By Charlotte Vallaeys
“Organic food is too expensive.” It’s a complaint we, as organic farmers and advocates, hear all too often. And we’ve practiced and often repeated our defense of organic food’s higher price tag: it’s worth every extra penny in terms of a long-term investment in our health and in protecting the environment.
When people complain of the high price of organic foods, farmer Joel Salatin likes to respond: “Have you priced cancer lately?”
But we shouldn’t stop at countering the myth that organic food is “too expensive”; we must also examine the assumption that organic food actually is more expensive than conventional food. It’s simply not as black-and-white as many people assume.
Yes, I readily admit that in any supermarket that offers organic strawberries, they will be pricier than the conventional. And a box of organic cereal will definitely carry a higher price tag than the cheap conventional store-brand version.
But it is also entirely possible, without much effort, to fill a shopping cart with a week’s worth of conventional foods and pay more than you would for a week’s worth of organic food.
With two young sons (Liam is 5 and Kai is 3), I buy only organic food for my family. I shop with an organic gatekeeper: Liam sits in the cart and checks every incoming item for the USDA Organic seal. Anything without it he sends back to the shelf.
I also buy as much local certified organic food as possible and carefully choose the brands that I can trust with the important job of providing nourishment for my children. So I assumed that our food budget was much higher than that of families who do not share our commitment to organics.
After doing some quick math in supermarket aisles, I discovered that this is not necessarily the case.
Liam’s lunchbox provides a perfect example. On hectic weekday mornings, I admit that “convenience foods” like a Kraft Lunchable® box—no preparation and no clean-up required—can be quite alluring. But the ingredients list of a Lunchable® box reads like a who’s who of cheap and unhealthy items, including high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils, carrageenan, artificial colors, chemical preservatives like calcium disodium EDTA, and lots of salt and sugar.
Clearly, Kraft is not interested in healthy and wholesome foods to support my sons’ well-being, but in cheap ingredients with a long shelf life and addictive taste that augment the corporation’s bottom line. I always figured that the extra cost and extra effort of peeling organic carrots and slicing organic apples were worth it. I would add that medical issues down the road cost time as well as money, and I would gladly add five minutes to my morning routine in exchange for safe and wholesome food.
Then I compared the cost of Liam’s homemade lunchbox, filled with organic foods, with that of a typical Kraft’s Lunchable, which seems to be perpetually on sale, at $2.50 per box, at my local Stop ‘n Shop. As it turns out, the homemade lunch (containing organic bread with organic hummus, organic cheddar cheese, an organic apple, organic carrots and organic raisins) costs less than a Lunchable (a typical box contains crackers or flatbread, Oscar Mayer ham, American cheese, applesauce, a cookie or a bag of candy, and a juice box).
Then I repeated the exercise with one of Kai’s favorite foods: yogurt. I was certain that our commitment to buy only the highest quality yogurt was costing us more money. I buy whole milk Butterworks Farm yogurt, which is highly rated on Cornucopia’s organic dairy scorecard. Not only is it organic, it’s from organic pioneers Jack and Anne Lazor’s farm in Vermont (Anne was one of Cornucopia’s founding Board members). They graze their Jersey cows and sweeten their yogurt with organic maple syrup. There are no fillers like pectin or “natural flavors” or any other ingredients with dubious pedigrees.
I always felt justified about my decision to pay extra for this wonderful yogurt, until I did a price comparison. On a price-per-ounce basis, I pay less for Butterworks Farm yogurt than I would for any of the major food corporations’ yogurt products marketed to children, including Yoplait’s Go-Gurt and Dannon’s Danimals.
Go figure: organic maple-syrup- sweetened yogurt from grassfed Jersey cow milk costs less than artificially flavored, chemically colored and carrageenan-stabilized yogurt in a tube.
I understand that parents living near the poverty level are not buying Go-Gurts or Lunchables either, because when money is tight, the conventional store-brand foods in bulk are definitely the least expensive. Organic foods are not cheaper than the cheapest conventional foods—and that’s a fact. But I have found conventional foods that are pricier than organic foods in nearly every corner and aisle of the supermarket.
While the complaint that “organic food is too expensive” is commonplace, when have we ever heard people point out the high cost of Go-Gurts and Lunchables?
It’s time to shift the discourse, beginning with the real numbers: on a price-per-ounce basis, heavily advertised brand-name foods from multinational corporations like Kraft and General Mills are often more expensive than wholesome organic equivalents that do not advertise and may require the occasional scooping, peeling or slicing.
It is the Go-Gurts and the Lunchables that should be the target of mainstream criticism—for being unhealthy and expensive—not the wonderful organic foods produced by responsible stewards of the land. Organic consumers know they are getting something in return: protection from toxic pesticide residues, antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones, genetically engineered ingredients, toxic solvents and fumigants. The price premium also supports sound environmental stewardship and humane animal husbandry practices. It is all well worth the extra cost.
What are consumers getting in return for Lunchables and Go-Gurts, for Betty Crocker cake mixes and Lean Cuisine microwaveable dinners, for cans of Breakfast Essentials? Rather than paying more to avoid toxic residues and chemical ingredients, shoppers are shelling out high food prices to buy convenience.
But the cost of preparing food in a factory so we don’t have to do it at home is not the only reason for the high prices of conventional foods. I found many conventional products that cost more than the exact same organic product—with no difference in preparation or packaging.
If not convenience, what are consumers paying extra for? In some cases, the word “deluxe” or “natural” on the label shot up the price significantly, even though these gimmicky marketing tools mean nothing legally. The foods are produced with toxic agrichemicals and often with GMOs and other materials that nobody in their right mind would ever consider “natural.” For example, conventional Kashi cereal (owned by Kellogg) often costs more than Nature’s Path organic cereal. And where does the extra money spent on “natural” and “deluxe” foods end up? Not to support responsible “natural” or “deluxe” farmers, but to line the pockets of multinational corporations with clever marketing departments and ad agencies.
Orange juice at Whole Foods is another good example. Uncle Matt’s orange juice, from organic oranges grown in Florida, costs less than the similarly sized containers of Odwalla orange juice. Coca-Cola owns Odwalla, which packages conventional, pesticide-sprayed oranges in a fancy package and then charges a hefty premium.
I also saw broccoli florets in the freezer of Stop ‘n Shop that were labeled “Deluxe” and cost more than the exact same certified organic variety. Conventional pasta sauce with fancy brand names often costs more than organic versions. Chobani yogurt costs more than almost any traditional-style organic yogurt. Yes, Greek-style costs more because it requires more milk to produce. But their milk comes from cows in feedlots given GMO corn and soy grown with pesticides, which simply does not justify a price tag higher than organic versions.
Organic is expensive? Organic is “elitist”? It’s time to direct the outrage where it belongs. Corporations that buy the cheapest crops—subsidized by taxpayer dollars, sprayed with pesticides, often genetically engineered—spend money on pretty packages and advertisements, and then profiteer at the expense of consumer confusion.
Meanwhile, the bees are dying, animals are abused on factory farms, and the land is poisoned by conventional agriculture.
We have a collective responsibility to ourselves, to the hard-working people who produce our food, to the animals we raise for our nourishment, and to the Earth to be discerning shoppers. We owe it to ourselves and to society to do everything we can to support organic agriculture.
A version of this story ran in Cornucopia’s Fall newsletter.