The High Cost of Organic Food – It’s Debatable

In case you haven’t noticed, we’re in the thick of the political season. What I found most fascinating as I watch debates is how the most successful approach comes when one candidate takes their opponents apparent strength and turns it into their weakness; and similarly, when they would take their own apparent weakness and turn it into their strength. That’s the true art of debate.

It occurred to me that this strategy could be invaluable as we move through our work days as messengers of the organic story. Chances are if any of us were in a formal debate and it was organic foods vs the conventional food industry, the question where we would typically feel most vulnerable (and where conventional wisdom would claim that the other side has a clear advantage) is when it comes to the perceived higher cost for the consumer of organic foods. Let’s face it, that would be the dreaded (and yet expected) question where we would feel that reality was not on our side. Even those of us who are apologists for the organic foods industry must admit that typically the average shopper is paying more at the register when they purchase organic foods than when they choose the same items grown conventionally.

So, how should we handle this question as we move through our workday? I propose that we employ the exact same strategy that candidates use during a debate. We take this perceived weakness and vulnerability and make it our strength. And how exactly do we do this, you might ask? We simply tell the truth. We do, quite honestly, what we have failed to do as a collective industry – we use the facts to tell the story in a way that embraces the totality of the situation. And here’s my recommendation for how to do this:

When we purchase a house, we assume that we pay the asking price for our new home. This past August the median home price in the U.S. was nearly $300,000. So, if we purchased a home at this price we would know that we just spent $300,000 for our dwelling. That’s the dollar amount of the check we write – or more accurately that the bank writes. If someone were to ask you what you paid for your home, you would reply – $300,000. However, as most homeowners have painfully come to learn, when it’s all said and done, thirty years later when you’ve finally paid off your house, the total cost usually comes to roughly three times the amount of what the original price of your home was listed at. This is the impact of interest payments, closing costs, etc – costs that we typically don’t think we pay at the initial sale. With this, our $300,000 home ends up costing nearly $1 million dollars when the sale is finally completed. That’s considerably more than what you thought your home originally cost. Phrased another way – you thought you were paying $300,000 at the register, but it ultimately cost you three times as much further down the road.

Our home buying conundrum directly mirrors the experience of shoppers when they are weighing the cost of organic vs conventional food choices. All evidence shows that at the register organic food will cost more just about every time, but when we assess the actual cost, just as we did with the ultimate price of a home, what we pay for conventional foods is arguably much more than what the register rings up – just like with our home buying experience.

Not factoring in food cost variables that are analogous to the total 30 year cost of a home is to not realize the true cost of our food. The toll that conventional farming takes on our land, soil, water, and overall health from pesticide use, must be considered as a real dollar amount on top of what our conventional food costs at the register. Otherwise, much like when we purchase our home, we will realize that in the end, our food costs are not what they appear to be. Because of the unsustainable practices of conventional farming and the costs of these practices, which are becoming more apparent even to the everyday shopper, we are now seeing that to simply believe that our food costs are merely what rings up at the register is not an accurate number. It’s time for some new arithmetic; calculations that reflect the true cost of conventional farming. I’m willing to bet that if consumers saw what this new number would look like at the point of sale, they would have a similar reaction (and similar awakening) to finding out that a $300,000 home really cost $1 million dollars.

All of us are ambassadors in our communities for the organic industry, and our ability to communicate with clarity, strength and conviction about the price disparity in organic vs conventional foods is critical to the long term success for a food system that we all believe in and that will sustain us for future generations. Embrace the opportunity to talk (and yes even debate) about organic food pricing. Don’t hide from this issue. You have the facts on your side.