the cost of organic, part deux

I’m finally returning to a topic I started about a week ago. To read part one of the cost of organic, click here.

We all understand the importance of voting: It is our chance to tell the country how we think things should be going. We give our voice to what we believe in, hoping that it leads to the kind of country, state or city we want to live in.

It’s time to vote with your dollars.

For me, one of the most poignant scenes in Food, Inc. was when a farmer explains that if we demand more produce and fewer chemicals, the farmers will deliver. They want to. But we have to demand it in a big way. We have to give them a market for their produce, & that means having a greater willingness to pay.

We had it, once. Now, Americans spend less on food than any other developed nation in the world.* Less than 10 percent of our income goes to our diets (including food made at home & at restaurants). In 1960, as the age of food convenience was dawning, we were spending nearly 20%.*Pollan & other like-minded figures suggest that the dig in willingness to pay has a serious tradeoff: “The less we spend on food, the more we spend on healthcare.”*

Does it take some serious reshuffling? Is it still frustrating to pay what feels like too high a price for dairy or just plain ol’ cereals? Can these run-of-the-mill purchases really equal any kind of change? Yes, yes & yes. It may even change the grocery you buy at–or the people you interact with, or the strategy you use at the store, or the recipes your family most enjoys.

Is this one of the most important yet simplest ways we can change the face of our nation’s health (both of the people & the land)? In my opinion, yes. And that is why I bash this into your head all the time. Now, if you’re still with me, I’m done evangelizing. Let’s move on, to see where those higher costs come from, & why they’re worth shelling out for.

* * *

Rhetorical question: When, in any part of our lives, have we looked favorably on chemical dependency? Our agricultural system has an addiction problem. For that reason, the cost of organic is less about what you’re getting & more about what you’re not getting.

The foundation of organic agriculture is in its name: the organisms in the soil & the organic compounds that are added through cover cropping composting, mulching (which conserves water, provides shade and, depending on the mulch, invites the worms). While conventional agriculture’s chemical dependence erodes the soil & depletes nutrients, organic agriculture increases soil health. This means you can farm longer, getting healthier crops & a healthier farm ecosystem each year.

Now. I know. Pause. Is every organic farmer doing all these wonderful things? No. The USDA monitors organic regulations, & the board that overseas it has been gradually tipping the scales in favor of larger farms. I know that. It’s a struggle. I’m not saying it’s a perfect system. I’m saying it has far more potential than anything else we have right now. But even those farms that are cheating a bit are making massive gains: they’re not using atrazine; they’re not using growth hormones; they’re not creating chemical runoff that contaminates waterways*. These are enormous health gains: for farmers, for consumers who avoid eating chemicals** & for ecosystems.

There is much debate about the additional nutritional benefits of an organic diet. I–shockingly, I know–am of the persuasion that an organic diet is healthier than an inorganic diet. There are the big reasons–you’re avoiding fast food; you’re eating more locally, consuming plants while they have a larger store of nutrients; you’re just paying attention to what you put in your body, which leads to lower consumption of processed foods.

But this is the controversial part: Put two grains side by side. Forget the chemicals for a minute. Is one more nutritional than the other? A recent study did this with tomatoes, & all signs pointed to yes. Here’s an excerpt from the Science Daily piece:

Differences between organic and conventional tomatoes can be explained by the manure used in both cases. “Organic farming doesn’t use nitrogenous fertilizers; as a result, plants respond by activating their own defense mechanisms, increasing the levels of all antioxidants,” explains the first author of the article, Anna Vallverdú Queralt. “The more stress plants suffer, the more polyphenols they produce,” points out lecturer Lamuela.

When I explain this theory–that the tomatoes seem to prove, that organic is in fact more nutritious–I compare it to two kids in a sandbox. One is slathered in Purell then placed in a bubble. The other rolls in dirt, eats a handful of it & has it all caked around his fingernails. Which kid develops a stronger immune system? That’s right. Pig-Pen has to be the strongest cartoon kid ever. The more we encounter, the more antibodies we create. That science works for plants as well… and those “antibodies”? We call them vitamins & antioxidants.

Those sturdy, hard-working plants make better food. Why does this justify their cost? Because the kid rolling in the dirt is bound to get an infection sometimes, & it’s going to take a while to bounce back. Farmers going chemical-free face larger risks with pests. Hell, I can’t keep squash bugs off three squash plants, let alone a field! It’s challenging, & they earned their wage. And you deserve to eat the best. This is a symbiotic relationship–between consumer, farmer & earth. We have to hold up our end of the deal. We have to acknowledge the work going into our food & the increased gains we get from it.

So maybe, rather than starting an argument with your farmer about the price of his baby spinach that you have the luxury of buying in February, just say–just once– “Thanks. I could never do this all on my own.” Because if we aren’t thankful & willing, the farmers will find a crop we’ll pay for–and the crop diversity we appreciate each spring & summer could shrink even more.

It’s the season for it. You’re watching the campaign ads. You’re rallying yourself to vote & convincing your friends that so-and-so kills jobs while so-and-so will save our economy. You’ll rock the vote come November. But will you vote right now–for your farmer & for a diet that makes the world a healthier place in every sense?

*There may be pollution from animal farms, but not to the degree of confined animal feed lots. But that is another discussion. You can read about it here; I’ll discuss it more fully another time.

**Because you’re not washing all that off. Many pesticides permeate the cell walls of plants & concentrate in the fleshy bits we eat. Plants have cell walls, but they’re not stone-walled fortresses.


About meganbetz

human geography PhD Student at Indiana University; wife, reader, writer, baker, gardener
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6 Responses to the cost of organic, part deux

  1. Scott Brechmacher says:

    Awesome pair of posts! This should be on MSNBC, treehugger, and all the big food blogs that I know nothing about.

    • meganbetz says:

      Thanks so much, Scott. It was hard to finally reign in these thoughts. I hope to do a Part III next week as well, looking at how the USDA & the council are changing organics in a way that could hurt the movement.

  2. Lauren says:

    Excellent post, Meg! As soon as our kitchen is finished, I (/we) am (/are) going to try to make it out for a weekend to visit you two.

    • Lauren says:

      Oh, after the “Excellent post…” thing, I was meaning to say that I agree wholeheartedly.

      • meganbetz says:

        Thanks so much! This was more of how I saw the blog going, so it’s fun to have the time for it. Glad you enjoyed it (and would LOVE a visit from you).

  3. Pingback: week 5: how much we waste | project V515

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