When someone asks me if buying organic is worth the extra cost, I tell them, “It depends.” To simply issue a blanket statement that organic production is better for the environment and better for you is simply inaccurate, though it is a message regularly touted as gospel by many in the organic industry. But, of course, we all know that “it depends” is a poor marketing ploy.
The truth is, though, that “it depends” is a necessity of working with Mother Nature. Every factor of production on every farm (organic or not) has a wide range of complex components that make any claims or consumer-held beliefs that organic food is more nutritious, safer and better for the environment very misleading.
Demand for organic production continues to grow. In recent years, organic food sales have risen by double digits annually and organic food revenue has tripled over the past decade to a record $36 billion in 2014. Organic sales are predicted to increase 12% to 15% annually for the next couple of years.
With more options to choose from than ever before, which-food-label-is-better-for-my-family type questions are becoming increasingly prevalent. As the growing season starts to take off and the battle for consumer dollars in farmers markets and grocery stores heats up, there will be countless shoppers out there wondering while wandering the aisles: “Is organic really better and worth the extra cost?”
Unfortunately it is hard for them to get a straight answer. At the farmers market, the guy selling the non-organic produce tells them his product is the best quality, and it is cheaper. At the next booth over, the organic guys says his is better for the environment and healthier. An Internet search will lead to more of the same. With such muddled facts at their disposal, concerned shoppers can be very tempted to err on the side of organic with the hope that their higher dollar purchase is really what is best for their family. After all, it costs more so it must be better, right?
If shoppers are willing to pay more for their food and it benefits the farmer’s bottom line, then that is wonderful. The problem, however, is that amid the muddled information available to them, most consumers I have talked with do not really understand the realities of the differences between organic and non-organic food. They just don’t.
How is it that in an era of the expectation of ever-increasing transparency in our food system, consumers (especially those paying more for their organic food) are more confused than ever? Most organic buyers I have talked with have the perception that organic food is more nutritious, safer and better for the environment. Is this true? Well, sort of, maybe, or a flat no depending on the specifics of the farm situation.
Every farm I have visited (and I have been to more farms than most) is an intricate balance of working with the realities of Mother Nature and the realities of maintaining a profitable business. Without these two vital components, there is no viable farm. There are inevitable trade-offs between these two often-competing factors that vary widely based on the specifics. A great online resource for science-based answers to food-related questions is: www.bestfoodfacts.org.
Weed control, for example, can be done with chemicals, tillage (cultivation), hand weeding or some combination of the three. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages in terms of the environment and the economic realities of the farm.
Organic production tends to rely more upon tillage and hand weeding, while conventional production typically relies more on chemicals.
Tillage leads to carbon release from the soil and dramatically increases the potential for soil erosion and decreases in soil health. Chemical control introduces something synthetic into the environment, but saves fuel consumption and reduces soil erosion from tillage. Hand weeding takes a huge amount of labor, which reduces the viability of the farm. The realities of weed control can be positive or negative for the environment, the farmer, and the consumer depending on the specifics of each individual operation.
I have the unique and wonderful opportunity to work with all types of farms. And, honestly, some of my favorites through the years have been organic operations due to the ingenuity, incredible work ethic, dedication to the land, and success in terms of profitability of the operation. But I must say that I have met wonderful people with fantastic, environmentally sound operations of every type, size and scope. I have also seen failed attempts, mistakes and poorly run farms of every type, size and scope.
I believe that anyone (organic or non-) who dedicates their life to combining seed and soil or harnessing the lifecycle of livestock to produce something deemed of value by society is participating in a miracle granted to mankind by God. I often get frustrated when we lose sight of this miracle while getting caught up in the mire of politics, marketing battles and opposing PR campaigns within agriculture.
It is the responsibility of consumers to do the research (from reputable sources) to understand the details and, I believe, it is the responsibility of those in agriculture to transparently participate in that process. There are many ways to bring a high quality product to the marketplace and all of them have pros and cons. The various combinations of those pros and cons add up to a different value based upon the food purchasing goals of the consumer. So is organic worth the cost? It depends.