You might say yes. Most people cannot afford organic. If you go to the supermarket, the bio brand will cost more than the conventional. Yes. But is it all really that simple? Let us have a closer look.
Why is organic more expensive?
The answer is rather simple: organic food has higher production costs. “Greater labour inputs per unit of output and … greater diversity of enterprises means economies of scale cannot be achieved” (FAO).
There is another aspect to this, though: conventional food products are too cheap (on the topic, an amazing article by Michelle Madden). I know this is quite a provocative thing to say in a world of hunger. That is why it is not often addressed. “The reason for its unmentionable status, in my opinion, is that nothing makes well-paid journalists, restaurateurs, academics, and directors of non-profit organizations cringe so painfully as accusations of being elitist.” explains Garry Eastabrook. In other cases, “European” works just as fine as an accusation. Nevertheless, there is something behind the idea of food which is too cheap. People advocating for fair food costs argue “that food should reflect the true environmental and social costs of producing it“. Which means: the idea that food is too cheap comes from the fact that it does not take into account the hidden costs for our environment, our community, the animals and people producing it.
An example from the meat industry:
“The gains have been privatized and the social and environmental costs externalized. For the globalised pig industry is one of the most polluting kinds of factory farming today, and it is taxpayers who tend to pick up the bill, while around the world large-scale factory slaughtering, processing and packing of meat has depended upon workers paid rock bottom wages, many of them migrants.” Extract from Eat Your Heart Out, by Felicity Lawrence, Penguin (2008)
The same story can be told for vegetables and fruit, and it is very well known for products like coffee or chocolate.
Why would you spend more?
Now, let us think why people would spend more on food besides wanting to pay a fair price which includes the real costs. It has to do with value. Values connected with care for the environment but just as well for your personal health.
Organic means much more than choosing the box or jar with the green label. It means having a different relationship with your food. For many people all around the world that includes going as far as growing your own food. Which – linking to the next question – is also a cheap way of getting organic food.
What about poor people?
Poverty and hunger are complex ideas. It is not as simple as “there are hungry people and they cannot buy enough food“, as we can learn from the work of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab – or what I believe is the most real-life and effective approach in understanding how to fight poverty. Director Esther Duflo explains how complex poverty is by saying that we live in a “world where those without enough to eat may save up to buy a TV instead, where more money doesn’t necessarily translate into more food, and where making rice cheaper can sometimes even lead people to buy less rice.” Find more on the topic and the work of J-PAL in this article.
In order to understand if buying or not buying organic is simply linked to income, let us have a look at who is buying bio products. A study by The Hartman Group shows that in the US “Latino/Hispanic Americans and African Americans are much more likely than Caucasians to be Core organic consumers.”, which contradicts the idea of the “white middle class” organic shopper. But this is not all: peer-reviewed online agricultural economics journal Choices finds “a lack of a clear positive association between organic expenditure and income level.”
Food deserts and education
Organic or not organic might therefore be a question to which the answer is not as simple as rich or poor. Education plays an important role for the choice of healthy food. Education which is not available to everyone. Instead of preaching about buying organic we should rather teach to build a vegetable garden. Especially, because in some regions there are no organic products available. This occurs in the developing just as well as in the developed world. The problems are twofold. In some countries organic food is produced but not available to the local community (“Argentina is the world’s third largest producer of organic products … 90% of all organic products are exported”). In other countries healthy food is only available in some areas: a “food desert” describes “any area in the industrialised world where healthy, affordable food is difficult to obtain.”
What we need is a change within the food system. Of course many do not imagine the change towards organic to be made by big companies like Wall Mart, but if they bring organic – to affordable prices – to millions of people, it might not be that bad after all.
However, a change will not occur before we accept the truth. Good food is not cheap. If we let go of the idea of cheap, we can – paradoxically – make good food cheaper. “Ensuring that food prices reflect true costs of production would level the playing field between sustainable agriculture and its less responsible competition, and it would increase the availability of quality produce for all.” (More about it by Sami Grover).
Personally, I would like for everyone to be able to feed on organic, non-toxic food and to learn the difference. Maybe we are not asking the right questions. Not “why is good food too expensive”, but “why are there people who cannot buy good food?”. If we could pick, shouldn’t we change poverty instead of food prices?
Picture courtesy by circulating.