The best part of living a sustainable lifestyle is that there’s no single right way to do it. From reusing jars and composting to investing in sustainable fashion and renewable energy, there are dozens of sustainable practices that you can incorporate into your everyday life.
Yet many people overlook the sustainability of the simple act of buying organic food.
When you walk into a supermarket in the United States, the options can be overwhelming. It’s easy to let prices guide your decision-making in the grocery store, but your opinions might change if you knew the ins and outs of organic food practices.
Keep reading to find out why living a sustainable life might come with a higher price tag, whether it’s worth it, and the true cost behind the food you see at the grocery store.
What Is Organic Farming?
The term “organic” refers to any food grown naturally and without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. Organically grown food must also never contain preservatives, additives, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Today’s industrial farming complex is optimized for output and profit. It employs synthetic fertilizers to continue using the same soil year after year, harmful synthetic pesticides to minimize plant loss, and GMOs to make produce look prettier and grow bigger. And animals raised for food are subjected to appalling living conditions.
Organic farming usually takes place on a much smaller scale and forgoes many industrial farming practices for more sustainable practices like crop rotation, companion planting, and natural weed and pest control techniques.
Can Animal Products Be Organic?
Yes! Some people mistake organic for being the same as vegan or vegetarian, but animal products, including meat, can be certified organic as long as the animals were raised in compliance with organic standards.
When it comes to livestock, the criteria for what’s deemed organic are slightly different from those for crops. Animals raised for organic meat must be fed organic, hormone-free, GMO-free feed, never be given antibiotics, and have access to the outdoors.
What Makes Organic Food More Expensive?
It’s true that organic food usually comes with a higher price tag than its non-organic counterparts. Depending on the specific food and where you shop, you could pay anywhere from 10% to 100% more for the organic option. Although some people scoff at that markup, it makes more sense once you understand the reasons behind it.
The main driving forces behind the premium for organic foods are:
- A relatively limited supply
- Higher labor and production costs
- Higher animal welfare standards
- Compensating for lost crops
- Certification costs
The price of organic food more accurately reflects the true cost of what goes into growing and producing the food and accounts for a range of other factors that don’t affect non-organic food. Keep reading for more information on each of these factors.
Basic economics will tell you that when supply is low and demand is high, the price of a good will increase. Most non-organic foods have a higher supply than demand, leading to lower prices — but also higher levels of food waste because so much goes unpurchased.
The supply of organic food is limited for several reasons. First, organic farms are usually small-scale operations and don’t have access to the thousands of acres of land that large corporations do.
Additionally, organic crops generally take longer to grow since they are not pumped full of growth hormones. This means organic farmers cannot harvest as many times as non-organic farmers during a growing season.
Finally, since organic farms tend to rotate the crops, they typically don’t produce a very high yield of any single crop.
Higher Labor and Production Costs
Because organic farmers cannot use the chemicals and synthetic herbicides and pesticides that conventional farmers use, they must put in more labor. Natural weed control techniques, such as tilling and hand-pulling weeds, force farmers to hire more workers and put in more manual labor.
Natural fertilizers, like manure, that are used in organic farming also cost more than synthetic fertilizers.
Higher Animal Welfare Standards
The higher price tag attached to organic animal products, such as meat, milk, and eggs, is largely due to the higher animal welfare standards that organic farmers are held to.
Conventional farmers can cram as many cows, pigs, or chickens as they can fit into a given area. Such an approach is great for farmers’ profits but terrible for the quality of life of the animals involved.
Organic farmers must provide their livestock with organic food, access to the outdoors, and natural disease control methods. As a result, farmers require much more land to raise livestock organically, which requires them to give up valuable space for their crops.
Compensating for Lost Crops
The synthetic pesticides that conventional farmers use have been carefully developed in labs to be highly effective and help farmers maximize their yield. Organic farmers have some natural pesticides and pest control methods, such as companion planting, that they can use, but they’re just not as effective as synthetic pesticides.
As to be expected, these more natural practices mean that organic farmers lose a larger portion of their crops to pests, weeds, and disease.
In the United States, in order for a farmer’s products to be certified organic, the farmer must apply to a USDA-accredited certifying agency and undergo an intense certification process. Many certifying agencies charge a few hundred dollars to even submit an application. And after that, they charge annual certification and inspection fees.
In total, a small-scale produce farmer can spend anywhere between $750 and $1,250 just to get certified as an organic farm and then hundreds of dollars annually to maintain their certification. Those certification costs are partially offset by a higher price tag.
Benefits of Eating Organic
The benefits of organic foods can be split into two main categories: health benefits and environmental benefits. Below is more information on both categories and the benefits particular to each.
Some of the far-reaching health benefits of organic food are still contested. However, there are some things you just can’t deny.
Although going organic doesn’t completely eliminate your exposure to pesticides, it does greatly reduce it. Additionally, the few pesticides organic farmers use are natural and do not contain the same harmful chemicals as pesticides in conventional farming.
Increased Nutrient Levels
Some studies have found that certain organic produce contains higher levels of antioxidants than non-organic foods do, as well as higher levels of vitamins and minerals like iron and zinc. Animal products also tend to have higher levels of healthy omega-3 fatty acids as a result of the livestock’s organic lifestyle.
No Exposure to Hormones or Antibiotics
Many conventional farms require their animals to be below a certain threshold for antibiotics when they leave the farm, but they can be pumped full of hormones and antibiotics up until that point. This, rightfully, leaves many people wary of what’s in their meat.
Since no hormones or antibiotics are used at any point during organic farming, you can rest easy knowing the meat you eat is unadulterated and hormone-free.
Organic farming is, at its core, more about sustainability than personal health. That’s why many of its most-touted benefits have to do with its environmental impact rather than its health benefits. Read on to learn why eating organic food is an eco-friendly decision.
Improved Soil and Water
One of the biggest benefits of organic farming is its impact on the soil. Conventional farmers reuse the same land over and over, sucking it dry of nutrients and worsening soil erosion. This unproductive soil forces farmers to use synthetic fertilizers to give their crops the nutrients they need.
On the other hand, organic farmers implement sustainable practices, such as crop rotation, companion planting, and planting cover crops. All of this goes toward improving the soil’s structure, health, and productivity.
Agricultural runoff from conventional farms can also contaminate nearby groundwater channels with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. But because organic farming uses natural fertilizers, strengthens the soil, and improves water filtration and nutrient retention, there is a much smaller risk of contaminating the local water supply.
From an environmental perspective, biodiversity is vital for survival. If a farmer relies on only one or two varieties of a crop, they’re setting themselves up for an eventual disaster. If a disease or some other force of nature wreaks havoc on a specific strain, the farmer could lose their entire crop.
But if a farmer has many different strains of a given crop, they have better protection against diseases.
In a recent study, organic farming was found to create more biodiversity than other farming methods. This diversity is clear in the variety of crops that organic farmers rotate through. In addition, their use of natural pesticides allows for vital pollinators to thrive.
Encourages Long-Term Sustainability
Organic farming aims to enrich and replenish the soil it uses, and therefore encourages long-term sustainability. Instead of exploiting a plot of land until it’s barren with nothing left to give, organic farmers ensure that their land can be used again and again by cycling through nutrients.
Organic Food Cost Trends
With more people becoming interested in sustainable living every day, the organic food industry has boomed over the last ten years. It’s no longer a niche corner of the market that only affluent yogis and hippies frequent.
As a result, both the supply and demand have increased. However, the supply has not been able to keep up with demand, keeping the prices for organic food at a premium.
Slowly but surely, the price gap between organic and non-organic is starting to shrink for most foods. This year alone, non-organic food has experienced inflation at a significantly higher rate than organic food.
As time goes on and organic options become more common in big retailers like Walmart and Target, we can expect the price disparity to continue to shrink.
Is Buying Organic Worth It?
Overall, buying organic food is almost always worth the higher price. Even if you’re undecided about the health benefits, the environmental benefits are undeniable, and the higher price is worth supporting the sustainable practices behind it.
If going 100% organic isn’t feasible for you, there are certain food items you should prioritize buying organic. Fruits and vegetables that are grown with the highest pesticide levels include:
These varieties should be given priority when picking and choosing what produce to buy organically. On the other hand, avocados, corn, grapefruit, papaya, pineapple, kiwi, and eggplant are considered some of the “cleanest” produce, meaning they use the lowest amount of pesticides.
Another way to shop organically on a budget is to visit your local farmer’s market or grow your own fruits and veggies at home.
The Future Is Bright for Sustainable Living
A longstanding problem associated with eating organic is that organic food has historically been inaccessible for many groups, including low-income families. Organic food used to only be found in specialty stores like Whole Foods. It was something you had to seek out, not something you would just run across at the store.
But as prices continue to go down, sustainable living will become more accessible to people from all walks of life and in every class. If you want to live a more sustainable life, the good news is it’s getting easier to do so.
Even though today’s world is largely driven by consumerism, there is a growing movement of people who want to live a more sustainable lifestyle. Sustainable living as a whole is becoming more widely desirable, with more people than ever looking for ways to incorporate sustainable practices into every facet of their lives.
Organic food is more expensive because it’s more expensive to produce. But it is more sustainable than conventional farming, and the more organic products you buy, the more it encourages prices to go down. Remember, it’s never too late to start living more sustainably and planning for a better tomorrow.