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Potential of the Organic Grocery Industry: Why do Customers Want Organic?

The reasons customers purchase groceries, and the reasons why grocery is such a reliable category, are clear: Everyone needs to eat. Everyone needs to attend to their personal care. So, every family buys groceries. But why organic groceries?

Consumers are becoming more knowledgeable about what is in their food, as well as the processes used to produce said food. They want to choose grocery products that are healthiest for their bodies, both on the inside and outside. They also want to make the greenest choice for the environment’s sake.

In 2016, the Organic Trade Association found that 75% of American families “highly trust” the USDA Organic seal. They turn to this seal as a transparent marker of healthy and environmentally friendly choices.


The USDA Organic Seal. The seal is a circle with a green field on the bottom.

Organic groceries satisfy customers’  needs and wants for several reasons:


  • Organics must only contain naturally occurring ingredients. No artificial colors, flavors or preservatives are allowed in organic food.


  • Many consumers want to avoid synthetic, artificial or genetically modified ingredients. However, it is often hard to tell if these harmful substances are present in conventional food. Non-organic manufacturers do not have to disclose use of these substances, so they usually don’t alert consumers to the presence of these unwanted ingredients. Instead, consumers trust organic food.


  • Consumers also want the healthiest products for on their bodies. Like organic food, organic personal care products are free of synthetic ingredients.


  • The USDA regulates the use of the word “organic” on grocery labels. No U.S.  food or personal care product can claim that it is “organic” if it does not meet USDA standards. Consumers can be confident that their USDA Organic purchase is free from harmful artificial substances.

Pesticides pose risks to consumers and the environment

  • Pesticides and antibiotics used in conventional (non-organic) grocery production pose a health risk to consumers. Some non-organic farmers also use growth hormones in their animals.  Organic producers must not use these chemicals or hormones, so organics are a healthier, non-toxic choice.


  • Practices used in conventional farming can harm the environment. For example, conventional farming is usually responsible for water contamination in oceans. Also, the overuse of pesticides in traditional farming can cause pests to become resistant to pesticides. Organic farming does not threaten the environment in these ways.


The Organic Grocery Industry’s U.S. Market Growth

All of the above reasons have rapidly driven consumers towards organic, and consumers are consistently buying these products.

The market growth trends for this industry are reliable proof:

Foods Overall:

  • According to the Organic Trade Association (OTA), $47 billion worth of organic products was sold in the United States in 2016.
  • Out of that amount, $43 billion in food products was sold.
  • 8.4 percent more organic food was sold in 2016 than in 2015.
  • Nearly 5.3 percent of all the food sold in the United States in 2016 was organic.
  • Organic is the 4th-largest food and feed commodity in the United States.
  • Over 75% of all grocery categories now contain organic options.
  • The conventional food industry’s growth rate stayed stagnant last year at 0.6%. With the organic industry’s growth rate at 8.4%, organic is clearly the
  • more reliable food choice to sell.



 What Are GMOs? 

  • A GMO can be defined as a genetically modified organism or a species that was injected with the gene of another species. (For example, a tomato that has fish genes would qualify as a genetically modified organism).
  • GMOs have gene combinations typically not found in nature.
  • Producers that genetically modify food try to transfer traits from one species to another. For example, they will sometimes use genetic modification to alter a food’s appearance or make it more resistant to pesticides.

A pink gloved hand holds a tomato. Another pink gloved hand uses a syringe to inject genes into a tomato. The tomato is now genetically modified.

Common Genetically Modified Ingredients

  • Ingredients with commercially produced genetically modified versions include both plant and animal products.
  • Some plants with genetically modified versions are corn, canola, soy, alfalfa, papaya, sugar beet, zucchini, and yellow summer squash.
  • The most commonly modified food is corn, followed by soy. (Nearly 85% of United States corn is genetically modified, and genetically modified soy has more modifications than any other food.)
  • Milk, eggs, seafood, and meat can become genetically modified if animals eat feed made with genetically modified ingredients. Unfortunately, corn and soybeans, the most common genetically modified foods, are also common in animal feed.
  • Cloned animals by definition squarely fit into this category.
  • Honey can easily end up with genetically modified ingredients if a bee pollinates or gathers nectar from genetically modified plants.
  • Other genetically modified ingredients that can end up in processed food include corn syrup, sweeteners made from sugar beets, yeast, proteins,  vitamins, and enzymes.
  • Synthetic ingredients, like artificial colors, flavors, and sweeteners.

A syringe injects blue liquid into corn. Corn is the most commonly genetically modified food.Tan soy beans in a clear container. A sign that says "soy beans" is on top of the beans. Soy is the most heavily genetically modified food.

Dangers of GMOs

  • GMOs have not been verified as safe to eat.
  • Also, no one knows the long-term effects of eating genetically modified food.
  • Producers of genetically modified foods usually use far more harmful pesticides than producers of unmodified foods. These pesticides damage both consumers’ health and the environment.

Conscious Consumers

  • Consumers want to know if their food contains genetically modified products because they are aware of the dangers of GMOs.
  • Nearly 80% of packaged food in the U.S. contains genetically modified ingredients. In the U.S., though, no government agency requires producers to label products with genetically modified ingredients.

Non-GMO: What You Need to Know

To inform consumers who want to avoid genetically modified foods, producers label grocery products without genetic modifications.

Becoming Verified

  • The most common label is The Non-GMO Project verification, an independent, nonprofit program that marks U.S. and Canadian foods that are not genetically modified. Products verified by this organization bear a “Non-GMO Project Verified” seal with an orange butterfly.
  • The Non-GMO Project reports that it has certified “more than 43,000 verified products for over 3000 brands.”
  • Third parties monitor producers who want this verification through all steps of production to check for best practices in avoiding genetically modified ingredients.
The Non GMO Project Verified logo, with an orange butterfly sitting on a green check mark.

The Non-GMO Project Verified logo confirms that a producer uses best practices to restrict GMOs.

Preventing Cross-Contamination

  • Some of these best practices include farms’ use of different buffer zones to prevent cross-contamination with genetically modified products.
  •  Cross-contamination can occur when bees or butterflies transfer pollen from a genetically modified plant to a non-modified plant.
  • This cross-pollination causes the previously non-GMO plant to become genetically modified because it receives and permanently keeps the modified gene.
  • For a product to earn Non-GMO Project Verification, a processor must test all of the ingredients they include to make sure they contain no modified genes.
  • They must repeatedly test commonly modified, high-risk ingredients or ingredient types in their raw material forms. (For example, corn needs testing before processors turn it into corn flour.)
  • Despite the project’s rigorous standards, though, there is no way to confirm that a product is 100% free of genetic modifications. Instead, the non-GMO verification confirms that 0.9% or less of a food includes genetically modified ingredients.
 Organic and Non-GMO: Comparing the Two

What is the difference, if any, between organic and non-GMO?

  • A product labeled organic or “made with organic” would not contain genetically modified ingredients, because the USDA does not allow any GMOs in organic foods. According to the USDA, “this means an organic farmer can’t plant GMO seeds, an organic cow can’t eat GMO alfalfa or corn, and an organic soup producer can’t use any GMO ingredients.” 
  • Since organic means non-GMO, organic farmers must prevent cross-contamination with genetically modified products.
  • Farmers will create buffers to protect their plants from both cross-pollination and pesticides. Otherwise, GMOs might creep into their products, causing them to lose their organic label.
  • Organic handlers and processors must confirm that they have not used genetically modified ingredients. They must also keep organic and non-organic ingredients and products separate. Processors must be careful to not mix in potentially modified products.
Infographic: Organic equals Non GMO. 1. GMOs are prohibited during the production (or farming) and handling (or processing) of certified organic products. 2. Certified Organic farmers must not use genetically modified seed, and they must have procedures in place to prevent GMO drift from adjacent farms. 3. Certified Organic handlers (or processors) must have practices in place to separate organic ingredients and products from non organic (potentially GMO) forms during receiving, processing, storage and shipping. And organic means so much more: choose organic to avoid toxic pesticides and other harmful chemicals, and to steer clear of artificial colors, flavors and preservatives. Source: Organic Trade Association.

Source: Organic Trade Association

  • Both organic farms and non-GMO farms use buffer zones to prevent contamination, but some non-GMO farms are not organic. After all, the Non-GMO Project does not check if verified products are free of synthetic pesticides.
  • Because of this, a product can have the Non-GMO Project Verification, but not meet USDA Organic standards.
  • However, if you see a product with the USDA Organic seal, you can be confident that it has no genetically modified ingredients.

Organic products are always Non-GMO, but some Non-GMO products are not organic.

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