Reuters reports that a major study by scientists from the London School of Hygiene & Topical Medicine at the University of London shows organic foods have no nutritional benefit over conventional foods:
A systematic review of 162 scientific papers published in the scientific literature over the last 50 years, however, found there was no significant difference.
“A small number of differences in nutrient content were found to exist between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs, but these are unlikely to be of any,” said Alan Dangour, one of the report’s authors.
“Our review indicates that there is currently no evidence to support the selection of organically over conventionally produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority.”
Now we haven’t heard anything about possible contradictions to the study, flaws in the methodology, whatever, so the scientists who produced this report might be doing a whole lot of voodoo instead of science. (See, e.g., climate change ‘science’.) But let us for the time being and for our purposes assume that the study is accurate and true.
What is fascinating for me is the test this scenario provides for the idea of moral motivation in consumers. Explored in articles like this one about what motivates people in social networks, the idea is that modern consumers like to Do Good, at least when it isn’t inconvenient to do so. People apparently will buy “green” products because they like to Do Good, and it’s easy — as simple as paying money at the counter.
Now, the organic food movement predates all of this to some extent; Whole Foods (a flagship of the organic food movement) was founded in 1978 after all at the height of the Disco Era. The premise behind organic foods, I always thought, was that naturally grown foods is better for you. The reason that I, as a consumer, am willing to pay two or three times the price for a gallon of milk was that organic milk — free from hormones, pesticides, whatever — was healthier for me and my family. Over time, the organic food movement has blended with a variety of other socio-political movements like sustainability, humane kill, local foods (“locavore“), green, ecological concerns, and so on. But I still believe that most organic food consumers — like my parents for example — buy organic foods because they believe the organic foods are good for them, not for the environment or animals or whatever.
So… whither organic foods if this study is true? The test between 7DS Marketing and Moral Motivation Marketing is at hand.
Organic Foods Under 7DS Method
When I look at organic foods in general, I find that they fall rather neatly under 7DS methodology with one critical difference: Fear. Up until this study, it was reasonable to believe that organic foods were in fact better for you — nevermind the environment and all that jazz. Surely corn grown without the use of chemical pesticides has to be “better” that conventional corn, no? Surely meat and poultry that wasn’t fed a cocktail of hormones or whatever has to be better for the person eating them, no?
A significant part of the motivation to spend the extra money for organic produce and meat came from an underlying fear — a primal motivator of human behavior. If eating “conventional” foods could possibly lead to my getting sick or dead, surely it makes sense to spend a few extra bucks to eat natural?
In the modern American economy with layers upon layers of protection for food purity (including lawsuits), most consumers are probably not afraid of dropping dead from eating conventional lettuce. But the entire notion of “it’s better for you” is undergirded by Fear.
Additionally, there was always an element of Gluttony, Vanity and Envy with organic foods.
Gluttony is perhaps obvious for any food-related marketing, but organic food corresponded fairly well with the growth of foodies as well. People who love fine cuisine, whether at home or at the hands of chefs, tended to believe (and still do, and frankly, may be right for all I know) that natural, organic foods simply taste better.
Vanity, however, was also an important contributor. The natural human desire — indeed, a fundamental motivator — to be or at least be seen as being better than the rest was and remains a powerful contributor to buying organic. Having a fridge filled with only organic foods makes a statement about you, in much the same way that having a closet full of designer clothing says something about you. The poor folk, the people on food stamps, might be buying Wonder Bread and Skippy peanut butter, but we the elite for whom health is extremely important buy artisan bread made from organic grains and handmade peanut butter from organic peanuts! It helped that organic foods fit in perfectly with the modern urban elite lifestyle of health-consciousness (Fear) which just happens to coincide with our society’s ideals of beauty (Vanity).
Once the Vanity appeal is established and socially spread, Envy appeal is nearly inevitable; indeed, it is impossible to stop. If the wealthy elites, if the beautiful people, were buying organic foods, then why… I too should be buying organic. What do they have that I don’t have? I can afford to pay $6 for a head of lettuce, just like Hollywood stars can! (True, the Hollywood stars have their personal chefs and maids do the shopping, but that’s a different story.)
In all cases, under 7DS analysis, organic foods were going to be successful because fundamental human motivations underlay consuming organics: Fear, Gluttony, Vanity, and Envy.
Now remove Fear from the equation. Organic foods are no healthier, no better for you than conventional foods. That $6 head of lettuce will provide exactly the same amount of nutrition as the $0.99 head of lettuce from Big Agriculture farms. The pesticides and fertilizers and all that have zero impact on your health.
What does that do?
Now, as a marketer, you’re left with Gluttony, Vanity, and Envy. Still pretty good, but that Vanity play is going to be hard to sustain in a global recession/depression into which we are heading. Folks might be willing to pay extra money out of Fear (health concerns) but they might pause if it’s just to impress their health-club friends, or for some self-image enhancer. Foodies will remain foodies, but that group is a relatively small portion of the market.
In fact, without the health benefits, the Vanity/Envy play can be taken out entirely by cultural changes. Imagine this dinner conversation six months from now:
“Is this organic milk?”
“Why yes it is — we only buy organic.”
“Must be nice to spend $6 for a gallon of milk when so many people are going hungry and unemployment is at 12%. How do you sleep at night?”
Think it’s impossible? Think again. A week ago, the organic buyer could have huffed, “Well, I care about the poor too, but my family’s health is far more important!” Today, not so much. Now you’re completely exposed as a vain spendthrift insensitive to the needs of others.
Organic Foods Under Moral Motivator Theory
In contrast, organic foods under Moral Motivator theory can be seen more as a statement of Altruism. Yes, I buy organic because it’s healthier for me, but that isn’t the real reason. No, the real reason is that organic produce is better for the environment, better for farmers (who make more money), better for the animals (free-range and humane kill), and so on.
There is some power to the theory since the organic food movement quickly added on a bunch of other essentially selfless ideologies such as concern for the environment and Fair Trade and so on.
Removing the Fear element inherent in the “organic is healthier” claim should not, then, affect organic food consumers very much. They’re not buying organic simply because it’s better for them; they’re buying organic because of all of the other associates social goods. And they like to Do Good.
Thing is, the Moral Motivator theory is entirely shallow and depends upon people who are well-off and well-disposed. Time and again, people have shown that they might pay lip service to various Do-Gooder initiatives, but when it comes to parting with their own money or inconveniencing themselves to Do Good, there’s always an excuse or another. Health benefits was, I believe, the great equalizer. It’s one thing to say, “It’s better for me, and besides, it does so much social good”. It’s another thing altogether to say, “It isn’t any better for me, but I’ll pay extra for all the social good.”
And finally, as in the anti-Vanity example above, the Moral Motivator theory is extremely vulnerable to shifts in public opinion. Again, paying $6 for local organice lettuce because of all of the social good it does is fine in economic boom times — doing it when unemployment is at 12% and soup kitchens are running out of food is going to be difficult to promote to those sensitive to Doing Good.
Proof is in the Pudding
All of this is pure speculation and theory. The proof is in tracking sales of organic foods after this announcement — assuming the information gets into the public consciousness.
Would consumers continue to flock to Whole Foods and other organic food vendors to pay a premium for natural, organic, or local foods — despite the fact that there is no health or nutritional benefit to them? Under 7DS theory, the answer is no. The foodies, the vain, and the envious may continue to do so, but the average organic consumer without whom the massive $48B a year natural foods industry could not sustain itself will abandon organic foods in droves if they realize there are no health benefits to buying organic.
At a minimum, organic foods could not command the price premium it does today.
On the other hand, if sales of organics doesn’t change at all, and indeed continues to grow, then either (a) people are far more gluttonous, vain, and envious than I had thought, or (b) people really are motivated by Doing Good — at least for the environment, animals, and so on even at a premium.
As a marketer, this is fascinating. As a 7DS adherent, I would immediately work with suppliers and manufacturers to drop the price to parity with conventional foods because I believe that consumers are inherently selfish and driven by fundamental motivators. “It doesn’t cost any more, but it’s better for the environment” or “Same cost, better taste” are far stronger plays, and maintains the Vanity (through self-affirmation as a Green Individual) and Gluttony appeals. I wonder what the Moral Motivator marketers would do?