Income not always factor in buying organic produce

By for CAES News
By Stephanie Schupska
University of Georgia

When organic produce flies off the grocery store shelf, it’s not necessarily the upper class doing the picking. In fact, in a recent study, University of Georgia professor Chung-Liang Huang found that income seems to have little effect on organic produce purchases.

Huang should know. An agricultural and applied economics professor in the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, he began studying organic produce trends in 1989. At that time, only 3 percent of U.S. produce was certified organic, accounting for $1.25 billion in sales. By 2005, sales had jumped to $14 billion.

“I think we do have a preconceived notion that it’s the wealthy, better-educated consumer that would buy organic,” he said. “The perception is just that: a perception. Looking at the data, it doesn’t show that kind of stereotype. The data shows that the consumers are very diverse.”

Between 2001 and 2004, he said, Hispanics emerged as the largest ethnic group of organic produce consumers. Asian Americans were the most likely group to buy organic produce, spending 133 percent more than Caucasians in 2001.

African Americans showed the largest difference between 2001 and 2004, spending 61 percent more in 2004 than three years earlier.

The years Huang chose to study are significant. It wasn’t until October 2002 that the U.S. Department of Agriculture put its certified seal on organic products. By doing so, they took pains to make sure that what consumers were eating was actually organic.

“2002 was a benchmark,” he said. “From then on, anything that meets USDA approval can be labeled as organic. It gives consumers some kind of confidence.”

Ten to 15 years ago, organic food was considered a niche product and was mainly found in specialty foods stores. Today, shoppers can find organic produce and foods containing certified organic ingredients in supermarkets anywhere.

With an increased supply of organic produce and the ability to expand, “the growth in organic sales has been increasing 20 percent in the last five years,” Huang said. “It’s been a very rapid increase. The growth will continue, but not as fast as before.”

Tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, onions, lettuce, apples, oranges, bananas, grapes and strawberries are the organic fresh vegetables and fruits that shoppers most often buy. For these foods, average spending increased by 22 percent between 2001 and 2004.

Fresh produce still accounts for most organic foods, with 40 percent to 45 percent of total sales. Looking at 2005 numbers, organic produce pulled in $6.3 billion.

Huang did find that households earning more than $100,000 a year buy more organic produce than people in other income brackets.

But “there was no significant difference between any group in the amount spent on organic fruits and vegetables relative to total produce expenditures,” he said. “The findings suggest that high-income households are no more likely to be users of organic produce than low-income households.”

Huang said people have many reasons for buying organic. “It goes back to motivations,” he said.

Those motivations, he found even back in 1989, center mainly on consumers’ desire to avoid chemicals and be more environmentally friendly and their perception that organic produce is more nutritious and tastes better.

Stephanie Schupska is a news editor with the University of Georgia Public Affairs Office.