2020 was a year of change and upheaval. How Americans purchase, prepare, and eat food changed in big ways. We didn’t dine in at restaurants. We ordered take out. We cooked more food at home. We purchased more ingredients for those at-home meals. We tried meal-delivery programs.
With the pandemic as a backdrop, it isn’t surprising that we’ve seen consumers increasingly purchase produce. And it looks like good news for the organic sector. According to the Organic Produce Network and Category Partners, the sale of organic produce rose by 14.2 percent in 2020. The most popular items included packaged salads, berries, and apples. The increase reflects a boost from $1billion to $8.5billion in sales. So it certainly seems like the organic industry had a great 2020.
But here’s the other number to consider: conventional produce sales also rose about 10.7 percent. Think about that. Conventional produce has the lion’s share of the market. And it still increased in sales. So the numbers certainly seem like an interest in buying produce for in-home meals, not some magical consumer transition to the organic label.
Why does it matter? It matters because the growth of organic purchases have slowed dramatically. Organic products consistently had an average 10-percent growth rate between 2010 to 2016. But then things started to taper off. And although there was some small growth, by 2018 organic food wasn’t gaining much, if any, market share. So this increase in sales must feel like a huge boost to a struggling label.
Now I know what you’re thinking: consumers chose organic products over conventional in 2020! That’s true. But I’m willing to bet it was more about the organic health halo. People perceive that organic produce is somehow better for you, despite evidence showing it isn’t. So during a global pandemic where everyone wants to protect their health, it makes sense that consumers would choose organic produce. If you believe it’s healthier–and you can afford it–who wouldn’t make that choice?
We don’t know what’s going to happen over the next few months. Will we get control over the pandemic? Will governments impose more restrictions? Will more people become unemployed? Will the economy roar back to life, or putter along for a bit? We just don’t know.
So I won’t be surprised if we see organic purchases slow down again. If consumers have less purchasing power, they’ll have to go with the more affordable, conventional options. If restaurants are able to safely open, people will stop staying in and cooking. If getting sick isn’t just a scary threat, people won’t need the organic health halo. In other words, there’s still a lot of change coming.
Bottom line: don’t get discouraged to see that organic produce sales were up in 2020. So were conventional produce sales. It doesn’t mean the organic label is going mainstream. It does, however, mean that people are purchasing more fruits and vegetables–organic and conventional. And no matter the label, that is a good thing.