Organic foods cost more—or so popular culture would have us believe. The Organic Trade Association, however, hopes to dispel that myth through a series of educational events, including a recent telephone roundtable discussion that involved attorney and environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and ecologist Sandra Steingraber.
While organic foods do ring up higher totals at the cash register—about 40 percent higher in the side-by-side comparison Steingraber conducted—their prices, unlike their chemically grown counterparts, reflect the true costs involved in producing them, she said.
"The main reason is that organic food really does cost more to produce. Organic farming relies more on labor and less on chemicals, and in this country, labor costs more than pesticides. The full price of chemically grown food doesn't all become part of the retail price we pay at the supermarket," she said.
In addition, most organically grown food comes from smaller farms that have a greater diversity of crops as a means of pest control. But a smaller harvest of any one crop means that supermarkets must source with more suppliers, thus keeping prices high.
"The full price of chemically grown food doesn't all become part of the retail price we pay at the supermarket."Kennedy highlighted the hidden costs involved in growing food through chemically intensive agriculture. He noted that the public bears the cost of water filtration and waste disposal, which become necessary when farmers use pesticides or fertilizers. For example, people in the Midwest have higher water bills because they need "very elaborate" carbon filtration systems to eliminate atrizine—used to grow pest-free corn cheaply—from their drinking water. "That price is not reflected ... in the price of corn when it gets to the marketplace," Kennedy said. "That's really the problem—that the pesticide industry ... and the fertilizer industry have been able to garner huge subsidies for themselves and to shift their costs to the public so that [the costs] don't show up in their product."
Kennedy also explained that hog farms with 50,000 animals can produce the same amount of waste as a city of half a million people. But unlike cities, hog farms don't have to build sewage plants to dispose of that waste; if they did, wholesale pork prices would rise by about $1.25 a pound, he said. "They cannot produce a pound of pork or a slab of bacon more efficiently or more economically," Kennedy said. But, he added, "They've been able to use their political clout to escape the discipline of the free market and force the public to pay their cost of production." Rural communities, meanwhile, are devastated as the independent farms go out of business after failing to compete with consolidated agricultural companies. Chemically intensive agriculture, he said, is unsustainable. "It simply would not be able to compete with organic farming if we lived in a true free-market economy."
The costs, the panelists said, aren't merely economic; the public pays a high environmental cost, too. Steingraber criticized methylbromide, a pesticide she said "essentially sterilizes the soil" and depletes the ozone layer. Kennedy noted that groundwater all over the country is contaminated with pesticides. Insects, birds, fish and people who live near chemically intensive farms contract all manner of ills, from infertility to birth defects.
Many people believe—erroneously, according to Steingraber—that widespread conversion to organic farming would wreak economic havoc. "Organic farms enjoy yields that are almost on par with conventional farms," she said. "Once we take away what really are drugs that agriculture has become dependent on and put agriculture through a kind of rehabilitation program, we will find ... that we can have our cake and eat it, too. Once organic catches on ... the prices will come down just because of the economies of scale. I do think science is on the side of those who say that organic is the future."
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 11/p. 11