The organic food scam

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This post originally appeared in March 2009.

It’s the holy grail of contemporary marketing: getting consumers to pay more for something that is worth less. When it comes to organic food, marketers have hit the jackpot.

How have consumers have been enticed to pay more for products that are potentially less safe than their conventional counterparts? The organic food scam depends on tapping into cultural myths about nature, playing upon widespread misunderstanding of risk, and flattering consumers into believing that those who choose organic food are “empowered.”.

The word “natural” is widely used to sell products. In Packaging as a Vehicle for Mythologizing the Brand researchers explore the connotations of “natural” in contemporary culture and the ways in these connotations are exploited to sell products.

Marketers of organic products depict the modern world as a deeply distorted reflection of what it originally was – the garden before agro-chemical technology. While the values of the past include family, tradition, authenticity, peace, and simplicity, the current era is associated with broken family ties that need to be restored, scientific “advances” that pose threats, constant pressure on the well-being of humans, and unnecessary complexity in everyday life.

Consider the concept of “naturalness”:

Naturalness appears as a rich emotional construct that connects with positive contemporary images of nature… People do not want to remember that nature can also be destructive as in deadly hurricanes and poisonous mushrooms … In a natural health context, Thompson also finds nature to be a positively framed powerful mythic construction; and his informants attribute magical, regenerative powers to nature. They firmly believe that aligning with what nature has to offer for one’s health lets them assert control over their lives and bodies versus losing control by being complicit in a scientized medical system.

There is nothing inherently better about “natural,” but contemporary mythology assumes that there is. The organic food industry exploits this mythology to imply that organic food is inherently better.

In addition, marketing professionals exploit the lack of understanding about risk. We routinely panic about insignificant health risks (high tension wires, X-rays) and routinely ignore large health risks (driving without a seatbelt, tanning). Hence, consumers routinely obsess about insignificant health risks that have never even been shown to occur (pesticides, hormones) and routinely ignored large health risks (foodborne illness caused by bacteria like E. coli and salmonella in the animal waste used as fertilizer) that have been associated with widespread outbreaks of illness and even death.

David Ropeik discusses the causes of misperception of risk in his article The Consequences of Fear. Two factors, control and origin, are especially relevant for understanding the misperception of food risks.

Risks over which we feel as though we exercise control are routinely perceived to be smaller than risks that are imposed from outside.

… Roughly 20% of Americans still do not wear safety belts in motor vehicles… [T]his is, in part, because we have a sense of control when we are behind the wheel, and the risk of crashing is both familiar and chronic—factors that make risks seem less threatening…

In other words, people not only tolerate the substantial risk of not wearing a seatbelt, but they perceive the risk to be relatively small, when, in fact, it is relatively large compared to risks that evoke more fear, like the risk of a plane crash or a terrorist attack. Similarly, consumers of organic food tolerate the real and substantial risk of illness from pathogens in manure, but fear the effects of pesticides, which have never been shown to cause illness.

Origin is important to consumers, too. The risks of technology are widely perceived to be greater than risks from nature, neatly dovetailing with the culture mythology surrounding “nature.” For example:

…many people fail to protect themselves adequately from the sun, in part because the sun is natural … However, solar radiation is widely believed to be the leading cause of melanoma, which will kill an estimated 7,910 Americans this year.

Hence the imagined and undocumented (and possibly non-existent) risk of pesticides in food are perceived as greater than the real and documented risks of serious illness and death associated with the bacteria found in manure fertilizer.

Ultimately, these myths are joined in service of the over-arching myth, that of the “enobled and empowered” consumer:

… [A]ll the significance attached by [marketing professionals] to the products transforms otherwise powerless consumers into the powerful marketplace players. As a result, newly empowered consumers can temporarily escape imposed world conditions by shaping their personal myths and servicing their individual lives. Thus, myths of the past are meaningfully used to serve the present.

Marketers of organic food are not allowed to claim that the food is safer or more nutritious, since it is neither. However consumers are led to believe that by choosing “natural” food grown with “no pesticides,” they are making an “empowered” choice of safer and healthier food. In that way, they can be induced to pay more for food that may actually be worth less.