Choosing what food to bring on the kitchen table is turning out to be more and more difficult for consumers: on the one hand we have an ever-growing stream of information about the products and on the production chain, on the other this leads to a greater complexity, and thus uncertainty, exacerbated by the scandals that hit the agribusiness in the last years.

Therefore, we must not be surprised if food is currently one of the top priorities in the public agenda and in citizens’ interests, who are becoming ever more interested in quality products, amongst which we certainly find organic food.

This is the reason why analysing buyers’ sensitivity to these products is becoming crucial, through the study of their opinions, perceptions, behaviour and buying preferences. Furthermore, the same importance is reserved to the exploration of agricultural entrepreneurs’ attitudes and perceptions about organic production, in order to understand their motivations, the working environment, the problems and finally the potential promotional perspectives for this sector.

The RISBIO Project, a research on strategies aimed at sustaining organic farms’ competitiveness, supported by the Italian Minister of agricultural policies (Ministero per le politiche agricole e forestali) and coordinated by the Department of Agrarian Economics and Engineering of the University of Bologna (scientific director Prof. Malagoli), moves from these two assumptions, promoting an investigation of both the consumers and the entrepreneurs, with a double objective: on the one hand to define a communication plan aimed at the consumers, who can thus locate the most appropriate instruments and means to gain information on the production chain relative to their chosen products; and on the other to study a sensitisation process for the businesses, with the final aim of reducing all the general costs.

The research activities were carried out by: Centro Ricerche Produzioni Vegetali, La Natura Viva Group Italia and Consorzio Interuniversitario Nazionale per le Scienze Ambientali. The unit of social research for Observa was constituted of: Valeria Arzenton, Federica Farinello, Giuseppe Pellegrini and Simone Sprea. Observa coordinated a cycle of focus groups, a survey on 500 businesses that produce organic products and a national survey on the consumers.

The main results are published on several magazines and journals active in this sector; some of them are available at: AZBIO (n° 9/2007); Terra e Vita (n° 17/2007) and Bioagricoltura (n° 106).

The investigation on the consumers analysed in detail some of the characteristics that are peculiar to those people who buy exclusively organic products, from the preferred buying sites to the most used products; from the motivations for such choices to the diffusion of other forms of eco-sustainable behaviour. The data revealed that the consumption of organic products is a usual habit for most Italians, as 51.3% of the interviewed families declares to buy both conventional and organic products. A small (though not negligible) number of interviewees (2.3%) buys exclusively organic products.

The respondents responsible for the buying preferences in the household are mainly women (77%): data that confirm how the role of the woman is still decisive in the food buying choices in Italian families. The selling rate of organic products changes notably between those who choose organic and those who buy conventional products, even though three families out of ten buy between 25% and 50% of their food as organic. These buying preferences are quite stable, as 46.6% of the families that use organic products have been choosing them for the past five years.

The favourite buying sites are the selling stores of the big distribution. Seven families out of ten, in fact, buy organic products in the supermarkets where they have been going for a long time and that now reserve some areas to organic food. The shops specialised in organic products are visited by 13.7% of Italians. Analysing in detail the buying preferences, we can notice that the four groups of organic products that are most bought are: fresh fruit and vegetables (59.7%), rice and pasta (13.7%), milk and dairy products (7.7%), eggs (4.1%).

As to the reasons for buying organic, the interviewees highlight the fact that organic products do not contain pesticides and chemical agents (86.1%) nor GMOs (75.8%). Amongst the other motivations we find also the care for the environment in the production chain and the greater security with respect to conventional products (70% and 60%). We can also find some behavioural patterns that are strictly associated with the use of organic food. Amongst these we notice the preference for products that come from the fair trade market (53.4%), and for typical products (32.6%). Finally, we register a strong relation between the use of non-conventional and conventional medicines and the mixed preference for organic and non-organic food.

Those who are in charge of the buying decisions in the household notice a big price difference between organic and conventional products: 38.8% declares that the difference ranges between 26% and 50%. However, when facing the choice between the two types of eggs, the interviewees preferred the organic ones, accepting, in more than 50% of the cases, an increase in price by 40%. The substantial proportion of families that are now opting for both conventional and non-conventional food signals the progressive co-presence of different alimentary behaviours that become more and more informed by cultural reasons and by a precise attention to health and to the environment. These point to wellbeing and lifestyle dimensions, sustained by specific eating choices, which find in the organic dimension a fertile area for their development.

As to the business side, the investigation coordinated by Observa wanted to clarify both the motivations and the critical processes inherent to the production of organic food and, on the other hand, the promotional strategies pointed out by the producers. What emerged is that producers choose organic products because they believe they are producing food that is safer for the health (58%), that they are caring for the environment (52.5%), that they are offering greater protection for the health of their employees (49.5%). However, they declare themselves worried for the low selling price of the products (39%), for the bureaucratic fulfilments (30%) and for the high certification costs (29%).

Amongst the promotional strategies that entrepreneurs believe strategic, we find: the increase in the number of selling opportunities along the production chain (45.8%), the enrolling in trademarks certifying typical products (43.2%), the use of the internet as an information channel (41.5%) and the development of strategic cooperatives among businesses (40.9%). A significant number of strategies can be used to increase the production’s added value, amongst which some result top priorities, such as open days in the businesses (43.6%), the participation in promotional events like fairs, exhibitions, tasting events (43.3%) and the activities of eco-tourism (i.e. farm holidays) (40.5%).

The study finally highlighted the producers’ opinions about consumers. According to them, citizens are strongly interested in buying organic products for their ability to protect health (49.5%); further, but to a smaller extent, they believe that the products are considered safer than the traditional ones (29.5%). Finally, they draw attention to the fact that the traits that are most appreciated by consumers are hygienic safety (57.9%), taste aspects (57.4%) and, though slightly to a smaller extent, nutritional characteristics and the product’s ingredients (44.5% and 44% respectively).

(Translation by Sara Pascoli)