Organic food among science, nature and culture

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Environmental issues are increasingly central in public opinion and debate. In the relationship between science, technology and nature, relevant emphasis is placed on the natural dimension, particularly with regard to the area of food. The tendency to favor what is perceived as ‘natural’ – rather than artificial – has therefore encouraged the consumption of organic products, regarded as the symbol par excellence of the absence of technological manipulation. In the last ten years, organic food has become more and more common on the table of many Italians, for some of them becoming a relevant dietary habit.

Data collected through a national survey conducted by Observa indicate that more than half of households surveyed buy organic together with ‘conventional’ food, while a small but not insignificant proportion of respondents (2.3%) consumes exclusively products from the organic sector.

The features of organic food the consumers pay more attention to when they purchase have to do with the origin and knowledge of raw materials, the presence of a product certification and, finally, freshness and respect of hygienic regulations. These last two elements are considered fundamental for more than nine out of ten consumers, a datum placing them in the first position among the previously listed attributes. On the contrary, not much importance is given to the product outer aspect, brand name and goodness. The first two result being very relevant just for four out of ten exclusive organic consumers and around 20% of those who consume organic and conventional food. Goodness, instead, receives high consensus only for a little more than half of the interviewed people. Exclusive consumers of organic products pay on average more attention to ingredients, production area, nutritional values, public controls and finally certification, which is indispensable for more than 90% of those who just buy organic with respect to the around 70% of people who both buy organic and conventional.

The reasons orientating the purchase of organic products are associated with the demand of high quality standards, which are often not guaranteed by conventional alimentary production. Both the purchasers’ groups follow the same importance hierarchy: their main worries concern the absence of chemical waste and GMOs. For consumers of organic these two conditions are relevant for more than 9 out of 10 interviewed people, percentage who decreases to 85.7% and 75.1% for partial organic consumers. Both the groups, then, give importance to environmental protection, alimentary safety and wholesomeness. The only element which seems to differentiate the orientations of the two kinds of purchasers is their assessment of goodness: the taste dimension is a priority for 70% of those who only consume organic while the percentage remarkably decreases among those who follow a mixed diet (30%).

It is possible to find out three different basic factors supporting the preference for organic: on the one hand there are health reasons, i.e. linked to the perception of bigger wholesomeness, naturalness and safety guaranteed by this food. On the other, there are ethical reasons embracing different spheres: attention to environment and animal well-being (Makatouni, 2002). There are finally considerations linked to the dimension of taste, although their incidence is less relevant than the two previous factors. However, as it has been pointed out by other studies (Santucci and Antonelli, 2004; Shepherd, Magnusson and Sjödén, 2005; ISMEA, 2005), environmental protection has a secondary place with respect to the naturalness of purchased products.

The purchase of typical products does not seem so widespread either among the people choosing organic (around 30% of the interviewed people regularly consume them versus 22.8% of those who only consume conventional food), and not even their participation to public initiatives about quality food, such as exhibitions, tastings, shows or conferences, given that a little more than one out of three interviewed people say they often or rarely take part to them. Hence we can understand that the consumption of typical products, such as DOC, DOP, DOCG, IGT, STG , is no more deeply rooted among those who choose food coming from organic farming with respect to those who select the conventional sector.

Secondly, the choice to consume organic food is also linked to the use of non conventional curative remedies: seven out of ten conventional food consumers exclusively use allopathic medicine, while those who follow a mixed diet have a strong tendency to use both conventional and non conventional healing practices (51.7%) despite there is a considerable percentage who says they rely only on official biomedical orientation (43.4%). It is interesting to notice how the tendency to use non conventional medicine is tightly connected to the number of consumed organic products: the more food purchase is organic, in fact, the more consumers choose so-called “alternative” curative practices. In more precise terms, more than one out of four exclusive organic purchasers say they exclusively address to non conventional medicine, and around 50% admit they use traditional and non conventional drugs.

Organic consumers therefore have a food consumption style and behavioral models which does not only reflect the orientation to the quality of products brought on their table, but also a vision of well-being founded on an autonomous and aware management of decisions concerning their own health which leads them to make different choices from the conventional ones.

In this sense operate selectively purchasing decisions regularly checking the quality guarantees offered by the various techno-scientific innovations, to which they choose to join or less on a case by case basis.

This contribution summarizes the results of a national survey carried out in the RISBIO project funded by the MIPAAF (Italian Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forestry) directed by the University of Bologna. For a more complete version of the results achieved by the survey, see the article: Farinello F., Pellegrini G. (2009) “Organic consumers and new lifestyles: An Italian country survey on consumption patterns”, in British Food Journal, Emerald, Vol. 111, n. 9, pp. 948-074.