Discussing the Cost of Organic Food

June 5th, 2013 | Simcha Weinstein | Comments Off on Discussing the Cost of Organic Food

foodPricesI 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 say 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 – providing clear and accurate information to consumers who are looking to make healthy food choices.

So, how can we deal with this number one issue affecting organic sales? 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 over profits and convenience, 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 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 I would add that at some point not caring about these things will have an enormous economic impact, and we as citizens will pick up that tab. It’s a myth to think that because we pay less at the register, conventionally grown foods are less expensive. It’s similar to when we purchase a car. Even if we know why a Mercedes Benz costs more than a Kia Rio at the dealership, it doesn’t mean that suddenly having that information will then make everyone comfortable to purchase the more expensive car. But, if it can be shown that over time, the Mercedes actually costs less than the Kia, then a much more compelling and attractive case has been made. What if it turns out that on average, the Mercedes can last for 18 years and maintain the same engine, while on average the Kia will last for only 6 years; and then factoring in maintenance costs, you discover that over that 18 year period, buying a Mercedes actually saves you $8,500? It then becomes fair and accurate to say that a Mercedes Benz is a more cost effective means of transportation than what was thought to be true with the less expensive, Kia Rio. To stay with this analogy, organic foods really are the Mercedes Benz of our food system. It provides the best value, highest quality product, as well as being the least expensive choice.

We indeed 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.