New research from Australia has focused on health, quality and the environment as the most effective means of promoting organic food.
David Pearson, lecturer at the School of Marketing and Management, University of New England, NSW, interviewed 20 food buyers and analysed the responses to 300 questionnaires to try and discover who buys organic food and what they buy.
Pearson said that few previous studies had focused on Australia, where the market for organic food is still niche with sales of around A$200 million (€117.8m) but which is growing at some 20 per cent a year.
As elsewhere, buyers of organic food in Australia see it as healthier than conventional food, with a higher nutritional value. It is also seen as being better for the environment, tastier and more fashionable. However, Pearson stressed that these perceptions may not in fact be backed up by scientific evidence.
He cites the Australia and New Zealand Food Authority which concluded in 1998 that the Australian estimated dietary intake of pesticides and residues in fresh fruit and vegetables was already below the accepted safe limit set by the World Health Organisation (WHO), while other research cited by Pearson showed that there were "no significant differences" between the perceived nutritional values of organic and conventional foodstuffs.
Pearson carried out 20 interviews with food buyers in the NSW town of Armidale, where organic food is available in supermarkets, a co-operative and by mail order. Of the 20 people interviewed, 15 were ordinary shoppers from the broad spectrum of households, while the remaining five were known organic shoppers. The responses to these interviews were then used as the basis for the questionnaire mailed to 1,000 households in the town and to which 300 replied.
Almost all (94 per cent) of the respondents were aware of organic food, and 89 per cent knew that organic food was grown without the use of chemicals. Just 6 per cent did not know what organic meant, while 5 per cent confused organic with biodynamic and hydroponic.
Some 37 per cent of respondents said they bought organic food, and 66 per cent of those buying organic food had done so for less than five years. Around 21 per cent had been buying it for less than a year. Organic food buyers differed from conventional food buyers only in age - the average age of organic buyers was 29, compared to 31 for conventional food.
Including both regular and occasional buyers, 95 per cent of organic food buyers purchase fresh fruit and vegetables, a figure much higher than that for flour, cereals, dried fruit, nuts or meat. However, only one third of those people who bought organic fruit and vegetables did so on a regular basis, indicating that there is still a long way to go before organic food purchases dominate even in this, the most popular category.
There was virtually no difference between individual fresh fruit and vegetable products when it came to organic and conventional buyers. Apples, bananas, oranges, strawberries, potatoes, tomatoes and onions all had roughly the same popularity between both groups of shoppers. Only mushrooms showed a significant variation, with 12 per cent more organic shoppers purchasing them than conventional buyers.
The questionnaire results showed that health and quality are the main factors influencing organic shoppers, with environmental impact playing a lesser role.
Pearson also discovered that over 50 per cent of those households who responded to the questionnaire also grew some their own fresh fruit and vegetables at home. Slightly more organic food buyers had home grown fruit and vegetables than conventional food buyers (66 per cent compared to 54 per cent).
Based on the results of the questionnaire, Pearson estimated that that Australian organic fruit and vegetable market was around 1.7 per cent of total fruit and vegetable sales. Since the organic fruit and vegetable market is generally considered to be twice that of the organic market as a whole, he estimated that Australian organic food accounted for just 0.8 per cent of total food sales.
If this figure is to increase, he concluded, supermarkets and other organic food sellers need to focus on the core areas of health, quality and environment when promoting their organic products.
Adapted from "Marketing organic food: who buys it and what do they purchase?"