Does organic food cost me more?

Many people like the idea of the organ­ic mar­ket and of eat­ing more organ­ic food, but believe the prices are just too high. Cheap food, often avail­able in the super­mar­kets through BOGOF (Buy One Get One Free) offers and so on is good, surely? Actually, the answer is usu­ally NO!

‘Cheap’ food is, in fact, largely a myth and doesn’t actu­ally exist, because in the mean­time someone, some­where is pay­ing instead. Or the envir­on­ment is pay­ing; and when the envir­on­ment pays, we can be sure that, soon­er or later, the bill will fall on us.

Modern farm­ing meth­ods use chem­ic­al fer­til­izers to pro­duce high yields res­ult­ing in an abund­ance of food that can be sold at low prices. However, there are hid­den costs we all pay – or will be pay­ing soon – as a res­ult. Although PEDAL believe that we need to grow much more of our own food again, we want to explain why PEDAL believes buy­ing organ­ic food is a vital invest­ment which will actu­ally save us money in the longer term.

The costs of subsidising cheap food production

‘Cheap’ food costs us through our taxes, as the UK pays about £850million every year for the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). While the CAP is not all bad, it does mean we are pay­ing taxes to sub­sid­ise cheap food production.

The costs of environmental regulation and clean-up
associated with agro-chemicals

Agro-chem­ic­als (fer­til­izers, pesti­cides etc.) are used to grow most non-organ­ic food. Misuse and acci­dents res­ult in pol­lu­tion incid­ents. The reg­u­la­tion of chem­ic­al use, pro­sec­u­tions for gross mis­use and clean-up oper­a­tions cost tax­pay­ers more money. Non-organ­ic super­mar­ket food costs us because we have to pay for reg­u­la­tion and enforce­ment of envir­on­ment­al laws largely made neces­sary because of the chem­ic­als used.

The cost of wasted food to you

‘Cheap’ food, for example the Buy One Get One Free (or BOGOF) offers often found on super­mar­ket shelves, encour­ages people to buy more than they can reas­on­ably eat before it goes bad. The super­mar­kets get their profit, but the cus­tom­er ends up throw­ing money away – cur­rently, the aver­age house­hold in Scotland throws away food worth £480 each year. (Source: Love Food Hate Waste)

The cost of disposing of cheap food that is thrown away

Cheap food encour­ages us to buy more than we need. The food we throw away is costly to dis­pose of. In Scotland we throw away more than 830,000 tonnes (1 tenth of the UK total) of food each year, all of which has to be trans­por­ted to land­fill sites, for which we pay through coun­cil taxes. We now pay around £10/year for every man, woman and child in Scotland to dis­pose of wasted food – a fig­ure due to rise sharply as land­fill taxes rise to over £70/tonne.

Health costs associated with cheap food and over-eating

Overeating is a nation­al health prob­lem, and is often a res­ult of buy­ing too much ‘cheap’ food. Every year thou­sands of Scots are treated for bowel can­cers, dia­betes, heart dis­ease, back injur­ies etc. caused by eat­ing too much food. The total cost (for example from work days lost, and costs of treat­ing these con­di­tions via the NHS) is over £175 mil­lion a year – equi­val­ent to £34/year for every per­son in Scotland (£136 for a fam­ily of 4).

Costs of climate change

Conventionally grown ‘cheap’ food is grown with the use of nitrate fer­til­izers, which con­trib­ute power­ful green­house gases to the atmo­sphere in their man­u­fac­ture, dis­tri­bu­tion and by leach­ing nitrous oxide into the air. And large quant­it­ies of rot­ting food in land­fill sites release meth­ane, a very power­ful green­house gas, adding to cli­mate change.

By con­trast, organ­ic­ally man­aged soils don’t have nitrate fer­til­izers added, and actu­ally absorb CO2 from the atmo­sphere as organ­ic mat­ter increases year after year.

Organic soils with their high­er organ­ic mat­ter com­pon­ent are more spongy and hold water bet­ter, mak­ing them both more drought-res­ist­ant and bet­ter at slow­ing drain­age after heavy rain (which reduces the like­li­hood of floods).

Destruction of wildlife and its habitats

Intensive farm­ing requires the use of large areas of land for a single type of crop, the remov­al of field bound­ar­ies (hedges, trees, walls) and the use of a wide range of pesti­cides, fun­gi­cides and so on. These prac­tices increase effi­ciency in the farm­ing sys­tem, enabling lar­ger quant­it­ies of cheap­er food to be pro­duced, but they have been respons­ible for a dra­mat­ic reduc­tion in the amount and vari­ety of wild­life to be found in our coun­tryside. Organic farm­ing actu­ally sup­ports biod­iversity, a healthy web of liv­ing things essen­tial for the over­all well­being of the environment.

Poor wages and working conditions in developing countries

Much of the ‘cheap’ food we buy in this coun­try comes from over­seas and is only made pos­sible due to the low wages and poor work­ing con­di­tions of work­ers in those coun­tries. They are often the people pay­ing the real price of cheap food. The res­ults are both misery for these people and costs for us in the UK as we pay more for inter­na­tion­al aid and devel­op­ment that is focussed on increas­ing exports of cheap goods form these coun­tries rather than improv­ing their own self-sufficiency.

Costs to employment and food diversity

The huge buy­ing power of the super­mar­kets means they have all the say when nego­ti­at­ing how much they pay farm­ers and oth­er pro­du­cers for their goods. As a res­ult, many small pro­du­cers have been squeezed out of busi­ness, while farms have got big­ger and big­ger because it only pays to sell to the super­mar­kets if you can pro­duce in bulk. For example, 461 dairy farms have gone out of busi­ness in the UK since March 2010. This leads to the loss of loc­al jobs and of stew­ard­ship of the coun­tryside, and rare breeds and artis­an products become scarcer.

Food quality – are you really getting what you think you are?

Often cheap food is not of the same qual­ity as organ­ic pro­duce. For example an organ­ic steak will be hung for 21 days pro­du­cing a dens­er cut of rich­er tast­ing meat. It might look smal­ler than the one in the super­mar­ket but it takes less to make you feel full. In con­trast the super­mar­ket steak may have had water added to it, mean­ing you’re not really get­ting more meat for your money, and are pay­ing for water in your meat.

In conclusion

Yes, organ­ic food can cost the cus­tom­er more at the shop counter, but it is a much more hon­est price and does not res­ult in the many hid­den costs we pay for in con­ven­tion­al food. In addi­tion it is good qual­ity food pro­duced by indi­vidu­als who love their products. As we are (quite lit­er­ally) what we eat, healthy self-respect encour­ages us to buy and eat the best food avail­able. Best for our bod­ies, our com­munit­ies and our environment.

So when you buy organ­ic food you sup­port and invest in sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture which is much less dam­aging to the environment.

We would urge you there­fore to sup­port organ­ic food pro­duc­tion (and your loc­al organ­ic mar­ket) because in does not lead to the above costs – costs we often don’t real­ize we’re paying!

Organic food:

  • Is more sus­tain­able that con­ven­tion­al food production
  • Enriches & main­tains biodiversity
  • Maintains threatened vari­et­ies of crops & live­stock (invalu­able gene pools)
  • Has high­er anim­al wel­fare standards
  • Creates & main­tains more mean­ing­ful loc­al jobs
  • Absorbs CO2 as organ­ic mat­ter levels build in soils
  • Is in truth, com­pet­it­ively priced in real terms

For more inform­a­tion on the bene­fits of buy­ing organ­ic see the Why I love organ­ic or the Soil Association

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