Organic food prices are usually higher than non-organically grown food. But why do organic foods cost more? And is it worth the extra expense?
By Ocean Robbins
I love organically grown food. But I don't love its price tag.
At my local natural foods store, I can buy organic onions for $1.29 a pound. But a conventional supermarket down the road carries commercially grown onions for $0.69 per pound. While neither price is especially high for a pound of nourishing food, the cumulative impact of opting for a higher price can be overwhelming for many families struggling to make ends meet.
In 2012, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen went so far as to declare that the "organic ideology is an elitist, pseudoscientific indulgence."
He's not alone in thinking this way. But I think you'd have a hard time convincing migrant farmworkers that choosing organic food is elitist.
It's no big mystery that many of them have tough lives - often working brutally long hours with no insurance, substandard housing, and unreliable compensation. Add to the mix that many of them are being literally poisoned on the job.
Pesticide exposure causes farmworkers to suffer more chemical-related injuries and illnesses than any other part of the workforce. The pesticides used to grow nonorganic food are a primary reason the average lifespan of a migrant farmworker in the U.S. has been reported to be as low as 49 years.
You'd also have a tough time convincing Teri McCall of Cambria, California, that organic food is elitist. Teri lost her husband of 40 years, Anthony Jackson "Jack" McCall, to terminal cancer in 2015. For nearly 30 years on his 20-acre fruit and vegetable farm, Jack had used the herbicide Roundup.
In 2016, Teri cited a rapidly growing body of evidence linking Roundup to cancer and filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Monsanto (now Bayer). She alleged that the company had known for years that exposure to glyphosate - the main ingredient in the agribusiness giant's flagship weed killer - could cause cancer and other serious illnesses or injuries. And she blamed the company for her husband's death. (As of this writing, the lawsuit is ongoing - as are more than 11,000 others like it. And some of them are gaining significant traction.)
Roundup, like hundreds of other widely used synthetic herbicides and insecticides, is banned in organic agriculture.
But What About Yield?
Organic crops have historically had a per-acre yield found to be about 10 to 20% lower than large-scale industrialized monocultures.
But before we jump into hysterics about the need for pesticides and petrochemical fertilizers in order to feed humanity, let's put this in perspective.
Nearly half of the world's crop calories become feed for poultry, pork, cattle, and even farmed fish - not food for humans. It can take between four and 12 pounds of feed to produce one pound of meat, eggs, or dairy products. The vast majority of the calories animals consume are turned into hoof, hide, bone, or manure and expended as energy that the animals use to live. The majority of animal feed is, in a caloric sense, wasted.
In "The Global Benefits of Eating Less Meat," Mark Gold and Jonathon Porritt write that after factoring in all inputs, the world's cattle alone consume a quantity of calories equal to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people - more than the entire human population on Earth.
If we're serious about feeding humanity, shouldn't we consider eating less meat, so we could turn less of our cropland into livestock feed, freeing up more of it to grow food sustainably for humans?
How Organic Can Work
When it's practiced well, organic agriculture can lead to crops that are more resistant to droughts and floods (which climate change is making increasingly common).
It can also enable a more diverse agricultural output, which means that you might get less of one monocrop, but you'll get more diversity and, in many cases, more net food value per acre.
If your metric is health per acre, small-scale organic farming often wins by a large margin.
In 2013, the UN Conference on Trade and Development issued a landmark report titled "Trade and Environment Review 2013: Wake Up Before It's Too Late." The report concluded that small-scale organic farming is the only way to sustainably feed the world for future generations.
It called for "a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production towards mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers."
But so far, many governments and research institutions are pushing in the opposite direction. Over the course of the last century, billions of dollars have been spent researching and promoting chemical-intensive, pesticide-laden forms of agriculture.
With only a tiny fraction of those resources, organic agricultural researchers are continually finding breakthroughs and developing methods that are increasing yield, sequestering carbon out of the atmosphere, and creating more nutritious and resilient crops.
Can You Trust Organic?
Each country has its own form of organic certification.
The United States uses the USDA Organic label, which indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through methods that integrate practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Sewage sludge, irradiation, genetic engineering, and most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers may not be used.
"Now that transnational corporations are out to make money off the organic brand, many of them push to drive down standards."
European products certified organic by Ecocert carry a very similar set of requirements. While enforcement could always be stronger, both the USDA Organic and the Ecocert labels provide a significant measure of confidence to the consumer.
Maintaining the integrity of organic certification takes vigilance. Organizations such as the Organic Consumers Association point out that large-scale corporate agribusiness has chosen to invest heavily in organic food production.
Now that transnational corporations are out to make money off the organic brand, many of them push to drive down standards. As consumers, we have to be attentive to make sure that the real meaning of organic foods doesn't get diluted.
Why Are Organic Food Prices Higher Than Others?
Part of the answer is that organic certification is expensive.
It can cost farmers many thousands of dollars to certify their farm. And the cost and regulatory burden of certification can be especially hard on smaller farms.
In effect, organic farmers get penalized for growing food in a way that protects the fertility of the soil and spares farmworkers and the entire web of life, including us, from poisons.
"If we had more sane food policies, organic food would cost less than it does now."
Imagine what would happen if this were reversed. What if all the farms that used pesticides and chemical fertilizers had to pay a fee for their environmental contamination and were subject to inspections?
What if the organic farmers had a lower, instead of a higher regulatory burden? The economics of organic food would change in an instant.
If we had more sane food policies, organic food would cost less than it does now.But until that time, the frustrating reality is that it can still be difficult to afford for a great many people.
The Health Harms of Pesticides
Pesticides have been linked to a wide range of human health hazards, ranging from short-term problems, such as headaches and nausea, to chronic impacts, like reproductive harm and endocrine disruption.
Pesticides have also been linked to many types of cancer, including non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, as well as brain, breast, ovarian, prostate, stomach, testicular, and liver cancers.
In 2010, scientists at the University of Montreal and Harvard University released a study that found that exposure to pesticide residues on food may double a child's risk of ADHD.
Another study conducted by researchers at the Public Health Institute, the California Department of Health Services, and the UC Berkeley School of Public Health found a sixfold increase in risk factors for autism spectrum disorders for children of women who were exposed to organochlorine pesticides in their environment during pregnancy.
In response to worries about eating foods sprayed with neurotoxic poisons, as well as concerns about the social and environmental implications of pesticides, more and more consumers are buying organically grown foods.
Does consuming organic food really reduce your body's burden of toxic chemicals?
Seeking to answer that question, Liza Oates, PhD, and a team at RMIT University in Australia randomly selected 13 adults. The research team fed some an organic diet and others a nonorganic diet. The study found that a mostly organic diet for only one week led to a 90% reduction in pesticide levels detected in urine.
Which Foods Carry the Most Pesticides?
Fortunately, not all conventionally grown foods carry large amounts of pesticides.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) analyzed pesticide residue testing data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration to come up with rankings for 48 popular fresh produce items in the United States.
You can find them listed below, in order from most contaminated to least. Lower-number rankings indicate more pesticide contamination.
The first 12 are what EWG refers to as the "Dirty Dozen," the most pesticide-contaminated foods, and the last 15 are what they refer to as the "Clean 15," the least pesticide-contaminated foods.
The Dirty Dozen (highest pesticide contamination - buy organic if at all possible)
The Middle 21 (medium pesticide contamination - moderately important to buy organic)
Sweet Bell Peppers
The Clean 15 (lower pesticide contamination - least important to buy organic)
Sweet peas frozen
*A small amount of sweet corn, papaya, and summer squash sold in the United States is produced from genetically modified seeds. Buy organic varieties of these crops if you want to avoid genetically modified produce.
While these rankings are based on data taken in the United States, it's probable, given the global nature of food distribution systems, that numbers are similar in many other countries. But we don't know this with certainty.
I'm often asked whether people who can't afford organic foods should steer clear of conventionally grown fruits and vegetables. The answer is an unequivocal no.
Hundreds of medical studies have illustrated the huge health benefits of eating fruits and vegetables. Most of the fruits and vegetables eaten in the studies that have found these tremendous benefits were grown conventionally - with pesticides.
If you can afford organic, I encourage it. And if you can't, then I hope you won't let that stop you from eating and enjoying a vast array of fruits and vegetables. Let's not make the perfect the enemy of the good.
Researchers have found that pesticide residues can persist on many fruits and vegetables. So especially if it's not grown organically, you may want to wash produce.
Plain water appears to be just as effective as (and a lot less costly than) using commercial produce cleaners. If you want to go a step further, you can create a baking soda solution, folding in one ounce of baking soda for every 100 ounces of water. Studies have demonstrated that soaking produce in this solution for 15 minutes will remove most pesticide residues.