The True Cost of Conventional vs. Organic Food

I ran my own small farm for a few years, growing vegetables on half an acre. I enjoyed the work and I did it (with my husband and parents regularly pitching in) as a personal challenge, to see where it might lead. I started seeding my first crops in January, then spent months preparing beds, planning rotations, planting starts, building trellises, barely staying ahead of the weeds constantly threatening to overtake the whole plot, all without earning a cent.

It wasn’t until June that I made my first sale. I harvested lettuces, herbs, mustard greens and kale that we proudly displayed at the market, taking home about $200. The next week I brought root crops, too; ‘French breakfast’ radishes with their charming white tips, and ‘scarlet Nantes’ carrots, deeply orange and uniformly slender. I was proud of these because I had fought for them, thinning and weeding each row multiple times over the previous two months. I marked the bunches $3 each and thought, “What a steal!,” knowing the actual cost was nearly incalculable.

My second customer that day picked up a bunch of radishes and said, “Three dollars! That’s way too much for radishes!” I understood what she meant (a visually similar bunch at the store goes for $0.69), but I wanted to tell her that these radishes were different, that $3 was actually a deep discount, that even selling them for $3 I was making no profit. Instead, I smiled and said, “You haven’t tasted them yet!” She looked at me skeptically, but bought them anyway.

Although my radish buyer’s words stung a little, I could relate to her reaction because I have it myself every time I shop at a farmers market. Even now, after years of growing food (and seeing the labor and amendment costs that go into it), after managing a farmers market for seven years, my first reaction is still to the price, not the food’s true cost or value. Even though I choose to shop there, I still have to reason my way to a place where I believe enough in what I am buying to pay what I perceive as a larger price tag.

What is the True Cost of Food?

Beyond the basic math of labor, materials, and overhead one would expect a price to include, production costs that impact the environment, human health, and social welfare quickly reach algorithmic complexity. Non-profit groups like Food Tank and Sustainable Food Trust are looking for ways to quantify these costs, partly to expose the incomplete accounting that goes into setting conventional food prices, partly to illustrate the value sustainable food systems offer to the consumer – a price tag that is, they argue, significantly less overall.

In short, the pricing you see at the grocery store does not tell the whole story. The equation food producers use to arrive at a retail price is often offset by subsidies (direct or indirect) and ignores broader costs that are ultimately not picked up by the consumer or the producer individually, but by all of us collectively.

In their 2015 report, The Real Cost of Food, Food Tank shares some sobering facts about hidden food costs, including that low wages paid to employees at companies like McDonald’s cost taxpayers $135 billion each year in federal assistance programs, that complications with obesity add up to $2 trillion in global health care costs, and that erosion caused by agriculture creates a $500 billion global price tag each year.

Bad Business

In his 2010 TED Talk, Chef Dan Barber of New York’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns (recently named Eater’s Best Restaurant in America) said of modern industrial agriculture, We should call it what it is: a business in liquidation. The conventional agriculture model operates without a savings account, spending beyond its resources to create a product it sells at a discounted price. It’s a system that has grown out of perceived abundance of limited resources, that’s been fueled by federal subsidies, and that now tries to compete within a set of market constraints it helped create, not the least among them being consumer expectation for artificially low prices.

The good news is, sustainable agricultural models can and do produce food with significantly fewer hidden costs. So, if a bunch of radishes made by a system that promises to continue producing & improving radishes indefinitely costs $3, and a bunch of radishes made by a system in which growing them will become less and less feasible costs $0.69, it’s clear that the latter is more expensive in the long term (especially if you’re a radish lover).

Where Do We Go From Here?

You can help make a difference. Consider these costs when you find yourself with the choice between pricier food from a sustainable system and cheaper food from the industrial system. Better yet, buy directly from producers whenever possible: through a vegetable CSA, at a farmers market, or even at a grocery store.

And when it comes down to two products side-by-side on the shelf with organic food costing a couple dollars more than the conventional option, I ask myself this: Am I willing to donate $2 today to an organization that promotes land & water conservation, pollinator and wildlife habitat, and species diversity? If the answer that day is yes (and it almost always is), then I gladly pay a little more.

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