This word is often associated with organic and natural foods. The term implies that organic farmers and food manufacturers deliberately price their products to be only within reach of folks who start every morning with a double-caramel latte sipped behind the wheel of a Lexus.
Every organic and natural meat producer I know would love to have their products available to customers at every income level. But they are playing in a game where the rules consistently put them 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
The conventional food system today has been driven to be cheap… in terms of both price and nutrition. As the organic food business grows, the industry will be able to capitalize on greater efficiency in processing and transportation infrastructure. Even then, growing organic food will still cost more than its conventional counterpart.
Growth hormones in cattle, antibiotics in feed and GMO crops didn't emerge because growers wanted to boost the pharmaceutical and chemical industries. Growers struggling to survive on ever-tightening margins adopted those technologies to reduce the cost of growing crops and livestock. Those practices also help produce commodities of uniform size, shape and quality…traits demanded by an increasingly centralized system of processing, distribution and retailing.
On one hand, the system is a marvel. A calf born this spring can be weaned in the fall, moved to a feedlot, transitioned to a high-concentrate diet, injected with a growth stimulant and fed a diet containing low-level antibiotics to reach slaughter-weight of 1,300 lbs. in as little as 14 months. And, 80 percent of the cattle raised in this manner will grade choice or higher. Producers manufacturing animals under these conditions can turn inventory relatively fast…continually refilling feedlots.
The calf born on a certified organic ranch next door, grazing on a pasture-based system and growing up without growth hormones and antibiotics, will not reach harvest weight until it is about 24 months old. That's 10 extra months for the rancher to pay the mortgage, put up hay and cover all of the other costs of the day-to-day business of agriculture.
The conventional grower will continue to set the pace in producing a low-cost New York strip. But the costs associated with that production are enormous—and hidden. According to one study at Texas Tech University, 24.6 million lbs. of antibiotics are regularly administered to livestock each year. Roughly 75 percent of those antibiotics come out the other end of the animals and end up in the soil and water. That is more than 9,000 tons of antibiotic residues that are readily absorbed into nearby crops, and contributing to the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.
Given the hidden costs in our current food system, the real question isn't whether organic and natural food is affordable. The real question is: How long can we afford conventional food?