). My organic practices are constrained, with an eye toward seafood production in the gulf, many 100s of miles away. I have customers who care about these conservation issues, and are glad to by from farmers who practice them, and are routinely, externally audited on these efforts. Customers who are willing to pay a higher price to support these stewardship efforts.

    Lastly, there are millions of farm workers exposed to ag chemicals each year. By and large, these don’t end up in our food, but some do contaminate drinking water, and have acute and chronic effects on farm laborers. As an organic producer, I’m required to practice systems favoring healthy soil and plants, to reduce or remove spraying. Eliminates the need to restrict entry to my fields, as we work our farm. And as our children have friends over.

    Thanks again for the report; agreed with most of the points you shared. But there’s more to the practice of organic production than price and consumer (mis)perceptions. Unfortunately, fearmongering and mislabeling exists in all sectors of our food industry, organic included.

    • Shit

      Common sense over money- how refreshing! thanks for this :)

  • SK

    Academics Review is apparently in the business of “testing popular claims against peer-reviewd [sic] science.” If peer review is so important to validate scientific claims, then why didn’t Academics Review submit its self-published, one-sided report for peer review? Or disclose the extent to which the authors receive funding from agribusinesses that profit from selling pesticides and GMOs? Is this “report” supposed to be “fair and balanced” like Fox News?

  • Oginikwe

    Thanks for this bit of public relations smear, Mr. Flynn.

  • Linda Adsit

    This is a general comment, not aimed directly at this article, but intrinsically related. As far as I’m concerned, the article is indeed slanted, to say the least. I see it as fighting back against the big producer boycotts of the last year or so.

    The Japanese say that “business IS war.” They are right. This is indeed a war.

    As a consumer, I’ve been watching this war between organics and conventional for 40 years. My personal experience as a combatant and lots of reading has given me a strong position. Therefore, I could sound opinionated. Who isn’t on this subject?

    The FDA and USDA were formed to protect the American public. No need to cover that ground here, since most of us are wise enough to realize they are protecting commerical assets. In doing this, the “business is war” ethic is employed. But what type of warfare is used?

    War is hell. Civilian casualties are common, and expected. However, as consumers of the conventionally grown and heavily processed and chemically contaminated food, we are often casualties, healthwise. Acceptable losses. Remember, this is a war.

    As for Big Ag’s war on farmers, let me say that, psychologically speaking, the mentality of the aggressor is that of the rapist. Bear with me.

    First off, their is no room for negotiation. This is the nature of the rapist.

    Fight or flight is the ony recourse. The rapist will probably not hurt you if you comply (sell your land or buy gmo seeds). Some damage is done, but you’re alive.

    However, if you resist, you will get hurt (patent lawsuits, etc.). Big expense in hiring lawyers, borrowing, refinancing.

    And if you fight back, you might get killed (land issues, bankruptcy, foreclosure).

    So this is not waged by the accepted “rules” of war. It’s more of an attempt to vanquish a weaker opponent simply because it can be done, as Ted Bundy once said.

    Hence, my analogy.

    • Barry Hamilton

      As our British cousins would say, what a load of old tosh. I know it’s more “sexy” to defend the little guy, but in this case the “little” guy is dead wrong. Organic farming is uneconomic and their products have been consistently shown to not be superior in any way to non-organic, other than their higher price tag of course. Is it sad that small farms can’t compete with large ones? Of course, but that’s not going to make me swallow a bunch of hogwash concerning conspiracy theories and rape analogies. There will always be a market for niche farming (aka organic) amongst the privileged Western consumers like yourself, but there’s no way it could feed the world. The dirty tricks practiced by the organic industry like their anti-GMO campaign may be temporarily delaying the inevitable, but it comes with a cost. As usual that cost is paid by the developing world, where techniques developed by industrial farming have the power to reduce malnutrition and starvation but are delayed by the incessant irrational whining of people like yourself.

  • April

    I’m not sure this article proves it’s point. If products are certified organic, then they are assumed to be non-GMO, that point alone proves to me that they are safer than conventional food products. GMO foods are proving, more and more, to be a public health disaster. In addition, organics are more expensive because of all of the tests and paperwork needed to prove they aren’t GMO or full of pesticides, not because the farmer or producer wants them to be. I think this article is misleading.

    • Your Ignorance Is Showing

      “GMO foods are proving, more and more, to be a public health disaster”

      Examples?? From legitimate sources, please.

    • Israel Navas Duran

      BS.

  • Majorlucas

    Organic deception? When independent researchers are finding glyphosate in mother’s milk, our water supply and even in the air, you DARE to call organics deceptive?

  • Sheryl McCumsey

    This whole article is bullshit. People have made this happen from the grassroots. WE WANT THIS! I used to eat organic, got away from it, got sick and got better when I returned to it. All you have to do is educate yourself and see the deception here. I will bet industry is behind this article.

    • Jay

      If your limited personal experience proves that you happened to get sick when stopping eating organic, the logic conclusion is to extend it to every body else. Why need science?

      “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” Richard Feynman

  • Derek Wolf

    I buy and grow organic and heirloom varieties for many reasons. I taste the difference for starters and when you dig into the associated agricultural practices of organic vs GM, you can scientifically deduce that organic is more nutritious.

    In short, consider that glyphosate is a mineral chelator. If you understand the connection between a plant being able to pull in minerals from the soil, the overall health of the crop and carryover to nutritional profile, this would be an important concern. Binding up minerals (via chelation) makes a weaker plant and therefore nutritionally deficient food – compared to organic. The heavy-use of pesticides furthers this issue, because the more you use “external” protection mechanisms (IE pesticide) the less the plant will develop its own natural defenses. Again, the stronger the plant’s immune system and defenses, the greater their antioxidant and nutrient profile for us.

    Other glaring differences include soil health and integrity. Heavy pesticide use destroys beneficial bacteria in the soil, a requirement for healthy plants just as we require gut flora for our own health. Monoculture farming… Irish Potato Famine anyone?

    One of the biggest reasons why I buy and grow organic/heirloom is because of biotech’s rule against saving, sharing and re-seeding seeds. Their product/tech is proprietary I understand. But what this does for the people, as far as sustainability is a nightmare.

    A single tomato will net you 30+ viable seeds. Planting those will grow you 30+ new tomato plants.If each bore 30 fruit, that would net you 900 tomatoes. Save those seeds, replant, this system becomes self-perpetuating and within several seasons you’d have thousands of tomato plants, bearing thousands of tomatoes. All from the scrap (seed) of one tomato that normally gets tossed in the trash.

    With GM seeds this is not an option. Even in the case that the seed is not sterile, patent infringement laws prohibit re-seeding. You must throw what would have been viable seed in the trash, buy more costly GM seed each year. Essentially you also require permission from biotech each time you want to grow anything. The time honored principles of farming that go hand in hand with nature are shat upon. This is the biggest problem with GM is that it funnels control of the global food supply into the hands of a select few companies, which have a horrifying track record in the chemical warfare industry.

    By comparison, saving sharing and re-seeding seeds, growing local community farms without being bound to biotech’s high prices, high chemical use, etc is the most economically sound way to actually increase sustainability. Saying GM = sustainability requires a solid ignorance towards farming in general, history and a lot of science and factual observation demonstrating otherwise.

    The food safety issues regarding organic are not even tied to organic, they are a result of highly industrialized, mass-production farms and processing factories that create the same health risks as all other highly industrialized operations. Once again, moving towards local, sustainable community farms would greatly reduce these problems.

    • henny

      People used to say the same thing about hybrid seeds when they were first introduced, b/c saved seed can revert to the original grandparents’ genotypes and will not be true to the appearance, taste or other characteristics of the plant that the seed was saved from.

  • farmber

    Organic has always been an uncomfortable (to say the least) fit in the belly of the USDA beast — but that’s where it needs to be to offer consumers a label with bona fide protection against fraud in the marketplace.

    Meanwhile, USDA is continually working to water down organic regulations to the benefit of Gig Food Corporations looking to cash in — and USDA’s actions must be held up to the light to protect organic integrity…

    • DCDawg913

      USDA, FDA, EPA, etc. are all agencies under the Executive Branch, but get appropriated through Congress– clearly both bodies are very political in nature, and therefore are going to ALWAYS be subject to the whims of the populace (at least whoever is either more vocal or donates the most money and influences decision-making) and politicians/political appointees imbedded within. Thus, the USDA Organic standard is always going to be in flux, being pulled one way or another, based on the powers that be.
      Private, market based standards, on the other hand, are much more likely to be tailored to what consumers actually expect. For example, a group of farmers could get together, agree to what THEIR definition of “organic” is, based on their customers’ demands, and create a certification program and label. There are a mix of views as to what “organic” should be, so why try to put everything under one single standard (USDA’s), when there is room in the market for several?

  • Goddess

    The clear answer is for the masses to simply grow their own food. We are doing extremely well and have begun to farm network with Africa. The manipulation of the weather has just made us more determined. We are growing indoors, under chemtrail covers and making our own VAP’s. Biotech has under estimated our level of intelligence!! Cereal is not food! It is a new day!

  • Grandpa Jones

    Huh, well, I for one pay the premium (nickels, dimes, and quarters, oh my!) to get the satisfaction of knowing I’m not paying into non-organic land stewardship which ain’t pretty. Plus I do believe this diet means I get less pesticides.

  • Skeptic

    The “report” was done by a two-man team that is paid off by the chemical-poison industry. Their website is bogus and the report is filled with hyperbole and false information. People buy organic food because they don’t like eating poisons like glyphosate, BT pesticide, atrazine, malathion and other poison residues in our food which keep increasing each year due to the efforts to people like those who wrote this bogus report. If they like eating poison so much, let them drink a glass of each and prove to us that it is safe!

  • Jason Norsworthy

    Don’t believe this article gmo are killing us, USDA organic is the best food you can eat period.