PhotoConsumers encounter an increasing number of food labels as they do their grocery shopping, and it may be hard to keep them straight and understand what they mean.

For example, there continue to be arguments about what constitutes “organic,” even though the government has an official definition. The label “natural” is a bit more vague.

Then there is “locally sourced,” which suggests the food was grown or produced nearby – but how near is not set in stone. Other terms you might see applied to food are “responsible” and “sustainable,” which are not really governed by official definitions.

Green marketing terms

What they all have in common is being “green” terms. Marketers have come to discover their power, because consumers are often willing to pay a premium to purchase them. Now there is another green food label consumers may begin to encounter – “grown on preserved land.”

Several states have enacted laws that allow farmers to permanently “preserve” their land for agricultural use. That means it can't be rezoned for a subdivision or shopping mall in the future.

Researchers at the University of Delaware wondered if consumers would be willing to pay a higher price for produce grown on these farms. They set up an experiment in which consumers were offered watermelons going for a premium price but labeled as having been grown on preserved farmland.

Different labeling technigues

The researchers said consumers participating in their experiment were willing to buy the more expensive watermelon because of its “halo” status.

The experiment used different labeling techniques, including a local Watermelon Association label showing that it was local. It came up with a “preserved farmland label” indicating that a watermelon came from a preserved farm. There were watermelon with no label at all but at a lower price.

The watermelons were then sold at farmers markets in Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. The researchers found there was a “statistically significant” premium that consumers were willing to pay for the watermelon labeled as “preserved.”

The researchers, of course, see that as a good thing, supporting the idea of legally preserving farmland against development in densely populated areas. For consumers, however, it underscores the need to fully understand what food labels mean, especially if they appear to be wearing a halo.

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