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Organic Produce's Popularity Rises


Organic produce continues to ride a wave of popularity with the nation's consumers, according to a recently released survey. However, the alternative growing method did not make the dramatic gains in public acceptance anticipated after a year of almost constant controversy over pesticide residues in food.

A Lou Harris Poll, conducted for Organic Gardening magazine, found that 57.6% of those queried had eaten organic produce, or those fruit and vegetables "grown without pesticides or synthetic chemical fertilizers." The figure is up 19% from the 1988 level when the survey found that only 48.3% of the respondents acknowledged consuming organically grown food.

"The above results may provide the most dramatic indicators of the impact on organic's popularity due to the pesticide reports of 1989," the report states.

Even so, the poll reveals that shoppers are resistant to the high prices usually charged for organic produce. About 52% of those surveyed said that they would continue to buy organics even if the items cost more than conventionally grown produce. This level of acceptance is down from 58.3% in 1988.

The study's authors attribute the decline to record prices charged for organics this past year, a situation compounded by limited supply. As organic production increases, the report states, prices should decline as a result and not be such an important purchasing factor.

(Between 0.5% and 2% of all produce sold in this country is estimated to be classified as organically grown.)

A promising development for proponents of organic farming are poll results indicating that an overwhelming majority, or 84.1%, said that they would buy organic produce if it was comparably priced to its conventionally grown counterparts. The number of people responding in this fashion remained static from 1988 levels.

Organic Gardening magazine gave particular prominence to apparent changes in eating habits that surfaced in the survey. Thirty percent of those queried said that they have altered their food selection in response to the use of "pesticides and other chemicals in our food supply." However, 69.1% said that they had made no such changes.

A similar question in the poll asked if those surveyed sought out organically grown produce. Twenty-eight percent said that they had, while another 71% said that they did not make any such effort.

The poll was based on 1,250 telephone interviews conducted in late 1989. The results were released last month.

Fixing Organics--Two food industry trade publications recently addressed organic food's somewhat disappointing showing as evidenced in the most recent Harris poll.

In particular, Supermarket News reported that consumers are saying good things about organically grown food, but are not reinforcing their opinions with purchases in the store.

"Put simply, attitudes (revealed in public opinion polls) have been an extremely poor indicator of purchasing behavior for organic produce," the trade magazine stated.

The drawbacks to greater acceptance include high prices and uncertain terminology, according to the report.

A similar view was given by the Packer, a journal that covers the fresh fruit and vegetable industry.

"Organics is suffering from growing pains. With great potential, it hangs between the status of a new industry and (an) old movement," the trade magazine reported.

The Packer offered several suggestions for proponents of the organic movement. They are:

--Organics must be priced affordably. Consumer purchases drop off when organics cost 20% to 30% more than conventional produce.

--Steady supplies of quality organic produce are needed. Appearances cannot be ignored.

--National standards are necessary. (Legislation addressing this issue is pending in Congress.)

--More promotion, advertising, research and education are needed to explain the concept to the public.

Farming Price Tag--Estimates of agriculture's value to California's economy can vary.

For instance, maintaining the farm sector's financial contribution to the state's well-being is often given as a justification for the controversial Medfly eradication effort. The arguement is that urban areas, such as Los Angeles, should be willing to endure the inconveniences of aerial malathion spraying in order to keep the potentially destructive Medfly infestation from spreading to the rural growing areas.

The most recent picture of the California farm sector's actual economic role emerges from a Department of Food and Agriculture report on the 1989 harvest. For the most part, the numbers are impressive.

The agency estimates that total receipts from the sale of California crops and livestock were a record $17.3 billion in 1989. The figure is up 4% from the previous year.

Crop production levels reached 56.6 million tons, which is also an increase of 4% more than the 1988 level, according California Farmer magazine, which reported the statistics.

By far the most vibrant growth among agricultural commodities is found in vegetables. Total production increased 14% in 1989, to 18.5 million tons. The value of these crops alone is estimated at $4 billion. Much of the increase in vegetable sales was attributed to crops such as tomatoes, which are processed into canned goods and other nonperishable food uses.

Livestock and poultry sales also increased a healthy 14% to an expected total of $5.3 billion, the trade magazine reported. Milk production, at 19.4 billion pounds, also reached record levels, increasing 4% more than the 1988 level.

The year's overall success did not extend to the fruit and nut crops, however. State agriculture officials estimate that production dropped 1% to 12.6 million tons with a cash value of $4.1 billion.

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