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217+). It is not only the consumer, then, who might be affected by cost; producers also might be reluctant to grown or process organic foods unless they believed that consumers would continue to be willing to pay the price of the organic foods. Their study focuses "on the benefits associated with segregation and labelling strategies that are commonly gauged by the size of premiums consumers are willing to pay for non-biotech foods" (Moon and Balasubramanian, 2003, p. 217+).
The results Moon and Balasubramanian got from their study seemed to prove that the demand for non-biotech foods (if not 'health foods' or 'organic foods' per se) would "arise from the following: "risk perceptions about adverse health effects, environmental concerns, moral and ethical considerations, and negative perceptions about the growing role of multinational corporations in farming" (2003, p. 217+).
That did not mean all British consumers would automatically be willing to pay a premium for non-biotech foods, however. In fact, "if respondents perceived benefits from agrobiotechnology in the forms of reducing chemical use in crop production, mitigating world food shortage, of improving nutritional quality, they were less likely (emphasis mine) to pay a premium for non-biotech foods" (Moon and Balasubramanian, 2003, p. 217+).
Still, British consumers generally are wiling to pay more for 'organic' foods than are U.S. consumers. The mean premium in the U.S. was 10%, suggesting that "the strength of demand for non-biotech foods would be neither immense nor negligible. These findings indicate that a niche market for non-biotech foods could emerge if consumers were given the right to choose between biotech and non-biotech foods" (Moon and Balasubramanian, 2003, p. 217+). It was a far different story in the U.K. Moon and Balasubramanian noted:
For U.K. consumers, the estimated mean premium of 19% (35%) of the base price indicates that the strength of demand for non-biotech foods may be considerably greater than demand in the U.S. This result may be reflective of structural differences in general attitudes toward foods and regulatory agencies in U.S. And U.K. samples. Furthermore, such differences are likely to arise from two sources: (1) higher importance attached to foods as an important social function by European consumers, relative to U.S. consumers (Richardson 2000), and (2) distrust of regulatory agencies in the face of repeated outbreaks of food scares such as the mad cow disease (BSE) or foot and mouth disease (FMD) that swept through European nations during the last decade (Haniotis 2000) (2003, p. 217+).
Nicholson-Lord also gives a great deal of credit to the BSE incidents as an essential impetus to the growth in interest in organic foods. He notes, "BSE proved the watershed, not merely because of its awful human cost in the shape of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, but because it was a test of government credibility that the government failed, dismally" (2004, p. 24+).
He also proposes a date for the start of the organic movement in Britain, 20 March 1996: on that date, Stephen Dorrell, secretary of state of health, told the House of Commons that BSE was transmissible to humans, despite the promises of the government that it was not.
As a result, organic food sales surged in Britain in the late 1990s, racking up gains of as much as 55% per year, and "setting off a remarkable chain reaction," which included government having to relinquish its hostility to organics. "Second, the supermarkets and food conglomerates were sucked in. Last, many small farmers saw in organics a route to salvation, not least because of the organic premium -- the willingness of consumers to pay more for organic food" (Lord-Nicholson, 2004, p. 24+).
There can be little doubt, based on this research, that the U.K. has lost most of its resistance to organic food purchases. While four-fifths of households (19 million) purchase organic food and drink (as of 2004), only four percent of total UK farmland is devoted to raising organic food. Still, "the government has helped more than 3,000 farmers go organic, boosted research funds and support payments, and launched an 'organic action plan'" (Lord-Nicholson, 2004, p. 24+), not surprising in view of the lack of supermarket or consumer resistance to imported organics. Still, Halweil notes:
Among the British, recent concerns over genetically engineered crops caused a flood of consumer inquiries about organic and an avalanche of farmer applications for conversion. In just the last two years, the United Kingdom's organic acreage surged eightfold, from 50,000 hectares to 400,000 hectares (2001, p. 22).
In favour of the growth of organics, Bedell notes the British consumers believe in subsidies for organic farming (1998, p. 28+). On the other hand, British farmers probably won't' convert wholesale to organic farming, not least because the British government likes the idea of competing internationally with agribusiness crops, such as grain for ethanol (Kelley, 2004, p. 26+). Robertson noted, however, that consumers are concerned, too, abut the organic subsidies, wondering if they will take a toll at tax time (2002, p. 48).
Lord-Nicholson saw the issue as both good and bad. The organic market is still dominated by supermarkets and imports, and supermarkets sell four-fifths of produce, with imports, although falling, comprising about 56% still. Lord-Nicholson notes that food air freighted around the globe may be chemical-free, but "hardly carries a clean bill of environmental health. It does nothing to regenerate local economies in Britain, and trails behind it -- in the shape of thousands of 'food miles' -- clouds of globally warming fossil-fuel emissions," another potential factor in dissuading the 'green' consumers in the U.K. from buying organic foods.
At this point, Lord-Nicholson's research seems to say, other factors -- the socio-political drawbacks -- re-enter the organic food controversy. With supermarkets still exercising their strong preference for unblemished food products, wastage and rejection rates remain high, meaning agricultural biodiversity "can go hang" and, also, "The retailers' market power and ability to undercut prices by sourcing abroad also give them the whip hand over the producer -- which may explain why Tesco is building more stores while farmers leave the land in their thousands" (2004, p. 24+).
Other potential factors to cause British consumers to avoid organic foods are found in scenarios like this one that is representative of multinational giants' behaviour:
For example, Rachel's Organic Dairy, a family firm that pioneered organic milk production in the UK, was bought up first by Horizon Organic, a U.S. consortium, and then, following the takeover of Horizon, by Dean Foods, an American conglomerate with a distinctly unorganic taste, back in the U.S., for genetically engineered bovine growth hormone, which is currently banned in the EU. In the U.S., the corporatisation of organics is probably even more advanced -- witness the takeover of Boca Burgers, maker of organic soya burgers, by Kraft, itself owned by Big Tobacco in the shape of Philip Morris (Lord-Nicholson, 2004, p. 24+).
Rose notes that perhaps one of the most limiting factors in the growth of UK consumer preference for organic foods is in labelling, mentioned earlier. He notes that consumers will need to pressure government for clear and simple information, but that a framework for universality will also need to be developed before labelling can truly assist consumers in their buying decisions. Another interesting point concerns the 'near truth' that often dominates labels. For example, he notes that "low fat" often means "high salt" and so on. Finally, he calls for independent verification that what the label says is accurate (1999, p. 239). This, he notes, will bring the sort of added value that will help establish consumer confidence and loyalty, and allow them to accept even more readily the premium prices organic product commands (Rose, 1999, p. 239). Interestingly, Prince Charles is the patron of the Royal Agricultural College, and has been tasked publicly for failing to move testing and labelling along (Avery, 2000).
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Avery, Dennis T. "Pests and Pesticides: The Organic Foodies Attack Stossel." National Review, 11 September 2000,. Database online. Available from Questia, http://www.questia.com/.Internet. Accessed 26 July 2005.
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Bedell, Geraldine. "You'd Better Believe the Organic Gospel." New Statesman, 20 February 1998, 28+. Database online. Available from Questia, http://www.questia.com/.Internet. Accessed 26 July 2005.
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