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Organic food is of growing importance to the agro-alimentary industry. It is promoted and marketed as having significant health benefits while being less harmful to the local environment than conventional agriculture. Its success is often attributed to its ability to represent different things for different people. This research, making use of unstructured interviews, aims to investigate the nature of the meanings that consumers attach to organic food products and their implications.
It argues that the meaning of organic food is constructed in opposition to that of conventional food products, and that indeed it is different for different people. It shows that for those who choose to consume it, organic food is what food should be and that the motivations for this consumption continue be wide ranging. Furthermore, it goes on to argue that the nature of the motivation is directly responsible for the contradictions the consumer may encounter along the consumption process.
Over the past few years, the rise of ethical consumption, whether it is organic, local or fair trade food products, has brought a whole new set of dilemmas. This work concludes by exploring some of the most significant issues that consumers have to address when considering organic food as part of the ethical consumption.
Firstly, I would like to thank Dr Kath Browne who supervised this research and has provided guidance, inspiration and reassurance in equal measure. I also want to thank Dr Kirsty Smallbone for taking the time to read and comment on my work. In moments of doubts, she always restored my belief in my ability and in my choice of topic. My friend and fellow student Steve Newman must be thanked for the engrossing conversations we have had on the topic and for his honesty with regard to my work.
I am obviously indebted to the people who have generously given of their time to answer my questions. It sometimes felt as if they were doing the work for me.
I must thank my partner, Jeanette Thyrsson for her general help through hours of discussion, unlimited inspiration and intelligent criticism. Her ability to genuinely engage in my work has been a source of fascination in our time at university. Finally, I must thank the people who have taken of their time to come and entertain our children while we were both hard at work. It would not have been possible without them.
“I think ideally it would be really great if that was all that you could buy, everything could be organic and (…) I just think I could make a small difference by buying that kind of stuff and not buying non organic stuff.” (Holly, personal interview, 5/07/06)
At the heart of Environmental Assessment and Management (EAM), Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), and every other practices, regulated or not, whose aim is to improve our environmental performance is the concept of sustainability (see among others, Reed, 1996, Glasson, Therivel, and Chadwick, 1999 and, Morris and Therivel, 2001).
The Worldwatch Institute (2004) argues that while the private sector remains mostly responsible for environmental degradation, resource depletion and greenhouse gas emissions, consumers have an increasingly important role to play.
Indeed, individuals are more and more invited – and pressurised – to reflect upon their own activities and their environmental impacts. Daily newspapers run extras on ethical consumption choices and magazines such as Permaculture – Solutions for Sustainable Living or Ethical Consumer are slowly creeping out of the niche in which they have remained for so long and extending their sphere of influence. These publications tackle a range of topics that would fit within the scope of interests of what Browne et al. (2000) recognise as the concerned consumer. This concerned consumer is clearly summed up by the magazine Ethical Consumer, which represents the most dedicated end of a media spectrum ready to advise their readers on green matters and that exists to “promote universal human rights, environmental sustainability and animal welfare through ethical purchasing” (Ethical Consumer, 2006).
If this definition appears fairly clear, it nonetheless raises a certain amount of practical challenges when it comes to accommodating these different priorities. Indeed, if The Ethical Consumer still has a fairly low circulation, its messages are being relayed by the more mainstream part of the media and even though most consumers are ready, and indeed eager to take ethical decisions in their consumption choices, only few are likely to radicalise completely their shopping processes. As a result the meaning of ethical consumption is highly contested and its application, very complex since it implies for the less dedicated ethical consumers to balance out one ethical option with another, i.e. organic food versus local food.
Without benefiting from the same exposition and endorsement as the fair trade label, the organic label is at the core of ethical consumption. Yet, its meaning and understanding too remain vague. Rather than “not all that shines is gold”, a more appropriate proverb for organic food production would be “gold not always shines”. Indeed, if an organic food product can be stamped by the label of a recognised certification agency, it needs not to be the case and shrewd consumers will source organic food beyond the realm of labels and stamps.
The reality is that on the one hand, is a definition of organic food that is regulated by certification agencies. On the other hand, and from the perspective of the consumer, is a more volatile and fluctuating meaning that is essentially defined by attitudes, beliefs and assumptions. It is the existence of these dual and often unrelated meanings that makes worth this research. Indeed, the organic label remains complex and often little understood; yet more and more people choose to consume organic food. In addition, the geographical scale of the retail supply realm is now global and environmental impacts are at best tackled from the perspective of life cycles. This way, it is down to the consumer to make the assumptions necessary to make the relevant consumption choices.
To consider agricultural organic production from the point of view of EIA is to make two very serious assumptions. Firstly, it is to assume that the impact of this set of agricultural practices is less than that of conventional agriculture. Secondly, it is to assume that the lesser extent of this environmental impact would constitute the main reason why people would choose to consume organic food. Yet, these assumptions need not to reduce the interest or the validity of this research project. Indeed, the EIA practitioner, because of a necessary reflective approach of the topic will have at some point, if not answered, at least asked her/himself the questions. On the other hand, it is safe to assume that most people will not, despite assuming choices that may or may not lead to organic food consumption, have had the opportunity – for lack of time, resource, or energy – to reach a conclusion that would stand the rigour of scientific inquisition. It is therefore needed for this research to also include as an aim to put these assumptions to the test and to ask the questions: do people see organic agriculture as having a lesser environmental impact than conventional agriculture? Do people choose to consume organic food for this reason?
There are many explanations as to why organic products are so marketable. Russell et al (2005: 14) argue that one reason for its success is its “ability to represent different things for different people”. The aim of this work is to investigate what are the “things” that organic products represent. The investigation will also be accompanied by an attempt to understand how these “things” are used, how they are incorporated into people’s lives and how they contribute ultimately to create specific identities.
With the aid of purposeful interviews, and in agreement with the basic principles of Wittgenstein’s (2003) view that language is use, this research will outline the different meanings born out of the usages made of the word organic, in relation to our practical reality. Meanings should quite naturally emerge from these uses.
The aim of this project is therefore to:
· Assess what, in the eyes of some consumers, makes a product organic,
· Explore what organic products represent,
· Assess the motives behind organic food consumption, and finally to
· Explore the uncertainties and contradiction that occur prior to the process of consumption with regard to organic food.
The following Chapter will review the existing literature on the topic while Chapter 3 explores the methodological aspect of this work. Chapter 4 presents the concept of organic food how it was understood by the respondents and Chapter 5 identifies the motives for organic food consumption, sometimes casting a new light on the meaning of organic food. Finally, Chapter 6 explores some of the least straightforward aspects of organic food consumption, and the ambiguities and paradoxes that may emerge while one engages in that process of consumption.
In the EU, organic farming is regulated by the EEC council regulation 2092/91 (1991, effective in 1992). This regulation is motivated by consumers’ wish to know and understand the processes undertaken by their food from the field to the plate. It essentially provides consumers with the reassurance that the food production process has followed strict guidance with regard to farming practices, food safety and food quality. This initial regulation was extended on the 24th of June 1999 with the Council Regulation (EC) No 1804/1999 supplementing Regulation (EEC) No 2092/91 on organic production of agricultural products and indications referring thereto on agricultural products and foodstuffs to include livestock (1999).
The European Commission stresses that organic farming helps to ‘sustain ecosystems and reduces pollution’ by respecting ‘the environment’s own systems for controlling pests and disease in raising crops and livestock and avoids the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilisers, growth hormones, antibiotics or gene manipulation’ (2006). This view is also widely accepted outside of the European Union, most notably in the USA where the organic certification process started.
In the UK, the legislation follows the EU regulations via the Organic product regulation (Statutory Instrument 2004 No. 1604). This legislation outlines the processes that farmers need to undertake in order to be granted the organic certification. This certification process is, in the UK, dealt with by several independent agencies. These agencies have standards that are at least as strict as those of the EU regulation and UK legislation, and often stricter.
In the EU, organic labeling has grown hand in hand with every other aspects of food labeling, mostly focused on content, nutritional value and origin. Indeed, if food labeling has been mandatory in the EU since 2000, every ‘organic vegetable product packed in the EU has to be labeled with the number of the responsible control institution’ since 1997 (Beckmann, 2005: 197).
In the UK, out of the different agencies involved in the organic certification process, The Soil Association is by far the busiest one. Self titled ‘the UK's leading environmental charity promoting sustainable, organic farming and championing human health’ (Soil Association, 2006); the Soil Association handles the certification process of 80% of organic products in the UK. Established in 1973 the soil association and its trademark logo have become, for most consumers, synonymous with organic food product.
On the environmental front, the bulk of the political agenda aims at setting measures to control the private sector; largely responsible for environmental degradation, resource depletion and greenhouse gas emissions (Worldwatch Institute, 2004). However, the public, as individuals or interest groups, has long been aware of its position in this equilibrium, and from an economical point of view, consumer behaviour is a recognised means of influencing polluter’s behaviours (Krarup and Russell, 2005). Yet, if consumers are increasingly influential, they too face a certain amount of pressure aimed at curbing their behaviour towards more sustainable consumption processes.
From an environmental perspective the current concern has mostly to do with minimising the impacts of our actions. It has been said; legislation and regulation are first aimed at the private sector. However, and because consumer behaviour also influences production processes, the pressure is growing for responsibilities to be taken at all stages of the consumption process.
The types of pressures are wide ranging. While local councils restrict the amount of household waste collections while offering better recycling facilities to boost their recycling rates, governments provide subsidies towards energy efficient technology or alternatively fuelled vehicles (Mastny, 2004: 130). These pressures also translate into a general raise of environmental awareness and the concept of sustainability has now escaped the realm of academics and is entering that of the general public with increasing significance.
At the other end of the consumption spectrum, consumers are now also encouraged to consider the way the items they consume are being produced. Magazine aimed at promoting “universal human rights, environmental sustainability and animal welfare through ethical purchasing” (Ethical Consumer, 2006) only reassert this concern and help to provide consumers with the mass of information needed to make “the right choice”.
In addition, green consumption is more and more recognised as a major contributor to identity formation and therefore marketed as such, using green terminology in a new way. Among countless publications, The Green Parent has for caption raising kids with a conscience. Yet, for the majority of consumers, this green consumption suffers from significant flows and lack of consistency. Indeed, pro-environmental behaviour is more likely to be witnessed in the key areas where the impacts are visible (Pedersen, 2000: 193). Nonetheless, these pressures, coupled with an increased availability, contribute to make organic food a more and more attractive option, even for the less dedicated consumers.
It has to be noted, though, that despite the growing number of environmentally aware consumers – and the growing markets that come with it – they remain a minority. Gordon (2002: 14) notes wryly that most consumers in the UK remain ‘determined not to change their behaviour despite the continuing barrage of information that warns of the consequences to the planet, to their immediate environment or to their personal health or well-being’.
Along with the political and socio-cultural pressures, other issues have been recognised to have the potential to curb consumer’s behaviour in a significant manner. Among them, and of concern to organic food consumption, none seemed to have had as much an impact as the food scares of the late 1980’s and 1990’s. Indeed, these have put some other form of pressures on individuals to consider their consumption beyond the product they choose to consume.
The food scares that hit the UK in the 1990’s have increased the general interest of the public for practices it knew little or nothing about. Following Salmonella, Mad Cow Disease (BSE) and Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) have catapulted the then current farming practices to the front pages of the newspapers. Indeed, these food scares and food crisis, which have not only hit the UK but also the rest of Europe, have ‘brought into focus a lack of consumer trust in the working of the food chain’ (Grunert, 2002: 275).
Furthermore, these food scares have highlighted that consumers, also as a result of their lack of knowledge and limited understanding of the food industry practices, have a very limited trust in the government ability to handle such crisis (Murphy-Lawless, 2004), and therefore to guarantee the safety of their food supply.
Another concern for the consumer has been the growing importance of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) in the debates surrounding food production. At the heart of this debate is a concern for safety, be it an environmental issue or a health related issue. The cause for concern is the apparent lack of research into the consequences of growing and consuming GM food. This state of things, some argue (among others, Browne et al., 2000 and Koivisto Hursti and Magnusson, 2003) has pushed more consumers towards organic food. This is obviously debatable as in the first place, in the UK, ‘resistance to GM food grew because [the food scares had] eroded public confidence in food safety regulation’ (Uzogara, 2000: 182).
The food scares and GM food suspicion have resulted in an increase of information on all the agricultural practices and on the consequences of these practices, be it at a local, national, or international level (Halweil and Nierenberg, 2004). Yet, perhaps because this information has been more scandalous than educational, consumers continue to have a limited understanding of general rural issues and would rather not know too much about how their food come to their plate (Enteleca Research Consultancy Ltd, 2001).
If the awareness of the general public has been universally raised in relation to its health and safety, it is far from being the case when it comes to taking responsibility for its actions. Yet, the minority that represents the concerned consumers is increasingly influential. Keen on organic food – for environmental reasons – the ethical consumer has much more at heart than its environmental impacts (Loureiro and Lotade, 2005: 131). For Browne et al (2000: 74-76), these “concerns” are centred on three issues: people welfare (workers), environmental awareness and animal welfare. When used as criteria for taking a consumption decision, these constitute the concept of “ethicalness” as it is used.
Ethics, but mostly ethical living and ethical consumption have in the past few years made their way through the media. Although it remains largely restricted to the press, the very word ethics is being relayed with increased regularity.
Yet, ethics and “ethicalness” have come to signify something rather remote from their philosophical roots. From Aristotle’s (1999) view of ethic as the ambition to find out how we are supposed to live our lives according to our human nature, it has become how we are supposed to live our lives without having a detrimental impact on people’s lives and on our ecological environment, and without contributing to cruelty towards animal. Indeed, the term seems now to be used as a substitute for the moral principles of certain groups or individuals.
One of the aspects that is currently interesting with regards to ethical consumption is whether or not it is linked to greater knowledge of food practices. Alternative or ethical consumption of agricultural products has greatly developed as a result of more publicity being given to conventional – extensive – agriculture (Thøgersen, 2005). For some, ethical consumption is the direct consequence of this general increase in knowledge of the food production practices. Furthermore, previous research (Torjussen et al., 2001 among others) has shown that a clear relation exists between buying organic and being aware of the food system. Yet, with the organic food market growing at the pace it does, this is a position worth investigating further.
The concerns that consumers may have with regard to the origin, the quality and the overall standard of their food product have practical repercussions. It is the debate of political economy to argue whether production is function of the consumers’ desires or whether consumption is dictated by the production available. There is a wealth of literature on the topic and it is not the point of this research to argue either, the reality being probably somewhere in between.
Whether concerned for their health, the environment, worker’s welfare or animal welfare, consumers have now at their disposal a wide choice of alternatives to conventional food products. These products, labeled and marketed as such or not, offer to the aforementioned concerned consumer – often self-labeled ethical consumer – the possibility to make a difference via their consumption choices. Although the aim of this research is to focus on organic food consumption, it is important to consider two of the most significant aspect of ethical consumption, if only to confirm that the understanding of organic food is extremely fluctuating and contested.
Saba and Messina (2003: 637) argue that organic food consumption is directly linked to a “decreasing confidence in the quality of conventional foods” as well as an increase in health concern resulting from the consumption of these conventional foods. In general, though, the interest in organic food production – not its actual consumption – increases as concerns for the environment and animal welfare increase (Brown et al, 2000).
However, in an early work on attitudes towards and understanding of, organic food, Hutchins and Greenhalgh (1995: 12) warn that ‘perception and reality only concur in so far as organic produce is better for the environment’. What stands out of this research is that the expected health benefit – which account for three quarters of the respondents’ main motivation behind organic food consumption – is not a proven fact. Even today the debate goes on and the organic lobby is often accused in the media of inflating the supposed health benefits resulting from organic food consumption (Revill, 2006).
Ten years on, the market has exploded almost tenfold and consumers are still, for most, ignorant of the facts. This gap between perception, attitude and reality constitutes the motivation for this research.
The issue of food miles focuses around ‘the negative environmental impact of transporting food over long distances from developing countries, especially when a homegrown substitute is available’ (Brown et al, 2000: 76). It is a very important issue that can, when considered from an environmental impact perspective, render other ethically produced goods – whether organic or fair trade – non-ethical. Similarly, a non-organic product can be deemed ethical when produced and consumed locally. Local food has yet to secure itself a ‘comparable system of regulation and certification’ to that of fair trade or organic food production (Weatherell et al, 2003: 234) but remains at the heart of the ethical consumption debate.
Brown et al. (2000: 70) argue that fair trade is mainly addressing questions of social justice and is concerned almost exclusively with the “producers’ and workers’ treatment within farming systems”. Also, and more importantly, fair trade aims at addressing the price fluctuations affecting raw material and resources coming from developing countries. Fair trade is already enhanced by powerful information campaigns and benefits from a recognised label. Yet, and just as the organic label, fair trade can be rendered unethical when plotted against locally produced food (for an account of the moral dilemmas of fair trade, see Goodman, 2004 and, Bryant and Goodman, 2004).
Organic food is a regulated trade. It has rules of production that apply consistently throughout the EU and throughout the UK. In the UK, most of the certification is undertaken by the Soil Association whose label is almost systematically associated with organic farming. Consumers are under increasing pressure to take responsibilities for the environmental impacts of their actions. This pressure exists at a political level and is exercised at local and national level. It also exists, more subtly, at a social and cultural level. Organic food is promoted and marketed to answer these pressures and help lift the burden that conventional intensive agriculture is putting on the environment.
Along with the pressures they face, consumers have themselves a certain amount of concerns that have been shown to encourage organic food consumption. A certain laxity in agricultural practices in the 1980’s led subsequently to several food scandals that raised questions regarding the safety of consuming certain products and seriously damaged the trust that consumers may have had in the food industry. Also, global concerns about the state of the planet, working conditions in developing countries and animal welfare have contributed to the emergence of a new ethic of consumption aiming at minimizing the impact on these areas.
Organic food is at the heart of these concerns, as it appears to provide solutions to issues of food quality and safety as well as having a reduced impact on the environment. However, organic food continues to be understood differently by different people according to the different motives that push them towards organic food consumption. Furthermore, as part of ethical consumption, organic food sometimes clashes with other concepts such as fair trade and food miles. It is these contested meanings as well as the ambiguities that they raise that the following research aims to investigate.
This work is about exploring some of the supplementary meanings that accompany the act of buying and consuming a specific range of food products besides that of feeding oneself. Although some quantitative data could be relevant and could help to gain a better understanding, they would do so in a manner that would mostly assert patterns of behaviour. In this case, the main objective is to identify some of the different meanings – that are in turn the construct of different behaviours – rather than to assess the likelihood and distribution of such behaviours according to certain socio-economic criteria. As a result it was decided early to focus on qualitative methods and to completely disregard quantitative ones. Where quantitative methods would help to measure certain phenomena, qualitative ones aim at identifying these phenomena (Silverman, 1998: 103-104).
In a research such as this one, meanings are identified through the assessment of different attitudes, perceptions and general behaviours. These cannot be anticipated and the researcher must therefore rely on the participants revealing themselves in a way that would not be possible via the use of quantitatively coded means of collecting information. Besides, whereas quantitative data often serve the purpose of verifying a given set of hypothesis – implying that the researcher does the theoretical work before collecting the data – qualitative data constitute the raw material from which the researcher can elaborate a theory (Bryman, 2001: 284-285).
This research is using qualitative methods because it constitutes the best means to reach a better understanding of the meanings associated to the acquisition and to the consumption of organic food. As highlighted in the literature review of this research, some of the main motives behind the consumption of organic food have already been identified in previous work. Indeed, health, environmental protection and animal welfare are the predominant factors in the switch from non-organic to organic food products. However, these words often fail to explain in depth the individual beliefs at the root of these consumption choices. Going for conversation-type interviews did constitute the best way to push the respondents to question their own attitudes over the course of the interview and therefore to provide what, hopefully, constitutes honest sophisticated answers.
Baxter and Eyles’ (1997) analysis of qualitative research in social geography rightly stress the need for – and therefore lack of – ‘a set of criteria for establishing qualitative rigour’ in this type of research (1997: 511). Even though their criticism is mostly directed at ‘journal editors [who] continue to emphasize results at the expense of equally important accounts of strategies for maintaining rigour’ (ibid. 521), it was deemed important and relevant enough in this case to be considered as a guideline. As such, their recommendation to make use of ‘multiple methods, numerous detailed quotations, discussions of validity and appeals to recognized bodies of literature’ (ibid.) were scrupulously observed.
In the cases of ‘small scale or in-depth research’, the sample needs not to represent the repartition of the different positions but simply to illustrate these different positions (Tashakkori and Teddlie, 1998). This type of sampling, referred to as non-probability or, non-random sampling, is a valid means to be used in order to support a pre-established theory or because a random sampling is either not possible or not necessary.
Just as in probability sampling, non-probability sampling presents a different set of techniques, each serving a specific purpose. They are mainly used in qualitative research once the first period of observation is completed. Theoretical sampling is used to assess an “emerging theory” and therefore the sample is selected according to characteristics likely to do so (Seale, 1998). Furthermore, if the population studied is reticent about being interviewed, for example people involved in illegal activities, the interviewer can ask at the end of the first interview – given there is one – who else in the group might be interested to be interviewed. This is referred to as snowball sampling; each interviewee is used as a sort of “gatekeeper” to the next one. The sample might not need to be representative but can explore in depth the different aspects of the participants’ lives, opinions and experiences.
This type of sampling is what has been chosen for this research. The criteria used, summarised in the participant information sheet (appendix A), stress that the interviewee must ‘have demonstrated a certain amount of interest and understanding in [her/his] position in [her/his] ecological and social environment and the impacts [s/he] may have on it’. This criteria being highly subjective, it was felt that respondents would constitute a perfect introduction to someone in their entourage sharing these same characteristics.
Even though snowball sampling was considered the most suitable technique for this research, it also presents what can be thought of as the “disadvantage of its strength”. Indeed, if snowball sampling was good for granting access to a greater pool of respondents sharing the same basic characteristics, it also guaranteed that the sample would not be as heterogeneous as it could have been. Because it relies on ‘interpersonal relations and connections between people, [snowball sampling] both includes and exclude individuals’ (Browne, 2005: 47). As the first respondents were people from my own social network, the sample shows a greater proportion of interviewee with young children. However, because of the qualitative nature of this research, this over-representation of one part of the population should not be seen as a research bias but rather as one of the condition of the sampling method. Besides, this type of similarities among respondents may also prove interesting when it comes to analysing the results.
Appendix B presents the interview table highlighting some of the details of the people interviewed including age group, gender, and whether or not they have children.
Thirteen interviews were carried out from July the 4th to July the 31st. As mentioned earlier, the use of unstructured interviews was felt as the best way to lead respondents to share their views on the research topic. The questions asked and topics dealt with are more clearly presented in the interview schedule (appendix C). Over the course of the first three interviews the interview questions were piloted and adjusted as was felt necessary. Moreover, after five or ten interviews and even though the interview schedule was not necessarily expanded, the ways the researcher got the interviewees to respond on a given topic were refined. Also, and it is to be noted, the respondents that were the closest to my social network were felt to be more honest in so far as they seemed to share their lack of certainty and knowledge more openly and readily.
The terms and conditions of this research were clearly written out for each interviewee. The participant information sheets contained a brief and clear paragraph on the way the information they provided was to be handled as well as how the interviewee’s anonymity was to be respected:
“The information you provide over the course of the interview shall be used for this research only. The data will be used in accordance with the Data Protection Act of 1998 and you will never be identified by your name. As a guarantee of anonymity all identifying details will be removed from the transcripts, and you will only be referred to by your initials. The data will be securely stored and will only be accessed by Mmedo Duffort – the researcher – and Kath Browne – his supervisor.”
Because of the nature of the research it was deemed necessary to consider the rules of the Data Protection Act (1998) as guide of best practice. These Data Protection Principles stress that the data must be:
Obtained fairly and lawfully
Held only for specific and lawful purposes
Relevant, adequate and not excessive for those purposes
Accurate and where necessary kept up to date
Not kept for longer than necessary
Processed in accordance with the rights of data subjects under the Act
Adequately secured to prevent loss or unauthorised disclosure
Not be transferred outside of the European Economic Area
Respondents were asked to sign a consent form (appendix D) confirming their understanding of the project and its implications.
The interviews were transcribed promptly and a research diary was kept in which were recorded the primary impressions following each interview. It was decided early that the interviews should be handled in an analytical manner and following their transcription, they were analysed primarily in terms of what was said and only secondarily in terms of how it was said. This seemed to be in line with Wittgenstein’s (2003) view on language. Rather than going along with the view that language has an intrinsic meaning, Wittgenstein argues that language is related to the way we use it.
The interviews content was analysed following themes and sub-themes that went on to become the basic structure of the following three chapters.
In this type of research, it is crucial to critically assess the position and the point of view of the researcher. Indeed, social research, following Weber’s (1949) work, has long been aware that knowledge is only a specific way of selecting and organising things, and that the way one chooses depends on one’s values. Knowledge is therefore never value free and as a result, if there is no way to rationally or empirically choose between values, there is no way to demonstrate the validity of these values. If it is subsequently critical to assess the values – i.e. the viewpoint – of the researcher, it is not to reduce the bias, but rather to acknowledge it.
The choice of topic, as well as the angle taken for this research, is symptomatic of the type of issues that have come to occupy my mind in the past few years. In the academic environment in which I found myself, I have had the opportunity of discussing the matters with knowledgeable and educated people. However, these issues are also a common topic of conversation in my social network; and evidently in many others. From these exchanges, I came to the conclusion that the word organic, not only had different meanings for different people but also that these meanings have clear commercial repercussions and would therefore benefit from being better understood.
Over the course of this research I have often been asking myself how I would answer my own interview questions. I can answer some of these questions. I buy most of my food from supermarkets, although I occasionally buy fruits and vegetables from specialised shops. If I buy any meat at all, it would be organic and I also try to only buy organic eggs and milk. Apart from that I buy very little organic food. This is often motivated by the fact that I either do not think that I can afford it or because I see other factors, such as the geographical origin of the food or its packaging, as more important. As for the other questions of my interview schedule, I am still struggling to answer them. As everyone else and even though I have investigated previous academic works on the topic, my knowledge is built from what I choose to pick and mix from my social interactions as well as from the media to which I have access. My views on, and my understanding of, the word organic have evolved over the course of this research and they will, there is no doubts, continue to do so.
This starting point, my own attitude to organic food, and the fluctuating doubts and certitudes that I may harbour regarding the practice should all be considered as potential explanation for the bias that are bound to occur with this type of research. It is often because an issue was not clear for me that I would raise it with an interviewee. Similarly, I probably overlooked some aspects of organic food consumption because, at some stage, it appeared obvious to me.
The interview schedule was designed prior to the beginning of the interview process. The interview questions were not as much piloted as continuously updated. Continuous piloting of interview questions as part of qualitative methods enables new issues to emerge and the researcher to respond to these issues. It is this ‘flexibility and lack of structure’ (Bryman, 2001: 280) that constitutes one of the main advantages of qualitative research. Indeed, issues such as that of the holiday consumption of organic food or the different origins of the knowledge were only brought up systematically in each interview once they had naturally appeared in the first interviews. Also, my interview techniques and my ability – or lack of – to have the respondents expand on a specific issue greatly transformed over the course of the research.
Although the whole idea behind this research was to investigate the meanings that consumers attach to organic food consumption, it was felt that that would require more than just asking what it meant for them to consume organic food. The unstructured interviews carried out in order to obtain original research material revealed that the meanings of organic food could be seen simultaneously through the initial understanding of the term, the motivation for this type of consumption and the questions this type of consumption raised.
This chapter focuses on what the respondents put forward as their primary understanding of the concept of organic food. Chapter 5 presents the motivations behind organic food consumption while Chapter 6 explores some of the ambiguities raised by organic food consumption.
The ideas of nature and naturalness are often to be found at the heart of the debate on organic food. Indeed, Verhoog et al. (2003) identify these concepts as some of the most important ones when it comes to defining the characteristics of organic agriculture and organic farming. Their research highlights that naturalness is used to refer to either one of three key aspects of organic agriculture: the no chemicals approach – natural as the organic (life processes); the agro-ecological approach – natural as the ecological; and the integrity approach – natural as referring to the characteristic nature of an entity (2003: 29). The work, which aimed to answer critics of the fact that nature is hardly ever defined and has too big an emotional element for it to be used scientifically, concludes that the concept of naturalness can describe organic agriculture only in so far as it implies all of the three aspects mentioned above.
During the course of this research, the concepts of natural and naturalness came up regularly when defining organic food but were often associated with the idea of purity. This is understandable as the questions focused on organic food – a product – rather than organic agriculture – a process. However, it was also felt that both concept were often referred to for lack of a better word.
Eleanor expressed this difficulty in finding the right words when comparing non-organic to organic food:
“It’s just the preservatives… I don’t really like eating a lot of preservatives…yeah, it’s just not… it’s more natural, really.” (Eleanor, 4/07/06)
This difficulty in finding the right words to express something as complex as a practical definition of organic food may sometimes illustrate a general lack of in-depth knowledge of the processes involved in organic agriculture. In this situation, the concept of naturalness comes in very handily. Indeed, it appeared that it was when a collection of loosely or non-related concepts were flying out of the respondents’ mouth to define organic food that the concept of naturalness came to their rescue.
“Natural. I mean, more natural. Less travelling, is that all right? I mean, the more… I mean, if I had to do a marketing one, it’s more natural. As close as possible to the proper nature without modification, without any chemical, unnatural GM… whatever they call it, genetically modified and all that thing. So, without any pesticides, chemicals and closest to the real nature, but natural is the word that I would say would be the key.” (Heather, 24/07/06)
Yet, at no times during the interview process were the respondents asked to expand on their definition of nature or natural. From their responses, it is fair to assume that Verhoog et al.’s distinctions are indeed at the core of the understanding of the concept of naturalness. Overall, if organic food is seen as natural it is only in so far as it is “more natural” than food produced by conventional agriculture. Indeed, if the view on purity is clearly that conventional food is impure, organic food is not necessarily seen as completely pure. In fact, and it is a regular aspect of the duality organic food/conventional food, organic food is only seen as more pure than conventional food. Mary boldly explains that the fine details are just not as important as the overall impression:
“Natural food grown in a natural way, like could be a more traditional way without the use of pesticides or any kind of synthetic fertilisers and stuffs. Although I have heard sometimes they do use certain things with organic food like I don’t really know what the guidelines are exactly. But yeah for me it just means like natural, unprocessed and pure really. But yeah I do need to learn more about that so I know exactly. For me I do things more based more on feeling, but it would be nice to know exactly what I’m avoiding. Why I’m paying so much for my food.” (Mary, 17/07/06)
The duality between organic and non-organic food was always going to be key to the project. Indeed, it is often the case that when one struggles to define a concept, one refers to its opposite. In doing so, one often implies some characteristics that were not necessarily fully intended to be part of the definition.
The word “normal”, which is arguably just as hard to define as “natural”, was regularly used in opposition to organic. This implied that, as things stand, organic food is, for those who choose to consume it, better than normal. This is enough to introduce the possibility of conspicuous consumption as part of organic food consumption, which will arise again at later stages. However, it also emphasises the fact that when it comes to consumption, organic food remains the exception and non-organic, the norm.
The following not only illustrates the constant referral to opposite in order to define the concept of organic food but also that if organic food is not the norm, some wish it were.
“Organic food means… means natural food… like, not so processed… and, it’s more pure in a sense, like there’s no… you know that there is no… no stuff that shouldn’t be in… in the food… no preservatives and things… so yeah… it’s just healthy and natural. (…) It’s so processed, the normal milk, I just couldn’t buy it. (…) I think that everything should be organic anyway… maybe they should change it, maybe it should be organic and then the other food is… the other food is labelled.” (Eleanor, 4/07/06)
Krarup and Russell (2005:13) argue that organic food production is often presented to ‘more closely resemble traditional bucolic notions of agricultural production’. This is an aspect of the research that was eagerly anticipated, since if strong enough, it could have thoroughly explained and justified all forms of organic food consumption.
Nostalgia is a powerful emotion and it seems obvious that the experiences that one has had as a child serve as reference in adult life. Furthermore, nostalgia does not necessarily imply a first hand experience and might indeed become the idealisation of what someone else has experienced. This seems to apply to organic food and again, “what food used to be like” and “how food should be” – i.e. what is normal food – were often used as examples during the interviews.
While attempting to define organic food, Samantha evocates a time when the distinction between organic and non-organic food did not exist:
“I suppose food that is more pure than non-organic food. That you’re eating stuff that is how it should be really and possibly how it used to be. Like my grandparents, there’s a lot of people of our generation who eat organic food and our parents’ or our grandparents’ generation might find it a bit strange because they were brought up on organic food without it being labelled organic.” (Samantha, 11/07/06)
There is obviously a certain amount of sentimentalism expressed when one deals with childhood memories. However, this sentimentalism should not necessarily be condemned as irrational since it is an essential factor in making consumption choices. Clara explains how she went on to change her position on organic food:
“I used to think that there wasn’t any difference at all until I like tasted a courgette round at my friend’s house and I was like, ‘Wow this is the most amazing courgette. It tastes like the kind of courgettes that I used to have when I was a child and my dad was growing them.’ And I was like, ‘Why does it taste so amazing?’ And she said ‘Oh it’s organic.’ And then I thought maybe, maybe there is a taste difference.“ (Clara, 13/07/06)
If nostalgia may apply to past experiences it may also refer to an idealised past in which things were different for the better. The past may be seen as a simpler, comforting space in which none of the complexities and uncertainties of the present ever existed. This apparent lack of complexities gives it a reassuring feel and it is easy to consider it as a refuge. When a respondent seemed to struggle to articulate the reasons behind her or his organic food consumption, past agricultural practices were seen as holding some essential truth. Eleanor uses it to justify her choices:
“Int: so that’s how you feel… you see it… you’ve gone into organic for health reasons… in the first place?
Resp: yeah…in the first place but also… yeah I just feel it’s like… healthier; it’s how it should be, organic
Int: what do you mean, how it should be?
Resp: how it used to be, like norm… you know when it didn’t… when they didn’t use… like preservatives… and stuffs so much.” (Eleanor, 4/07/06)
One of the hypotheses of the very early stages of the research was that organic food would be consumed because the processes involved in the production were more closely monitored, regulated and documented than that of conventional agriculture. In fact, it was felt that organic food would be seen as bringing the consumers closer to a food production process from which they have been alienated ever since the beginning of the industrial revolution. This may appear as a hasty hypothesis as some consumers, via access to a vegetable patch, kept a function as food producer. However, and no matter what was the primary motivation for consuming organic food, it appeared that having at least the impression of knowing how the food was produced was essential for its eventual consumption. In that respect, the possibility of growing their own food – disregarding the workload involved – was for the respondents an option they wish they had. Clara explains:
“I grew up in Lewes and my dad tried to grow nearly all of our food in our garden and we had lovely vegetables which were organic and I didn’t really think about it at the time. And they tasted good and I always found it satisfying to have this food from the garden and know where our food was coming from and to have helped plant the potatoes and it’s something in the future that I would like to have again, to have a garden and make my own, grow my own vegetables. And the closest I can get at the moment is thinking about where my vegetables come from and getting it kind of local, organic, yes.” (Clara, 13/07/06)
Home-grown food, expressed in those terms, enables the consumer to have total control over the processes of production. It is the issue of knowledge of, and of trust in, the conventional agricultural practices that is here at stake. Organic food indeed becomes the next best thing. It is regulated and widely available and therefore fits perfectly into most consumers’ busy lifestyle.
“If I couldn’t find any at all, I’d just have to eat non organic, I wouldn’t grow it myself, although I would see that in the future if I had space then I would, I would grow my own stuff.” (Samantha, 11/07/06)
Overall, organic food is understood as encapsulating a series of qualities. Indeed, it is seen as natural and pure or at least more natural and purer than conventional food. It is in fact often considered as the opposite of conventional food and draws some of its appeal from this dual opposition. It can also be reminiscent of a time when food was different and labels did not apply. It has, in fact, most of the qualities that one would easily attribute to home-grown food but without the need for the work involved by a vegetable plot.
“Motivations? I’m really into purity you know I don’t want things to be messed with, I don’t want chemicals, I don’t want anything added to things, I don’t want things that aren’t necessary, I don’t want things that are bad for the environment and I don’t want things in my body that are not good for me and I don’t want things in my children’s bodies that are not good for them. You know it’s just a simple desire to have health and to respect the earth and to support people that have those values and that grow it or that sell it.” (Mary, 17/07/06)
In the academic realm of organic food consumption, the question of the motives is one of the most thoroughly and systematically investigated. Whether these researches are region specific or not, the conclusions are broadly similar. What tend to motivate most consumers to buy organic food are health concerns, environmental concerns and/or animal welfare (in a wealth of literature, see Pedersen et al. 2000, and, Zanoli, R. and Naspetti, S. 2002).
While investigating meanings, the issue of motivations took a central role when it became clear that motivations were often presented as justifications. The scope is obviously very broad and not two respondents of this research seem to have had the same combination of motives. Some, as Mary – for whom organic food accounts for almost the totality of a her diet and that of her family – have clear ideas and a long list of motives, while others – often much less dedicated to consume organic food – have obviously milder views and fewer motivations.
Motivations are very often articulated along the dual lines of organic food being good and conventional food being bad. They are also either expressed in terms of concerns in relation to the self – internal – or in relation to the impacts their consumption my have on others – external. The aim of this research not being to identify the motives behind organic food consumption, the emphasis has been put on identifying aspects that were the most striking and those that may have been overlooked by previous quantitative researches.
There is one aspect of the motivations that the respondents expressed that was not articulated along the lines of good or bad in direct relation with themselves nor their environment. Rather it was expressed as what one ought to do and in that respect it represents what is more and more labelled as ethical consumption. In some cases it may indicate that some food practices are frown upon in the first place. Clara expresses this feeling in relation to the meat eating habits of her household:
“So when we do get meat in this house we go to the, there’s this, we do actually go to this really nice organic butcher’s that’s half way up the hill and buy the free range nice stuff. So yes our conscience is a bit better.” (Clara, 13/07/06)
This bad conscience/good conscience approach often implied that the respondents felt that if they were not part of the solution – i.e. by not consuming organic food – they were part of the problem. This, in a way, is the introduction of political consciousness into food consumption. In this form, political consciousness has a clearer meaning than the over-used ethical consumption in so far as it expresses the notion of obligation towards oneself, towards the earth and towards other people. Tess expresses in details the strength of this obligation:
“If I could, I would buy only organic if I could buy only organic, if I could from an economical perspective. For me that would mean that I would feel better because I would participate in producing food, or buying foods that are produced in a way that I believe is the right way. And the reason for that is that, I think there are so many other problems attached to mono cropping and from shipping food from very far away, that are being problematic for people really far away. The food industry in South America and the chopping down of the rain forest, all these issues for me are linked to the way we produce food and I believe that if we can begin to find other ways of producing food, and I think for me organic food is sort of in line with trying to put forward other ways, more sustainable ways. Ways that would be sustainable for both people and for the earth.” (Tess, 31/07/06)
Some go even further and turn this political consciousness into a form of political and ideological struggle. Positioning herself in direct and open conflict with those consumers who have little regards for organic food and organic farming practices, Tina is keen to make her beliefs known:
“What it means is that it’s good, I think I bring… I help to bring something good to the world by eating organic and I would like everyone to do it, basically.
Int: okay. How do you react to people who don’t eat any organic meat, or any organic food for that matter?
Resp: I think it’s careless. I think it’s a sign
of… it’s a lack of involvement, not to bother about it and I think it’s bad for
these people that they don’t care about their health or anything. I think it’s
a vicious cycle. Laziness.” (Tina, 18/07/06)
5.2 Supporting organic farming
Just as conscience-motivated consumption, intension to support the cause of organic farming is one of the motivations least identified by previous researches. As political consciousness in practice, this desire to spend one’s money on a certain type of food and in support of the livelihood of a certain type of farmer amounts to political funding. Clara explains how this affects her meat consumption:
“But definitely free range chickens, definitely a nicer way than buying cheap nasty bits of cheapo chicken that’s been, that’s lived in a battery farm and giving your money to the farmers who do that, I’d rather give my money to people who kind of keep their chicken a lot better.” (Clara, 13/07/06)
Again, the position of organic chicken as opposed to battery chicken is very significant of the fact that here, organic chicken has no intrinsic qualities other than not being battery chicken. Yet, the support shown towards organic farming was not always a strict reaction to how bad conventional farming is. Paul expressed a rather more historical approach in support of his views on organic farming:
“I’m supporting the organic farming. To do with, well it’s like an environmental thing so that since the war in this country, since the Second World War they’ve gone into intensive farming which has killed a lot of wildlife. It’s got rid of half our native songbirds. And these days whole ecosystems have disintegrated, so organic farming supports our wildlife and its, you know, biodiversity is important.” (Paul, 13/07/06)
What the support for organic farming demonstrates, as a motivation, is that for some of the respondents, the very act of consumption means more than simply acquiring a product. It implies a level of awareness for systems and mechanisms at work in the global food market and demonstrates a desire that one may have to take responsibilities for the impact of one’s consumption processes. Even if it may become idealised – in the same manner as other political beliefs can come to have little to do with the reality of things – this type of motivation highlights a desire to gain knowledge of the ins and outs of the food production process. It also shows that the process is still in motion and may need help to keep on going forward, therefore requiring consumers to get involved. Tess presents the case for organic farming and organic farmers:
“I suppose I see organic farming as people who are interested in sustainability, so even if the whole of organic farming is not completely sustainable, and I do know that they use pesticides and so on, I still think that it’s a good step towards the different ways of producing food and that the people who do it are interested in that direction and that people who are doing it are not doing it for… so much for the profit, ‘cause if they’re just out for the profits, they would go for something else, they would not go for organic. So I suppose organic farming for me means a certain type of lifestyle and a certain type of choices and I think for those people who want to do organic farming so even if it’s not perfect in terms of sustainability, I still thinks that it’s very important to support these people and to buy these products.” (Tess, 31/07/06)
“Being a parent you know you want your child to eat healthily and I think we’re very lucky nowadays to have the opportunity to have organic food.” (Holly, 5/07/06)
Among the most mentioned motivations for organic food consumption was health. This is true for most previous researches and, although in no way quantitative, it is true for this research. Respondents care for their health and the overall feeling is that conventional food is seen to possibly contain some products that are harmful to their health.
From Makatouni’s work (2002) it was anticipated that parents would not only care for their own health but also for that of their children. The majority of the respondents having children below the age of six, the issue was raised several times. However, there was nothing in previous researches that would have provided any indication of the importance of children’s health in the motivations for the consumption of organic food. In fact, and although respondents without children also expressed their health concerns, most of those with children clearly explained that they decided to consume organic food out of concerns for the health of their children.
Eleanor explains how she decided to buy some organic food after her daughter’s illness:
“I suppose I started to buy organic dairy products, cause my daughter… she had an ear infection… quite often and it’s not very good to eat milk or dairy products when you have that… but, I cant… I don’t want to stop it completely but… organic is… it’s better… like less processed… so… yeah… and also it tastes nice.” (Eleanor, 4/07/06)
For some, the decision to buy organic food did not come as a remediation to a child’s illness but rather as an opportunity to give their children a good start. Samantha explains how the process went from a mother’s concern to a family routine:
“Well, it did mostly start with X [her daughter] when she started to eat solid food and I looked into box schemes, organic box schemes, and then once I started getting the organic vegetables I started getting more organic other food for her and we ate it as well and then it just kind of became a habit.” (Samantha, 11/07/06)
This becomes more of an issue for families who’s financial means are limited. Holly explains how she has to take decisions on what food she and her son can consume based on this financial restriction:
“I do that probably mainly for X [her son] rather than for me. (…) Because of not having lots of money I have to make a decision about what I think is important to buy, you know what is really important to have organic and what is maybe not so important I think. So for me at the moment my kind of priority is to give, which is what I said before, is like fruit and veg and dairy and basically most of the majority of stuff that I give to X is organic, ‘cause I do believe that it is better. ‘Cause I think that the majority of the stuffs that I’ve kind of seen or… the material, the media and all that; as far as I’m concerned, organic is much better.” (Holly, 5/07/06)
Over the course of the research, it became clear that some respondents had a better knowledge and understanding of organic food production than others. This was apparent in the discussions on the topic of health and those who seemed to have more confidence in their knowledge – identified through a more precise vocabulary and less hesitation in their expression – had little to say about health. Not that they were not concerned, it was rather the case that they found facts very clear and felt no need to expand.
From the point of view of EIA, one would have hoped that the environmental impacts of conventional agriculture would be a strong motivation for organic food consumption. After all, organic agriculture may remain intensive farming; its practices involve the use of less chemical pesticides and fertilizers. This is the way it is perceived and expressed by most. However, environmental concern was often presented as so obvious by the respondents that they did not necessarily take the time to explain. Clara expresses the causal link from environment to farming practices:
“If you’ve got any sort of pretence to be interested in environmental stuff then I think it’s fairly basic that you should care about farming practices and about… sort of… and I think it’s something that’s quite lacking in how people live that people don’t think about where their food comes from and what it’s doing to the land around you and the land in England.” (Clara, 13/07/06)
The question of environment was sometimes misunderstood and it is very debatable whether a form of mono cropping agriculture – even if organic – could actually benefit the environment and promote biodiversity. Yet, the view that organic farming – and not necessarily organic food – is better than conventional farming seems to be accepted by most respondents. Emily presents her views of organic farming as more than just a practice:
“I think it’s a… well, the philosophy I would like to see, but it’s obviously not what happens in many cases, is to produce food in a sustainable and environmentally sound way, in a way which doesn’t damage the environment, or destroy it and doesn’t add extra pollution to the environment, hopefully protecting our planet a little bit longer.
Int: do you think the world is there to be saved?
Resp: saved…? No I don’t think saved but it’s also not there to be destroyed and there are lots of things that we can do which will minimise the impact that human beings are having because… only a little is being done at the moment on a world scale.” (Emily, 19/07/06)
The question of animal welfare was often surrounded by vagueness. There seems to be a genuine concern for the way animals raised for food consumption are treated but the respondents expressed very few evidence of an in-depth knowledge of these agricultural practices. The concerns are understandable; especially in Britain and especially following the food scares of the late 1980’s and 1990’s. Salmonella, E-Coli, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) or Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) were enough to raise the awareness of most consumers. However, a recent research argues that most consumers would still rather not know too much about the ways their meat ends up in their plate (Enteleca Research Consultancy Ltd, 2001). The result is an apparent distaste for most practices of conventional agriculture with regards to animals without ever expressing clearly what these practices may be. Holly exemplifies this attitude:
“I think the organic stuff just often tastes a lot better as well and with dairy I just kind of hear lots of, just the way that animals are kept and the sort of various things that I hear about. Like, with milk you know and how cows are kept and you know there’s sort of infections that they get in their udders and stuff it just all kind of sounds really yucky, although I do try and avoid dairy.” (Holly, 5/07/06)
The case is again very much against conventional agricultural practices rather than for organic. Clara seems to regard her assumptions as enough to justify the consumption of organic meat:
“I don’t mind the idea of killing animals but I feel like you ought to sort of think about the way the animal has been treated before it dies. Although I’m not entirely convinced that organic meat is necessarily better treated, I assume it is and hopefully might be.” (Clara, 13/07/06)
Furthermore, for some, the meat industry still represents the most reprehensible part of conventional agricultural practices. As a result, the organic stamp, or its equivalent in practice, becomes a sine qua non condition for meat consumption. Tess is one of those who will not eat meat unless it is organic:
“The most important reason, if you look at the product that I always buy organic which is milk, is for animal welfare. I find the intensive farming very disgusting and sad and I can’t cope with thinking that I would be participating in that. So, that’s my main reason.” (Tess, 31/07/06)
The taste of organic food – whether or not it is better than non-organic food product – is an aspect that seems to be far from agreed upon. Some respondents say that organic food tastes considerably better while others are hard pressed to find any differences with non-organic food. Yet, as some argue that there is a noticeable difference, it does constitute one of the motives for organic food consumption. Samantha is one of them:
“Yes, some of the things like potatoes, there’s a huge difference with organic potatoes and non organic potatoes, the taste is completely different, the texture’s different, they cook differently and so that was one thing that we just said, ‘well we’re just not gonna buy normal potatoes as organic ones are so much nicer.’ And pasta there’s another one. Which is much, you know we’ve found really nice organic pasta. Much, much nicer.” (Samantha, 11/07/06)
Others are a little bit more cautious when they attribute a better taste to organic food. On that matter, Clara seems to be giving the benefit of the doubt to non-organic food:
“I don’t know whether that’s necessarily to do with organic or to do with less water or just eating the vegetables in season or that they’ve travelled less ‘cause you’re buying local ones. So I’m not sure whether there’s a difference in taste with organic food or not.” (Clara, 13/07/06)
Tess also puts forward the case for circumspection:
“Taste wise, I can’t feel any difference myself, especially not fruits and vegetables… actually no, that’s not true. I might feel it in terms of fruits and vegetables but I might not feel it, I mean, I would never feel it with rice and pasta, and… I mean not even with milk, I don’t think. I don’t think I’ve ever had something organic and thought, “oh, this tastes so much better than the non-organic I use to buy”.” (Tess, 31/07/06)
Overall, this clear uncertainty regarding the taste only emphasises the fact that few have had the time to sit down and to carry out a comparative blind test between organic and non-organic food product. It also highlights that taste can be very subjective and may be influenced by factors that have little to do with any gustative sense. Again, childhood memories and romantic views about food can sometimes enter the equation and blur the picture. Mia expresses this emphatically:
“It’s… taste better, it tastes like real food would taste. Like… it just tastes better. Price… it costs more. Some things don’t but most of it costs more, I find, generally. And it doesn’t last as long but in a way I find that a good thing because if you have something that is in the fridge and it’s lasted a week, and you’re like, that’s a bit strange so…’cause my food never used to do that, when I was a kid so you know, why is it lasting so long now?” (Mia, 25/07/06)
There is clear a consensus on prices and that is one of the rare aspects of organic food that has been generally agreed upon by the respondents. Indeed, organic food is essentially perceived to come at a premium. The difference is not always considered to be significant but it is significantly considered by most. It was felt that the question of price would be dealt with in this Chapter because it was systematically mentioned when organic food was compared with non-organic food. Also, rather than acting as a motivation, it can either act as a counter-motivation or highlights the strength of the motivations that outweigh it.
The question of price is very much linked to the degree of organic consumption of the respondents. Indeed, for those who consume only a few organic food products, the question of price is either insignificant – because so little is being consumed – or the very reason for this low level of organic food consumption – price acting as a deterrent. On the other hand, those who commit to consume only organic food – only one of the respondents – find the price difference very significant. Mary whose food consumption is aiming for 100% organic explains:
“It’s so expensive to feed a family on organic food it’s just crazy. And there are some cheaper ways of doing it like food and vegetable boxes and stuff but I don’t, I used to get one but it gets really limiting just having people, someone else, chooses for you. I really like to just choose what I want and also to see what I’m buying and choose it. But I mean I find it about three times more expensive, something like that.” (Mary, 17/07/06)
The issue of price is also very much dependent on the financial situation of the respondents. People with a steady income can consider the consumption of organic food as something that their status deserves rather than as a luxury. It is the case when the difference in taste becomes a justification for this difference in price. Samantha depicts a situation that could pass for conspicuous consumption:
“So I try and buy organic, as much as I can afford. But you see I think the price isn’t that much difference now anyway so.
Int: You don’t think it is?
Resp: I don’t think it is, no. I hate, I just don’t, like I used to shop at Tesco’s, which I can’t stand, I hate Tesco, and the cheap… I just felt that the food was really cheap there; if you’re buying like cheap pasta for 50p you might as well pay £1 and get nice organic pasta, which tastes much better. I mean there’s certain things that we’ve just found the taste was so much nicer, we decided we might as well buy organic all the time.” (Samantha, 11/07/06)
To decide that a 100% price increase between a standard pack of pasta and an organic one is justified by the difference in taste is something that few respondents have expressed. Rather, most are concerned by the price difference and very much regard it as a deterrent. Eleanor has gone all the way to assess this with certainty:
“Yeah, the bad thing is the price… cause I’ve actually tried doing that, like buying the cheapest non organic food one week and the next week buying everything organic and the price difference is amazing, it’s so much more expensive with organic.” (Eleanor, 4/07/06)
Overall, organic food prices were seen as a deterrent for organic food consumption. Yet, none felt that the price difference was unjustified and indeed most did not express any wishes for this premium to disappear. Respondents therefore seem to decide first what organic product they wished to consume, and then whether the price difference does not make it impossible for them to do so.
“It’s just I find that just looking at it, it looks different and tasting it, it tastes different, like non organic tomatoes they don’t taste of anything to me at all, just like water. I don’t know, I’m just very suspicious of things that don’t taste like what they look like you know?” (Mary, 17/07/06)
Organic food embodies certain wholesome qualities that non-organic food once had and has now lost. These qualities are seen to address simultaneously the issues of taste as well as health. Sometimes, the impression is that organic food is bound to be better just because it supposedly recreate what has been previously identified as the naturalness of food products. Holly is of this opinion:
“Yes, it’s got to be better because, yes, taste and just knowing that they’re not full of sort of added chemicals and pesticides and things like that and that quite a lot of toxic stuff that you then won’t then be putting into your body”. (Holly, 5/07/06)
Others argue that organic food product are simply different from non-organic food products and therefore are hard to compare. When it comes to fruits and vegetables, Paul stresses that it is much more than comparing one tomato to the next:
“I think it is tastier, yes much tastier, because with organic food you can often get different varieties in the market, inherited varieties and different varieties whereas supermarkets use the varieties which are most productive, not just the tastiest.” (Paul, 13/07/06)
Here, Paul, who has a distaste for the supermarket’s fruits and vegetables because of the long distance they may have travelled, puts them in direct opposition with non-supermarket organic food. He therefore implies that the supermarket’s organic food may be just as bad non-organic because the varieties available could too have been chosen for economical reasons above else. Yet, the superior quality of organic food over non-organic is rarely challenged. Tess offers a very sophisticated explanation:
”It somehow is the case for the organic produce that it just is simply higher quality already. So, I never really expect to buy an organic product and, I mean, I might not like it, I might not like the taste of it, but I never think it’s because the product is badly done or something, it’s just because I don’t like that product, organic or non-organic. But I just suspect that, I mean, I always think that it already is up to a certain standard and if I was going to compare, I mean for instance an organic cheese to a non-organic value product from Sainsbury’s, like their absolutely cheapest stuff, or from Asda, really cheap supermarket, the cheapest cheese you can find, and I compare that to an organic cheese… I never did this experiment but I would have thought they would be quite a big difference… where the organic one, it never ends up being very, very bad, whereas the value product often ends up being very, very bad. So there might be, you know, there might be difference in taste.” (Tess, 31/07/06)
The motivations for consuming organic food products should not be generalised. Each respondent has shown a different kind of concerns and has therefore emphasised a different set of motives. Nonetheless, the first and most important aspect is that conventional – non-organic – food is not satisfactory and that is the reason why consumers turn towards organic food.
Organic food is seen to represent a level of quality that is significantly higher to that of non-organic food. This level of quality, associated to the perception of major health benefits combine to make most respondents express their desire to consume more organic food than they currently do. They main reason for which they do not do so is the price of organic food products. This difference is enough to prevent most from consuming as much organic food as they would like and pushes consumers to make choices and to prioritise some products over others.
“From an environmental point of view, it’s not a clear-cut case. Because you would have to balance out impacts and… I mean, the impact from shipping things from really far and from producing, exploiting the grounds in my local environment, it’s a very difficult question I think.” (Tess, 31/07/06. On whether imported organic food is better than local non-organic food)
Over the course of this research, the respondents provided the confirmation that consuming organic food is not necessarily a straightforward matter. Indeed, some aspects of the organic food production do clash with some of the original motives behind organic food consumption. These ambiguities and paradoxes appear in relation to both organic food as a product and organic food consumption as a process.
In this respect, this Chapter will show, this research confirms the findings of a report commissioned by the Countryside Agency which stresses the ‘unresolved conflict between [the] positive attitudes towards sustainability and the desire for year round access to all foods’ (Enteleca Research Consultancy Ltd, 2001: 2). Among these issues, while the question of food miles is predominant, packaging, labelling and the marketing of organic food all raise concerns among consumers. Furthermore, the very decision to consume organic food is not without its problems. Consumers must gain some form knowledge of both organic and non-organic farming practice prior to starting the consumption process. From then, they must trust that what they know and what they buy are the same things. This seems very far from being the case and as a result, a fair amount of uncertainties creeps in. These were clearly expressed when respondents discussed their eating habits outside of their home.
Packaging is an issue that was raised mostly in relation to the supermarkets’ fruits and vegetables section. Indeed, the specialised organic food stores that were mentioned by the respondents – all but one reside in or around Brighton and Hove – only sells theirs loose and therefore there was no concerns for over packaging. For Paul, supermarkets are the main targets:
“Supermarket food is Euro-controlled, tasteless and over packaged.” (Paul, 13/07/06)
Yet, this is hardly a problem for someone who rarely shops in supermarkets and is a keen advocate of local food. However, for some this constitutes a major issue.
“In Sainsbury’s, with the food, if you buy organic food or vegetables, it’s always packed separately which I don’t really like, with like lots of plastic packaging is it’s not just loose, which I don’t like but, yeah, that’s how it is now.” (Eleanor, 4/07/06)
As expressed on the section on quality, organic food is still seen and marketed as better than conventional bottom-of-the-pile food and as such benefits from the same amount of packaging as other supermarket’s prized food. This amount of packaging is deemed excessive waste for a product supposed to have better environmental performances than it’s non-organic counterpart.
The organic certification, granted by agencies such as the Soil Association, can play a crucial part in the choices made by the consumers. Indeed, and even though these labels are rarely understood, they ensure that consumers recognise which products has been produced according to the regulated practices of organic farming. The rest is just a matter of trust. Ann is of that opinion:
“Organic as such is really a label for me you know I couldn’t point out exactly what it says but I sort of trust the label, I trust the label in the sense that I think okay, if it’s organic that it’s grown under different conditions than, you know, conventional things and it’s, you know, it’s treated with less chemicals.” (Ann, 14/07/06)
The label, as such, and whether it is organic or other is simply seen as the guaranty of something preconceived. Yet, and as opposed to some other labels, it does not necessarily means that what is not stamped is not organic. Mary explores this issue:
“If I was to buy it from someone that I didn’t know then yeah I would want to see the label. You know because or you know sometimes like in certain markets like they’ll say, oh it’s not organic, but it’s not certified organic but like it’s totally like no spray or they’d never use pesticides or this and that. So as long as hear that from someone that I trust and I see it and I get the vibe that that’s true, that’s fine. But it does give me a sense of security to see that it’s certified.” (Mary, 17/07/06)
In the case of supermarket, however, where food display is regulated the absence of stamp is clearly considered as an accurate indicator that the product is not organic. Tina explains:
“I know it’s not always the case, if you do buy fresh veg from the local market or something that doesn’t have organic written on them, it could very well be anyway but when I’m in Sainsbury’s shopping, yes I think organic, if they do have the stamp, it’s organic, but if it doesn’t, it probably isn’t organic.” (Tina, 18/07/06)
In supermarkets, where packaging and marketing go hand in hand, things sometimes get even more confusing for the consumer. Tess expresses the way marketers have picked on the consumer’s ability to spot an organic style beyond the organic label:
“Yeah. I suppose, I mean, it definitely is a label. It has a special appearance. You can almost spot it, an organic label, from five metres away… it’s a special style and colouring and you know, yeah it’s very much a label.
Int: does that mean that which does not have a label is not organic? For you, when you shop in Sainsbury’s for instance.
Resp: it’s really funny ‘cause sometimes when a product has a style, a label that looks as if it is organic, and it’s not organic, I sometimes end up looking for the word organic on it, expecting it to be there. Thinking, “oh, this must be an organic product because it looks really organic on the label”. But then sometimes I don’t find it. It happened to me today when I saw this packet of couscous, it looked as if it would be organic and it wasn’t.” (Tess, 31/07/06)
The very fact that organic products tend to cost more than their non-organic equivalent was often associated with the fact that profits might be the main motivation for some organic producers and to a greater extent for the retailers. Emily expresses her anger at this possibility:
“People using, you know, I think something which is an idea, which is vital, which is very important that we try to foster, as a way to make money rather than using organic as a philosophy to make a change.” (Emily, 10/07/06)
On the contrary, Samantha explains that there is a slight chance that the whole organic movement is just a big marketing plot with no environmental benefit at all:
“Maybe we’re being taken for a ride I don’t know, and really we don’t need to be buying so much organic. ‘Cause I have heard that as well, people on the radio saying it doesn’t make that much difference with certain things. It’s choosing what things you should buy organic, that’s the thing to do.” (Samantha, 11/07/06)
Even for those who are convinced of the potential environmental benefit of organic agriculture, there remains a doubt as to the true motives of some of the retailers. Clara goes further and argues that this phenomenon may also be down to some consumers who are more interested in the appeal value of organic food product than in their intrinsic qualities:
“I think sometimes organic food has been sold on that as a way of marketing to people who aren’t actually that interested in the environmental aspects and just want the lifestyle or the luxury. They want better taste.
Int: Do you think some people see organic as a luxury?
Resp: Yes there’s a certain sort of snobbishness about it isn’t there? (…) I don’t know. But I’m sure, maybe everyone who eats organic food thinks they’re doing it just for environmental reasons, maybe it’s all got a slight snobbishness about it. ‘Cause it’s like exclusivity because of the price. And I think that it, I think that supermarkets and other shops sort of cash in on that as well. The can market it on doing an exclusive sort of better quality products. Yes that’s not necessarily the reasons I choose it.” (Clara, 13/07/06)
“I do notice a lot that in, well particularly in the big supermarkets where a lot of organic stuff is not local, which I find very disappointing. I don’t know if you can sort of add that, it seems to be like the apples that I bought for X [her son] are from New Zealand or something.
Int: Why is that disappointing?
Resp: Well if you’re kind of wanting, it’s not just about buying organic and being healthy it’s about your kind of impact on the planet generally so if you’re buying stuff from New Zealand, and thinking about its journey over here, it’s kind of, you’ve got to weigh it up really haven’t you? If it’s better to buy local, I just don’t understand why we can’t have more organic British stuff in our supermarkets today. “(Holly, 5/07/06)
The question of whether the food is locally grown or not is one that the respondents answered in accordance with their initial motivations for buying organic food. Nonetheless, and it was one of the successes of these interviews, respondents did sometimes have to reflect upon things when asked about it. Holly expressed her desire to have more British organic food products because she is concerned but also because her main motivation remains the health of her son. This is very much in line with Enteleca’s statement that consumers wish for ‘year round access to all foods’ (Enteleca Research Consultancy Ltd, 2001: 2). Clara explains the current problem:
“People don’t think about buying vegetables from millions of miles away and don’t have, you know, been in several airplanes to get here and polluted the earth, polluted with both the chemicals that are sprayed in the fields and the airplane pollution along the way, it’s basic environmental thinking and think about that and think about where your food comes from.” (Clara, 13/07/06)
Those who see the environmental impacts of conventional agriculture as the main reason for consuming organic food seem more receptive to the appeal of local food. Paul explains:
“I’m a great believer in local and it’s about, you know, carbon rationing really; I think we should be seriously thinking about that we, should be using local produce (…) So yeah I think local is very important. The nursery I work on does a delivery scheme, delivers 600 boxes a week, a lot of them around the Brighton area, Lewes, Uckfield, I think there’s four Brighton deliveries, four Brighton vans, in fact eight… something like that. Some people in Brighton use a scheme Riverford which is in Devon, Abel and Cole in London. So if you get a Riverford box you might… some stuff might have come from Scotland or East Anglia, right across to Devon and then back up to Brighton again. A lot of mileage involved.” (Paul, 13/07/06)
Yet, for most, the issue is far from clear or simple, and for some these interviews became the opportunity to question their own choices. The debate between organic and locally produced food is present enough for most to have heard about it and therefore to have made their mind up. However, the process of consumption is often more complicated than just deciding to choose the origin of the food as a determinant. The success of supermarket is a mark of the need by the modern consumer for convenience. Samantha is of this opinion:
“I’ve heard arguments from people saying if you buy locally and you know the farms or whatever that you’re buying stuff from, then you don’t need to buy organic, it’s better just to buy local, small, from small producers, go to farmers’ markets and stuff, but to me that’s just a lot of hassle. So I don’t, I can’t be bothered to shop around for things, go to different places, I’d rather just not spend too much time doing my shopping.” (Samantha, 11/07/06)
For some the distinction is even more difficult. While discussing her holiday consumption Heather stumble across the mixed meanings of local and organic:
“It’s funny, ‘cause I haven’t really thought about it, so, usually I’m not, because it’s on holiday as well, you don’t really want to look too much. Actually if I go, like I go to Tuscany, I’d go to the market, down the road so I think it’s gonna be local tomatoes, local fruits, so I’m not gonna, you know, I think it’s just as organic as possible in a way that’s just quite local. And in the supermarket, if I find a bit organic, I will go, but usually, it’s two weeks holiday, or three weeks so I’m not… I mean I go to the local market.” (Heather, 24/07/06)
When a product becomes ‘as organic as possible’ because it is locally produced, a new meaning is given to the term. Indeed, here organic is a quality that food, in order to be good, should have. It is the same for locally grown food; here clearly presented as a positive. To associate them and to confuse them this way is a clear indication that the processes that regulate organic food production are less important than the fact that the product is labelled organic.
To get out of this dilemma, those who admit having a restricted knowledge of organic and non-organic farming practices must continue to make assumptions about the nature of the different processes of food production. The problem of making assumptions is that they are constantly open to doubts and do not guarantee any commitment to one type of consumption or the other. Eleanor illustrates this uncertainty:
“I’d rather have… to be honest with you; I’d rather have just local food… I don’t know, would I? I think… yeah, I’d rather have local food, than the organic food from the supermar… from Sainsbury’s… it sorts of sounds better… cause at least you know it comes straight from them, that it hasn’t been kept in a storage for ages… but the best would be organic farm food.” (Eleanor, 4/07/06)
The debate on whether imported organic-food is better or worse than local non-organic is one that would benefit from the use of life cycle analysis. This being a little advanced – and arbitrary – for most consumers, uncertainties remains and camps are formed. This aspect was one of the most interested of the research as it has clearly highlighted the contested nature of the meaning of organic food consumption. It is also one that would benefit from further investigation.
During most interviews, respondents freely expressed the fact that they did not necessarily know that much about the regulations implied by the different organic certifications. It became therefore interesting to ask where their knowledge came from. The answers were usually very similar as knowledge is constructed from few different sources. Family, friends and the media are usually enough for someone to make an opinion. Often, knowledge comes from one or two very influential source. Samantha explains what conditions her judgement:
“But I haven’t done that much research about it but you know you hear about it on the radio and a lot of stuff on the telly and I just think, you know, you might as well avoid all these pesticides and stuff ‘cause there’s certain things you just hear about that they, you know there’s loads and loads of sprays and stuff and you just kind of think, ‘Well I’d rather not have those.’” (Samantha, 11/07/06)
“Better safe than sorry” is the attitude of those with the most restricted knowledge. Those who make the effort to listen to more than one voice are not necessarily better served as the final decision remains theirs. Holly describes the sources she uses and the questions that ensue:
“That’s kind of from reading like magazines, books, seeing stuff through the media, stuff on the Internet. The kind of information that you get about things, it’s all very difficult though ‘cause on one hand like there are sort of people saying, ‘yeah buy organic you know it’s the way to go’ and then from the other side people are like ‘no there’s actually not that much difference’ and you’ve just got to make your own mind up really.” (Holly, 5/07/06)
The social network appeared as a very important influx of information for respondents, especially when it comes to make sense of the conflicting information one might have received from the media. For some, the knowledge accumulated over the years has for consequence much more than simply influencing a consumption process. Indeed, organic food consumption may be associated to values that have a very serious impact on identity formation. Mary, who aims to eat strictly organic food, is one of them:
“When I moved to California I went to stay with some family friends for the first 10 days or something. And they didn’t eat any sugar. And I was like, ‘why don’t you eat sugar?’ And that was just really interesting to me like why would a whole family choose not to eat sugar? It’s just so weird and so they explained to me about what they thought was not good about sugar and I was like ‘okay, I won’t eat sugar too’. And I just started to meet all these different people in California who didn’t eat certain things and, you know, ate a certain way and I would just find out about it and it just made so much sense to me to eat the things that were better for you, I guess because that’s the values I was raised with as well. And then I had a boyfriend in California who I was with for a while and who just ate all organic and he was kind of like I am now and so we just always ate really healthily and I guess I adopted his values but they were in line with what I was raised with. And when I found that again I was just like ‘oh of course this is the way I’m meant to be’. And I just felt better again, so that was that and I haven’t really changed.” (Mary, 17/07/06)
The reality is that, at least in the network of people that were interviewed, the topic of organic food is a commonly discussed one. Be it the result of growing environmental awareness or that of cunning marketing matters little. In practice, the very fact that organic food has a contested meaning ensure that it is often a topic of conversation. Tess presents her view of things:
“I read around. I’m interested in Permaculture so some of the knowledge comes from there. I’m just generally interested in issues about the environment, about impact on people and I read a lot in newspapers, articles, in The Guardian, often have, you know, special editions with that, or that are dedicated to this sort of issues and I read about it there. I suppose newspapers are a big part of my knowledge. And then alternative things like the Permaculture. And… not so much from the Internet… and from talking to people. People talk a lot about these things, and it bothers them and we talk about it, and everybody are very concerned that they want to do something better than…you know, to improve situations, at different levels but everybody are… seem to be very confused and I think that this means that we talk a lot about it.” (Tess, 31/07/06)
It is often when one wants to actively search for actual knowledge that one realises its evasiveness. It is the case for Mia who suffers from a food related disease and must actively source the origin of her food because of an extreme sensitivity towards artificial pesticides. For her, organic food is the ideal answer. What she says clearly highlights her need for accurate information and the difficulties she has encountered while researching organic food:
“My knowledge has just gained a lot, I mean, from the past few years, it’s, you know, it’s exploded. I’ve had to do a lot of research myself, because certain doctors… they don’t really… either they don’t know and they haven’t researched it themselves or they don’t share their knowledge about it, I don’t know. Yeah, I just found, generally through my life, I try to keep aware… and I think that when you’re given a diagnosis then you have to take responsibility.” (Mia, 25/07/06)
The difficulty to gain accurate and consistent knowledge on organic farming is perhaps one of the explanation as to why so many of the respondents – many of which were very enthusiastic about what they knew of organic agriculture practices – overtly admitted not knowing, or not feeling that they knew, much about it. As a response to that phenomenon, those who felt being in the know clearly identified the lack of knowledge of other people as the reason for their lack of interest in organic food. Rather than more information, Emily suggest better education:
“I think people need to be educated more about organic food generally. I think they need to be a lot more educated about what is organic food and why, and the dangers of not eating organic food to people’s health and also to the environment. I think that’s what people don’t understand and don’t want to understand at the moment really. I think I don’t know a lot but I have a decent understanding myself but I think a lot of people know a lot less.” (Emily, 19/07/06)
Overall, knowledge is constructed through varied, sometimes contradictory sources. The mixed information consumer receives does not prevent them from reaching conclusions, often with the help of someone regarded as more knowledgeable from the close circle of family and friends. Accurate and reliable sources of information are apparently elusive and some suggest that the emphasis should be put on education rather than information.
The question of labelling that was dealt with earlier is one that quickly led to the issue of trust. Trust is at the heart of the process of consumption. One must trust one’s ability to recognise a good product, one must trust one’s sense of smell, taste or sight, one must trust a brand and one must trust a label. It is when consumers’ trust in a product collapse that the producers suffer. This has happen for food produced through conventional agricultural practices and organic food is now entrusted by some consumers to be healthy and of high quality. However, the fact that trust in conventional agriculture has collapsed following the revelations and scandals of the past few decades, consumers have remained suspicious of what they consume and some would not be surprised if they were to be told one day that the trust they had in organic food production had been misplaced. For the moment however, organic food product continue to benefit from the trust of some consumers to a greater extent than non-organic products. Holly explains her views:
“Labelling [is] all very, very confusing and I think companies try and get away with, you know there are certain nasties that are in things that companies will try and avoid or you know kind of get around putting on the label and I think if you buy something that’s organic it’s less likely to have these nasties in, whereas non organic stuff I think is more likely to have things in that might not necessarily need to go on the label. So if I’m buying a new product and I’m not really sure what’s in it, you know or where it comes from or if it’s got a lot of different things in it then if it’s organic then I’ll feel a bit more relaxed about buying it ‘cause I know, hopefully it’ll be of a certain standard whereas if it’s not organic then it might have, you know, who knows where it’s been?” (Holly, 5/07/06)
For some, the organic label has come be synonymous with “better food” to such an extent that the doubts are not really present anymore. Ann seems to find it more convenient to commit to organic food than to continuously harbour doubts about what she buys:
“You see by the way I can’t even point out exactly what it is, I think I have a very vague idea of organic, you know. It also is connected with the fact that I, you know, I go into supermarkets so all I go by is the label, you know I don’t sort of check exactly where it’s produced and where it exactly comes from, I go by the label and that’s a big trust thing and it doesn’t bother me.” (Ann, 14/07/06)
It was shown that one of the main motivations for organic food consumption was the fact that non-organic food was seen by the respondents as mostly unsatisfactory. This low level of satisfaction is the result of the aforementioned health concerns, environmental concerns and animal welfare concerns associated with conventional agriculture. The previous two sections have highlighted that knowledge of agricultural practices is very heterogeneous and that trust plays a big part in the process of commitment undertaken by the consumers. This trust in organic food is generated by a general fear for some practices associated with conventional food products and assumptions regarding the qualities of organic food products.
Holly’s confusion and fears account for a great deal of anxiety:
“There’s so many kind of dodgy things that you get in non-organic stuff that, lots of hidden stuff that you don’t know about that can affect your health you know. All these kinds of different illnesses that are around these days and you just don’t know where they come from and they all have this kind of build up of toxins in your body.” (Holly, 5/07/06)
She goes further and explains how she sees organic food as the perfect antidote to this anxiety:
“In fact I won’t buy non-organic ones because I’d feel really uncomfortable about giving X [her son] a non-organic apple ‘cause I just imagine it being full of loads of sprays and pesticides and things that will then go into his body and what’s that going to do? So if I have something that’s organic then I can relax and feel healthy.” (Holly, 5/07/06)
In such a situation, the fears are just as assumed as the antidote. In fact assumptions are present at all levels and they only ensure that limited knowledge is not necessarily preventing decisions. Most respondents were very open about their assumptions. Samantha explain how she jumps from free-range to organic:
“I kind of think actually if they’re free range then, I’m probably very simplistic but if they’re free range then they’re probably eating quite healthily.” (Samantha, 11/07/06)
Clara takes a similar stance and is not afraid to assume some aspects of the food production while remaining sceptical of some others:
“Well generally if it’s free range it’s organic as well, a lot of the time. And also organic just guarantees that they haven’t fed it lots of chemicals, but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that they’ve kept the animals in any better conditions or let them stay with their, you know let the babies stay with their mothers for much longer, from what I’ve read. I could be wrong. I don’t know whether it’s a guarantee of better animal husbandry or whether it’s just a guarantee of not putting the, not feeding them sort of nasty chemicals.”(Clara, 13/07/06)
Often, the very reason why respondents showed so much diligence to assume things about different agricultural practices was the fact that they were essentially confused by it all. Heather is just one among others:
“I think behind it, you’ve got less chemicals, less pesticides, less crap. A better quality, more nutrition into it, and so just more natural and better, I think. I mean, less worse than the other normal bit. I’m sure there’s still a lot of things… it’s not, you know… You can’t really say it’s completely the best but I think I’m trying to do the best as I can. The best would be to have my allotment and to put my little vegetables there, but I can’t do that.” (Heather, 24/07/06)
Just as it was when investigating the respondents’ health concerns and finding out that most were not so much worried for themselves as for others, investigating their consumption processes away from home was very revealing. Paul, one of the respondents with the greatest knowledge of organic agricultural practices takes a pragmatic approach:
“I can peel fruit you see, although it could be full of pesticides inside, I don’t know, but I usually peel non-organic stuff. But I’m not a purist, sometimes I just have to, when I’m travelling, I just have to eat what’s around you know.” (Paul, 13/07/06)
Others, more dedicated to organic food consumption, find it hard to eat out. Mary explains how her hundred per cent target is hard to meet when she travels and how upsetting it is for her:
“If I’m some place where there is nothing available or like when I go on holiday or something and you can’t get to a shop and there’s nothing organic. And then I have to eat something. Or if you go to someone’s house and they’ve made you a meal I’m not gonna be ‘No I’m not gonna eat your food.’ You know what I mean? But I don’t really like it and I find it really hard. (…)
Int: You mentioned when you go on holiday, what do you make of that, do you feel that you go out of your way to find organic food?
Resp: Yes, absolutely yeah I mean ridiculous. Yeah I do I honestly can’t stand it, I don’t know why; it doesn’t feel good to me to not eat organic. But yeah I do I will drive much, much further or walk much further or wherever I am I will do whatever I can to always find a good health food shop or always find organic things and yeah, you know try and find some local farmers or whatever that are growing without pesticides. I don’t mind if it’s like not certified organic, just as long as you know like if you meet someone who grows it and you know there’s nothing bad, that’s totally great to me it just has to be grown that way yeah.” (Mary, 17/07/06)
If most respondents seem to find the process of travelling or simply being out difficult to combine with organic food consumption it is often because they lack the knowledge more than the opportunity to find an organic food source. Yet, most don’t think too much about it providing that they stick to their choices at home. Tess explains this state of things:
“It’s quite interesting actually because things that I wouldn’t buy in supermarket because they come from afar, I would probably eat in a restaurant without much thought for it. You know, I might order some fried bananas in a restaurant and I would never buy non-organic bananas in the supermarket so that’s… that’s the case, yeah. I mean it’s very difficult. There’s one restaurant in Brighton that, or one café, Infinity food café, that only do organic produce, I believe. I don’t even know actually, but I suspect they do, and it’s extremely expensive so I never ate in there but I suppose I already know that if I want to go to the restaurant, they’re not going to be serving, you know, organic food so… it’s a choice I have to make.” (Tess, 31/07/06)
Asking about eating habits outside of the home was also a way to assess that some respondents do not necessarily consider the nature of their food with the same scrutiny whether they are shopping from home or are eating out. This double standard is reminiscent of some attitudes towards health where respondents showed great concerns for the health of their children without necessarily considering theirs at all. Sometimes, they just do not think about it. Heather explains:
“Resp: no, actually, I’m not [bothered], I mean, when I go out, usually we go with her [her daughter] so… she doesn’t always eat that much in a restaurant so I don’t… I use to… I know… it doesn’t bother me that much actually, if you go to a restaurant, it’s funny. I don’t really know… now that you’re asking. I don’t really get asked… if it’s organic, I’m really much happier but I’m not gonna… think too much about it ‘cause it’s once in a while and if the food is good… if it’s organic, definitely I will go for it but if…” (Heather, 24/07/06)
Overall, these behaviour show that there are times when organic food matters more than others and that some products are more important to be organic than others. This makes perfect sense when the prime motivation to eat organic food is health. In the same manner as one would have little alcohol or a sweet treat every now and then without thinking too much about so long as the every day diet is a healthy one, one has a non organic meal at a restaurant and has no problem with it whatsoever. Besides, for most, convenience remains as important an aspect of consumption as anything else. Tina concludes:
“I do eat out and I’m not bothering about when I go out and it’s… I don’t eat meat when I go out for that reason, otherwise I don’t care if it’s organic or non-organic… I mean if it was an organic food thingy on the menu, I would probably consider taking that but most often it’s not organic anyway so… so then I don’t worry about it.” (Tina, 18/07/06)
Krarup and Russel (2005: 14) argue that “the success of organic labels can be attributable to their ability to represent different things to different people”. This research has shown, that indeed, it does mean different things to different people. However, it has also revealed that none of these meanings are straightforward and that some aspects of the organic food production are in direct contradiction with some of the motives respondents have expressed for consuming this type of food.
Over-packaging is a concern with regards to waste while the marketing of the products as exclusive is putting off some consumers. Yet the greatest debate, from an environmental impact perspective, surrounds the distances travelled by organic food and make many wonder if it is not perhaps better to consume local non-organic food.
The different levels of knowledge shown were significant of the respondents’ attitudes and symptomatic of the difficulty faced by some to have access to reliable and accurate information. Finally, consumption away from home seems to be treated differently than home consumption and the very fact that when eating out, one might regard eating non-organic food as a treat, says a lot about how serious a matter organic food consumption has become.
The aims of this research were to assess what consumers saw as the main attribute of organic food, to identify what pushes consumers to consume organic food and, to explore the types of uncertainties that consumers encounter when making these choices. These were investigated, after a thorough literature review, with the help of unstructured interviews, gathered in Brighton in July 2006.
This research has contributed to a better understanding of the mechanisms at work prior to consumers deciding to opt for certain products, be it organic or not. It has confirmed previous work in so far as it has clearly shown that organic food continues to be understood differently by different people. This understanding, beyond the knowledge of what the legislation implies, has often been relying on concepts whose meaning would be difficult to universally define. Organic food is understood as opposed to conventional food, itself seen as overly processed, un-pure and ultimately unnatural. This, for some, grants organic food with naturalness and purity. Furthermore, organic food is seen as what food used to be and, more importantly, as what food should be. The last aspect is something that would deserve further investigation.
The main reason for consumers to choose organic food is a profound dissatisfaction with conventional agricultural practices and the impacts these eventually have on food products. Beyond farming practices, organic food is seen as the embodiment of quality food and the one reason why respondents do not consume more than they actually do is because this quality comes at the cost of inflated prices.
On the question of health benefits, this research confirms previous work as most respondents expressed the fact that they regarded organic food as significantly healthier than non-organic food. However, a striking fact was the emphasis put by some on the health benefits for their children that resulted from organic food consumption while being totally oblivious to the impact on their own health. The fact that parents care for their children sometimes more than they care for themselves is hardly a revelation. However, the extent to which children influence the greening of their parents’ shopping basket might be worth further investigation.
It remains from an environmental impacts perspective that the consumption of organic food raises the most questions for consumers. For those who consume mostly for health reason, the question of the environmental impacts of the organic food production processes remains mostly secondary. Some respondents did show a concern but that was essentially in relation to the most obvious of environmental issues as in the waste resulting from the packaging sometimes associated with organic food products.
For those who consumed organic food mostly because of its lesser impact on the environment the issue of food miles was a great concern. In fact, many have mixed feelings as to whether it is better to consume imported organic food or local non-organic food. This aspect should be further investigated as it constitutes a key element of organic food consumption and ethical consumption, and indeed, has the potential to render organic food consumption un-ethical.
Another issue raised by this work has been that of the origin and extent of knowledge on all aspects of organic food. It is obvious that knowledge is not equally shared and it is significant that the respondents who seemed the most knowledgeable on the topic ended up having the shortest definition of organic food. Many respondents remained extremely confused as to the very nature of organic agriculture and on even the most basic differences with conventional farming practices.
The point of this research was never to state any truth about organic food but to outline some of the ways it is being perceived. However, with regards to the previous point on knowledge, it seems extremely important that a scientific consensus be reached as to the effective health benefits of organic food consumption. This is especially important as health benefits continue to be the main motivation for consumers to choose organic food. Once a conclusion is reached, it can then be relayed under the form of education rather than information. This would take the prerogative on knowledge, information and education away from the organic lobby, which, because of the financial repercussions of an appealing product, can never be deemed to be impartial in its communication with the public.
In general, more research is needed in the field of food consumption especially in relation to consumers who opt out of one category of products altogether. Some of the respondents had become vegetarian in the 1990’s as a protest to the treatment of animals – self-labelled vegetarian for ethical reasons. Many of these seemed to have changed their attitude towards meat as a result of the growing availability of organic meat. This too is an issue worth exploring further since it has the potential to bring back on the market consumers who had once opted out.
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Minimising the impact? The meanings of organic food.
You are being invited to take part in a research study. Before you decide it is important for you to understand why the research is being done and what it will involve. Please take time to read the following information carefully. Talk to others about the study if you wish.
Please ask Mmedo Duffort if there is anything that is not clear or if you would like more information. Take time to decide whether or not you wish to take part.
What is the purpose of the study?
This study, which is part of a Masters in Environmental Assessment and Management research, aims to investigate what the organic label represents, and how these meanings influence how people shop, consume and live. The purpose of the study is to explore the consumption of organic food and its place in ethical living.
Why have I been chosen?
You have been chosen because you have demonstrated a certain amount of interest and understanding in your position in your ecological and social environment and the impacts you may have on it. Please, put Mmedo Duffort in contact with people of your acquaintance who share these aforementioned characteristics and whom you may think might be of interest to the purpose of the study.
Do I have to take part?
No. It is up to you to decide whether or not to take part. If you do, you will be given this information sheet to keep and be asked to sign a consent form. You are still free to withdraw at any time and without giving a reason.
What will happen to me if I take part?
You participation should not involve more than a formal interview. The interview will last anything from half an hour to two hours, depending on how much you have to say about the topic. These interviews will be audio taped and used as main material for the research.
What do I have to do?
Your only role is to answer the questions posed and to discuss your use of organic food to the best of your knowledge. Please feel free to tell the researcher anything you may feel relevant.
What are the possible disadvantages and risks of taking part?
There are no risks for you to taking part and it will not impact you in any way.
What are the possible benefits of taking part?
There are no financial rewards for you to taking part although it is to be hoped that the experience will be enjoyable.
What will happen if I don’t want to carry on with the study?
You are free to withdraw from the study at any stage. There will be no consequence to this.
Will my taking part in this study be kept confidential?
The information you provide over the course of the interview shall be used for this research only. The data will be used in accordance with the Data Protection Act of 1998 and you will never be identified by your name. As a guarantee of anonymity all identifying details will be removed from the transcripts, and you will only be referred to by your initials. The data will be securely stored and will only be accessed by Mmedo Duffort – the researcher – and Kath Browne – his supervisor.
What will happen to the results of the research study?
The result of this research will only be used for this postgraduate dissertation, which will be stored at the library of the University of Brighton, and you will not be identified in any report/publication unless you have consented to release such information.
What if there is a problem?
Should you have any concerns regarding this research and your involvement in it, you may contact Kath Browne at Brighton University’s School of Environment on 01273 642 288.
Phone: 01273 676 195
Mobile: 07795 336 262
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Where do you normally shop?
What’s the motivation for buying organic food?
How does it compare to non-organic food?
What is your own definition of organic food?
What does it mean to you to buy organic food?
Do you think of organic as a label/stamp?
Organic food when you eat out, when you go on holiday?
Where do you get your knowledge from?
Title of Project: Minimising the impact? The meanings of organic food.
Name of Researcher: Mmedo M. Duffort.
I ______________________________________________________ agree to be involved in this research, which investigates the meanings of organic food in relation with ethical living. I give my permission for Mmedo M. Duffort to use excerpts from the interview.
Mmedo M. Duffort has explained to my satisfaction the purpose of the study. I have been informed of the nature and purposes of the study and have read the information sheet. I understand the principles and processes of the study.
I am aware that I will be asked to answer questions about my consumption habits.
I understand that my personal details (including my contact details) will remain confidential. Data will be stored in a secure area and destroyed after five years. I understand that relevant (anonymous) sections of any of data collected during the study may be looked at by Kath Browne the supervisor of this dissertation for teaching and research purposes.
I understand that my participation is voluntary and that I am free to withdraw at any time without giving any reason, without my rights being affected.
I understand that the data collected will be used as part of a dissertation project. I understand that the data will be used in writing up and disseminating Mmedo Duffort’s research (including in a dissertation which will be held in the School of the Environment University of Brighton). I understand that only anonymous excerpts from the research will be used in this write up.
I agree to take part in the above study.
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Name of Participant Date Signature
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Name of Person taking consent Date Signature
(If different from researcher)
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