Organic Food – Our Least Expensive Food System

December 6th, 2011 | Simcha Weinstein | Comments Off on Organic Food – Our Least Expensive Food System

I continue to believe that the most critical hurdle for the organic industry to overcome is how we address the most fundamental and important question we get from shoppers: “Why do organic foods cost more than non-organic foods?” I really don’t think it’s overstating it to proclaim that how well we answer this key question will go a long way in determining the long-term success of the organic industry.

In the foreseeable future organic prices will not suddenly drop to that of their conventional counterparts. That’s just not going to happen. The issue of cost will remain and we need to become experts on addressing this critical issue. There are several reasons organic food costs more than conventional food and it’s important not only that we understand these reasons, but that we can clearly and accurately explain them to consumers who are looking to make healthy food choices.

There are several reasons organic food costs more than conventional food. The most obvious one is that currently demand exceeds supply. As more farmers transition to organic farming, we presume the price will fall, but it’s really not reasonable to think that it will match conventional pricing. In the U.S. there is basically no government support to transition to organic. In 2009 U.S. farm subsidies topped 15.4 billion with only $15 million going to programs for organic and local foods. The gap is enormous – over one thousand times more money to conventional farming than to organic programs. Farm subsidies have cost taxpayers more than $245.2 billion since 1995, according to the Environmental Working Group. This regular practice of enormous subsidies to conventional farming has helped to create an artificially low cost for much of our food that would surely go up significantly in price (much closer to where organic food is) if the subsidies were not available. European governments, on the other hand, significantly subsidize the transition to organic farming. But even if the subsidy playing field were level, it’s not realistic to think that organic farming would be able to match the pricing of conventionally raised food. By not using chemicals, organic farming is a much more labor-intensive endeavor, especially when it comes to weeding. And with raising animals, less-intensive farming will always cost more.

So how can we deal with the number one issue affecting organic sales – price? In reality, organic food production will always cost more. If we were able to bring it down to conventional costs, it would most likely mean a radical shift in our government policies that we are not likely to see. The change (if it does occur) will come from a universal understanding of choosing the well being of our land and people and having a broader understanding of how much our food supply really costs. The truth is that what we call the “high price” of organic food comes a lot closer to the true price of producing that food than we see in any other food delivery system. What makes it difficult for the consumer to see and to understand this is that this cost does not immediately register at the checkout line. The other costs are more insidious and are spread out in ways that we’ve simply come to accept, even without understanding them. As Michael Pollan has said:

It’s important to remember that when you buy conventional food, many costs have been shifted — to the taxpayer in the form of crop subsidies, to the farmworker in the form of health problems, and to the environment in the form of water and air pollution.

Apart from a clearer conscience, what does the premium paid for organic food get you as a consumer? Organic food has little or no pesticide residues, and especially for parents of young children, this is a big deal. There is also a body of evidence that produce grown in organic soils often has higher levels of various nutrients. (But whether these are enough to justify the higher price is questionable).

So it’s possible to make a case to the consumer for the superiority of organic food — but the stronger case is to the citizen. Farming without synthetic pesticides is better for the soil, for the water and for the air — which is to say, for the commons. It is also better for the people who grow and harvest our food, who would much rather not breathe pesticides. Producing meat without antibiotics will also help stave off antibiotic-resistance. If you care about these things, then the premium paid for organic food is money well spent.

And this is where our effort must be. We push forward with what can be done to lower organic food prices, all the while realizing that the most critical task is helping people to understand, that in many ways, we are already paying less for organic than conventional food – we just don’t realize it. The success we have with this discussion will play a critical role in the long-term success of organic food.