Is Organic Food Only for the Rich?

I keep coming across notions like: “yes, but poor people don’t have the means to buy organic”. Are the 1% also holding the monopoly on good food?

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.


6 thoughts on “Is Organic Food Only for the Rich?

  1. Pingback: The Cost of Food Depends on the Definition of Cost « Consumption Of Shorts

  2. Congratulations for all your dedication and daily hard work, and especially for this amazingly valuable, highly enlightening and global education world-saver 100th post!

  3. Pingback: Purchasing Power and Responsability | Kosmos 9

  4. I think this post offers great theoretical and philosophical points to consider, but from a pragmatic standpoint when you live as I do in a major city with rising costs of food (overall let alone organic), rising costs of rent and other living expenses with flattened out income growth in most job sectors and rising unemployment for the past 20 years, many people are struggling more each day just to make ends meet to feed their family. Where I live, it can cost anywhere from 20 to 60% more to buy organic produce/ meat and often times it is not local.

    I support the ecological and health benefits of organic farming 100%, but the harsh reality is that families can find themselves incurring growing debt just to eat well. I realize that you may argue that some people choose to invest their limited survival pay checks on TVs and other gadgets (which is merely an assumption being made) rather than healthy food, but there are many families that don’t make those choices and are still struggling to eat healthy. Forget the notion of organics for a moment, and just consider that even purchasing conventional fruits and vegetables costs a lot more than buying pasta and rice. As a front-line social worker, I have seen the two-tier health choices that poor people face whether it’s being able to afford chemical-free vegetables or joining a quality exercise facility.

    • I love all the points you are making in your comment, thanks so much! It’s a sad reality which you are describing quite nicely in which were even beyond organic or not organic, it’s about healthy or not and as things are going many are losing the fight for healthy food. Luckily, I live in Spain where veggies are everywhere and affordable but what we need in the end is a shift in the way food is produced, sold and consumed… for our health and the health of our planet.

  5. I completely agree! I live in Canada where climate requires that we can only grow locally from May to October (roughly) and most of our food is sadly imported from far distances. I personally know of some local organic farmers that are as authentic as they come, but they are not even making a living – just doing what they do because they believe in the health of their local community and planet. In my neck of the woods, it seems like all the major political and economic forces are working against the growth of organic farming and local sustainable practices. Globalization has hit has really hit us badly here! Thanks again for your post. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

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