Does organic food cost me more?

Many people like the idea of the organic market and of eating more organic food, but believe the prices are just too high. Cheap food, often available in the supermarkets through BOGOF (Buy One Get One Free) offers and so on is good, surely? Actually, the answer is usually NO!

‘Cheap’ food is, in fact, largely a myth and doesn’t actually exist, because in the meantime someone, somewhere is paying instead. Or the environment is paying; and when the environment pays, we can be sure that, sooner or later, the bill will fall on us.

Modern farming methods use chemical fertilizers to produce high yields resulting in an abundance of food that can be sold at low prices. However, there are hidden costs we all pay – or will be paying soon – as a result. Although PEDAL believe that we need to grow much more of our own food again, we want to explain why PEDAL believes buying organic food is a vital investment which will actually save us money in the longer term.

The costs of subsidising cheap food production

‘Cheap’ food costs us through our taxes, as the UK pays about £850million every year for the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). While the CAP is not all bad, it does mean we are paying taxes to subsidise cheap food production.

The costs of environmental regulation and clean-up
associated with agro-chemicals

Agro-chemicals (fertilizers, pesticides etc.) are used to grow most non-organic food. Misuse and accidents result in pollution incidents. The regulation of chemical use, prosecutions for gross misuse and clean-up operations cost taxpayers more money. Non-organic supermarket food costs us because we have to pay for regulation and enforcement of environmental laws largely made necessary because of the chemicals used.

The cost of wasted food to you

‘Cheap’ food, for example the Buy One Get One Free (or BOGOF) offers often found on supermarket shelves, encourages people to buy more than they can reasonably eat before it goes bad. The supermarkets get their profit, but the customer ends up throwing money away – currently, the average household in Scotland throws away food worth £480 each year. (Source: Love Food Hate Waste)

The cost of disposing of cheap food that is thrown away

Cheap food encourages us to buy more than we need. The food we throw away is costly to dispose of. In Scotland we throw away more than 830,000 tonnes (1 tenth of the UK total) of food each year, all of which has to be transported to landfill sites, for which we pay through council taxes. We now pay around £10/year for every man, woman and child in Scotland to dispose of wasted food – a figure due to rise sharply as landfill taxes rise to over £70/tonne.

Health costs associated with cheap food and over-eating

Overeating is a national health problem, and is often a result of buying too much ‘cheap’ food. Every year thousands of Scots are treated for bowel cancers, diabetes, heart disease, back injuries etc. caused by eating too much food. The total cost (for example from work days lost, and costs of treating these conditions via the NHS) is over £175 million a year – equivalent to £34/year for every person in Scotland (£136 for a family of 4).

Costs of climate change

Conventionally grown ‘cheap’ food is grown with the use of nitrate fertilizers, which contribute powerful greenhouse gases to the atmosphere in their manufacture, distribution and by leaching nitrous oxide into the air. And large quantities of rotting food in landfill sites release methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas, adding to climate change.

By contrast, organically managed soils don’t have nitrate fertilizers added, and actually absorb CO2 from the atmosphere as organic matter increases year after year.

Organic soils with their higher organic matter component are more spongy and hold water better, making them both more drought-resistant and better at slowing drainage after heavy rain (which reduces the likelihood of floods).

Destruction of wildlife and its habitats

Intensive farming requires the use of large areas of land for a single type of crop, the removal of field boundaries (hedges, trees, walls) and the use of a wide range of pesticides, fungicides and so on. These practices increase efficiency in the farming system, enabling larger quantities of cheaper food to be produced, but they have been responsible for a dramatic reduction in the amount and variety of wildlife to be found in our countryside. Organic farming actually supports biodiversity, a healthy web of living things essential for the overall wellbeing of the environment.

Poor wages and working conditions in developing countries

Much of the ‘cheap’ food we buy in this country comes from overseas and is only made possible due to the low wages and poor working conditions of workers in those countries. They are often the people paying the real price of cheap food. The results are both misery for these people and costs for us in the UK as we pay more for international aid and development that is focussed on increasing exports of cheap goods form these countries rather than improving their own self-sufficiency.

Costs to employment and food diversity

The huge buying power of the supermarkets means they have all the say when negotiating how much they pay farmers and other producers for their goods. As a result, many small producers have been squeezed out of business, while farms have got bigger and bigger because it only pays to sell to the supermarkets if you can produce in bulk. For example, 461 dairy farms have gone out of business in the UK since March 2010. This leads to the loss of local jobs and of stewardship of the countryside, and rare breeds and artisan products become scarcer.

Food quality – are you really getting what you think you are?

Often cheap food is not of the same quality as organic produce. For example an organic steak will be hung for 21 days producing a denser cut of richer tasting meat. It might look smaller than the one in the supermarket but it takes less to make you feel full. In contrast the supermarket steak may have had water added to it, meaning you’re not really getting more meat for your money, and are paying for water in your meat.

In conclusion

Yes, organic food can cost the customer more at the shop counter, but it is a much more honest price and does not result in the many hidden costs we pay for in conventional food. In addition it is good quality food produced by individuals who love their products. As we are (quite literally) what we eat, healthy self-respect encourages us to buy and eat the best food available. Best for our bodies, our communities and our environment.

So when you buy organic food you support and invest in sustainable agriculture which is much less damaging to the environment.

We would urge you therefore to support organic food production (and your local organic market) because in does not lead to the above costs – costs we often don’t realize we’re paying!

Organic food:

  • Is more sustainable that conventional food production
  • Enriches & maintains biodiversity
  • Maintains threatened varieties of crops & livestock (invaluable gene pools)
  • Has higher animal welfare standards
  • Creates & maintains more meaningful local jobs
  • Absorbs CO2 as organic matter levels build in soils
  • Is in truth, competitively priced in real terms

For more information on the benefits of buying organic see the Why I love organic or the Soil Association

One response to “Does organic food cost me more?

  1. Great article. Was it the head of the soil association that has said that supermarkets buy organic food at the same wholesale prices as non organic, but choose to sell organic food at much higher prices?

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