Organic food is well-known for its high price point, which has presented a marketing dilemma for organic farmers and food producers from the beginning. It’s been a long process of agricultural improvements, consumer education, and diversification of organic products, but what started as a grassroots movement has grown into a respected and profitable industry. Demand for organic continues to grow and doesn’t show signs of stopping any time soon.
It’s true that organic food commands a premium price at the grocery store, but that terminology doesn’t tell the whole story. Farmers don’t get a premium price for growing organic foods simply because they are trendy (though limited supply and high demand for organic products does enter into the equation). They get more for their product because they put more into it. Organic farming requires more labor and slower technologies, like building soil fertility with compost or cover crops rather than a quick spray of ammonium nitrate. Because of strict organic standards, organic farmers and food producers must follow more rules. All of these extras add extra percentage points to the organic price tag, but they also more closely approximate the true cost of food.
While organic prices may appear more expensive today, that won’t always be the case. Shifts in the global economy stand to close the gap between conventional and organic products, exposing the Achilles’ heel of conventional farming. They have artificially low pricing dependent on a brief and quickly ending era of cheap fossil fuels, a relatively stable climate cycle, and government policies (such as commodity crop subsidies) that benefit large-scale, monocrop farming. As these foundational elements of modern agriculture shift, organic is better-suited to weather the changes.
1. Adaptability to climate change
Organic matter is the basis of organic farming. Continually adding organic matter to the soil not only builds soil fertility without using synthetic chemicals, it increases the soil’s water-holding capacity, buffering organic farms from the effects of drought, a major threat to some of the world’s most important food-growing regions.
2. Limited dependence on fossil fuels
Conventional farms not only rely on fossil fuels to run equipment and process harvests, many of the chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides vital to their farming systems depend on fossil fuels, too. Organic farming also uses fossil fuels, but in ways more easily adaptable to new technologies.
3. Internalizing environmental costs
When you pay a premium price for organic food, part of your money supports the ecosystem services organic farming provides, like carbon sequestration, habitat creation, soil stabilization, pollinator support, and waste reduction, to name just a few.
4. Organic farming has stood the test of time
Organic agriculture was the only agriculture until mechanization and the Industrial Revolution changed that. Though organic farming may seem like nothing more than a trend, it’s the form of agriculture with a proven track record. As the above circumstances shift, conventional farming systems will face a host of problems they will not be able to easily – or cheaply – solve.
5. Prioritizing biodiversity
By electing not to use synthetic chemicals to ward off pests and diseases, organic farmers must harness the powers of nature, namely plant genetics. Organic agriculture – including organic seed producers and the few remaining university breeding programs that support them – works with the natural ability of plants to adapt to changing conditions from generation to generation, producing seeds well-suited for the current climate and organic farming methods. Conventional farmers tend to rely more heavily on hybridized seeds and GMO technologies, making them more vulnerable to environmental shifts.