Can You Answer This Question?

November 21st, 2014 | Simcha Weinstein | Comments Off on Can You Answer This Question?

PrettyProduceI 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?” It is the most important public relations discussion that you can have with your customers. I really don’t think it’s overstating it to proclaim that how well we do answering 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. I would like to introduce a couple of replies to the question of cost that are not as frequently mentioned as some answers and are a little more elaborate in explanation. They are, however, two of the most important reasons for the price discrepancy between organic and non-organic foods. So, here are my two favorite replies:

1. With the aid of chemical fertilizers conventional farmers can plant every acre of their farm with their highest grossing crops year-in and year-out. This method of farming is a major contributor to soil erosion. In contrast, organic farmers practice crop rotation, allowing the land to rest and rebuild. Rather than growing their cash crops routinely in the same fields and depleting the soil, organic farmers plant “cover crops” instead that are ultimately plowed into the soil to improve the nutrients in the land. This strategy works to make the soil stronger and develops healthier crops, creating a more sustainable farming system. Financially, it means that in some years the organic farmer will sacrifice a portion of their income that could be earned by maximizing every inch of their farmland with sellable product, for the benefit of the soil and the environment. This commitment to sustainability makes the financial yield less for organic growers. If conventional farmers were also employing more sustainable farming methods their crops would cost more as well.

2. Perhaps the biggest reason that organic food costs more than conventional food is farm subsidies. For example, 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. If you are doing some quick math in your head, that’s 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. Over three quarters of the subsidies go to corn, wheat, cotton and rice. The corn subsidies create an unnaturally low price for farm animals (very cheap feed), which makes the price of raising conventional meat much lower than with organic. This regular practice of enormous subsidies to conventional farming has created 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.

If suddenly organic farmers decided to seriously compete with the conventional marketplace and drop their prices across the board to match conventional products, we would run the risk that much of what makes organic a unique, healthy and sustainable farming system may be side-stepped. If this were to happen, organic farms would not remain sustainable for the long run.

In the process of educating your customers about the organic farming process, it is very important that they are made aware of the real cost of growing food conventionally. There is mounting evidence that if all of the indirect costs of conventional agricultural production over time, including clean up costs due to pesticides in our water and soil, loss of soil and medical costs due to illness from pesticides were factored in, organic foods would actually cost less.