More Expensive than Organic Food - But it Poisons You

Story at-a-glance -

  • When the hidden costs are calculated into the price of conventional food and other items, organic food and products are actually, in real terms, <i>less</i> expensive
  • Decades of research confirm that organic agriculture produces crop yields that are comparable, under normal weather conditions, or even 50-70 percent superior (during droughts or excessive rain) to chemical farming
  • If the Organic Alternative continues to grow, and if consumers demand that all "natural" products move in a genuine "transition to organic" direction, the U.S. will be well on its way to solving some of the nation's most pressing problems, including deteriorating health and environmental threats
  • You can make a MAJOR difference in helping eliminate GMO foods in the US by taking the requested action steps now

By Ronnie Cummins

Organic Consumers Association

After four decades of hard work, the organic community has built up a $25 billion "certified organic" food, farming, and green products sector. This consumer-driven movement, under steady attack by the biotech and Big Food lobby, with little or no help from government, has managed to create a healthy and sustainable alternative to America's disastrous, chemical and energy-intensive system of industrial agriculture.

Conscious of the health hazards of Big Food Inc., a critical mass of organic consumers are now demanding food and other products that are certified organic, as well as locally or regionally produced, minimally processed, and packaged.

The Organic Alternative: A Matter of Survival

The Organic Alternative, in turn, is bolstered by an additional $50 billion in annual spending by consumers on products marketed as "natural," or "sustainable."  This rapidly expanding organic/green products sector--organic (4% of total retail sales) and natural (8%)--now constitutes more than 12% of total retail grocery sales, with an annual growth rate of 10-15%. 

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Even taking into account what appears to be a permanent economic recession and a lower rate of growth than that seen over the past 20 years, the organic and natural market will likely constitute 31-56% of grocery sales in 2020. 

Sales statistics and polls underline the positive fact that a vast army of organic consumers, more than 75 million Americans, despite an economic recession, are willing to pay a premium price for organic and green products. These consumers are willing to pay a premium because they firmly believe that organic and natural products are healthier, climate stabilizing, environmentally sustainable, humane for animals, as well as more equitable for family farmers, farmworkers, and workers throughout the supply chain.

Organic Food is Not as "Costly" as You've Been Led to Believe

Many of the most committed organic consumers are conscious of the fact that organic food and other products are actually "cheaper" in real terms than conventional food and other items-since industrial agriculture's so-called "cheap" products carry hidden costs, including billions of dollars in annual tax subsidies, and hundreds of billions of dollars in damage to our health, the environment, and climate.

Strengthening the argument for organic food and farming, scientists now tell us that it will take a massive conversion to organic agriculture (as well as renewable energy, sustainable housing and transportation) to drastically reduce climate-destabilizing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million and to cope with the advent of "Peak Oil," the impending decline in petroleum and natural gas supplies.

Organic food and a healthy diet and lifestyle are obviously key factors in preventing chronic disease, restoring public health, and reducing out-of-control health care costs. While in 1970, U.S. health care spending appeared somewhat sustainable, totaling $75 billion, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services project that by 2016, health care spending will soar to over $4.1 trillion, or $12,782 per resident.

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Millions of health-minded Americans, especially parents of young children, now understand that cheap, non-organic, industrial food is hazardous. Not only does chemical and energy-intensive factory farming destroy the environment, impoverish rural communities, exploit farm workers, inflict unnecessary cruelty on farm animals, and contaminate the water supply; but the end product itself is inevitably contaminated.

Routinely contained in nearly every bite or swallow of non-organic industrial food are pesticides, antibiotics and other animal drug residues, pathogens, feces, hormone disrupting chemicals, toxic sludge, slaughterhouse waste, genetically modified organisms, chemical additives and preservatives, irradiation-derived radiolytic chemical by-products, and a host of other hazardous allergens and toxins. Eighty million cases of food poisoning every year in the US, and an epidemic of food-related cancers, heart attacks, and obesity make for a compelling case for the Organic Alternative.

Organic Agriculture is the Most Logical Answer to Save Our Environment

Likewise millions of green-minded consumers understand that industrial agriculture poses a terminal threat to the environment and climate stability. A highly conscious and passionate segment of the population are beginning to understand that converting to non-chemical, energy-efficient, carbon-sequestering organic farming practices, and drastically reducing food miles by relocalizing the food chain, are essential preconditions for stabilizing our out-of-control climate and preparing our families and communities for Peak Oil and future energy shortages.

Decades of research confirm that organic agriculture produces crop yields that are comparable (under normal weather conditions) or even 50-70% superior (during droughts or excessive rain) to chemical farming.

Nutritional studies show that organic crops are qualitatively higher in vitamin content and trace minerals, and that fresh unprocessed organic foods boost the immune system and reduce cancer risks. And, of course climate scientists emphasize that organic agriculture substantially reduces greenhouse pollution. Organic farms use, on the average, 50% or less petroleum inputs than chemical farms, while generating drastically less greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide. Moreover diverse, multi-crop organic farms sequester enormous amounts of CO2 in the soil. Agronomists point out that a return to traditional organic farming practices across the globe could reduce greenhouse gas pollution by 40%. In other words, America and the world desperately need an Organic Revolution in food and farming.

The Clock is Ticking--Swift Action is Required

Scientists, as well as common sense, warn us that a public health Doomsday Clock is ticking. Within a decade, diet and environment-related diseases, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer-heavily subsidized under our Big Pharma/chemical/genetically engineered/factory farm system-will likely bankrupt Medicare and the entire U.S. health care system.

Likewise, environmental chaos and oil shortages, unless we act quickly, will soon severely disrupt industrial agriculture and long-distance food transportation, leading to massive crop failures, food shortages, famine, war, and pestilence.

In the food sector, we cannot continue to hand over 88% of our consumer dollars to out-of-control, chemical-intensive, energy-intensive, polluting corporations and "profit at any cost" retail chains. The growth of the Organic Alternative is literally a matter of survival. The question then becomes how (and how quickly) can we move healthy, organic, and "natural" products from a 12% market share, to becoming the dominant force in American food and farming. This is a major undertaking, one that will require a major transformation in public consciousness and policy, but it is doable, and absolutely necessary.

Before we set our sights on making organic and "transition to organic" the norm, rather than the alternative, we need to take a closer, more critical look at the $50 billion annual natural food and products industry. How natural is the so-called natural food in our local market, coop, or grocery store? Is the "natural" sector moving our nation toward an organic future, or has it degenerated into a "green washed" marketing tool, disguising unhealthy and unsustainable food and farming practices as alternatives. Is "natural" just a marketing ploy to sell conventional-unhealthy, energy-intensive, and non-sustainable food and products at a premium price?

What Does 'USDA Certified Organic' Mean?

Walk into any Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe's, or browse the wholesale catalogue of industry giant United Natural Foods (UNFI) and look closely. What do you see? Row after row of attractively displayed, but mostly non-organic "natural" (i.e. conventional) foods and products.

What does certified organic or "USDA Organic" mean? This means these products are certified 95-100% organic. Certified organic means the farmer or producer has undergone a regular inspection of its farm, facilities, ingredients, and practices by an independent Third Party certifier, accredited by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). The producer has followed strict NOP regulations and maintained detailed records. Synthetic pesticides, animal drugs, sewage sludge, GMOs, irradiation, and chemical fertilizers are prohibited. Farm animals, soil, and crops have been managed organically; food can only be processed with certain methods; only allowed ingredients can be used.

The Myth of Natural Food, Farming, and Products

On the other hand, what does "natural" really mean, in terms of farming practices, ingredients, and its impact on the environment and climate?

To put it bluntly, "natural," in the overwhelming majority of cases is meaningless, even though most consumers do not fully understand this. Natural, in other words, means conventional, with a green veneer. Natural products are routinely produced using pesticides, chemical fertilizer, hormones, genetic engineering, and sewage sludge. Natural or conventional products-whether produce, dairy, or canned or frozen goods are typically produced on large industrial farms or in processing plants that are highly polluting, chemical-intensive and energy-intensive. "Natural," "all-natural," and "sustainable," products in most cases are neither backed up by rules and regulations, nor a Third Party certifier. Natural and sustainable are typically label claims that are neither policed nor monitored. (For an evaluation of eco-labels see the Consumers Union website

The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service provides loose, non-enforced guidelines for the use of the term "natural" on meat--basically the products cannot contain artificial flavors, coloring, or preservatives and cannot be more than minimally processed.

On non-meat products, the term natural is typically pure propaganda. Companies are simply telling us what we want to hear, so that we pay an organic or premium price for a conventional product. Perhaps this wouldn't matter that much if we were living in normal times, with a relatively healthy population and environment. Conventional products sold as natural or "nearly organic" would be a simple matter of chicanery or consumer fraud. But we are not living in normal times. Pressuring natural and conventional products and producers to make the transition to organic may be a matter of life or death. And standing in the way of making this great transition are not only Fortune 500 food and beverage corporations, corporate agribusiness, as we would expect, but the wholesale and retail giants in the organic and natural products sector.

UNFI & Whole Foods

UNFI and Whole Foods Market are the acknowledged market and wholesale distribution leaders in the $70 billion organic and natural foods and products sector. Companies or brands that want to distribute their products on more than just a local or regional basis must deal with the near-monopoly wholesaler, and giant retailer. Meanwhile retailers in markets dominated by Whole Foods have little choice but to emulate the business practices of selling as many conventional foods, green washed as "natural," as possible.

Neither are leading the charge to double or triple organic food and farming sales by exposing the myth of natural foods, giving preference to organic producers and products, and pressuring natural brands and companies to make the transition to organic. Neither are the industry giants lobbying the government to stop nickel and dime-ing organics and get serious about making a societal transition to organic food and farming.

The reason for this is simple: it is far easier and profitable for UNFI and WFM to sell conventional or so-called natural foods at a premium price, than it is to pay a premium price for organics and educate consumers as to why "cheap" conventional/natural food is really more expensive than organic, given the astronomical hidden costs of conventional agriculture and food processing.

As a consequence more and more independently owned "natural" grocery stores and coops are emulating this model, while a number of brand name, formerly organic, companies are moving away from organic ingredients or organic practices  altogether, while maintaining a misleading green profile in the marketplace. Other companies, in the multi-billion dollar body care sector for example, are simply labeling their conventional/natural products as "organic" or trade-marking the word "organic" or "organics" as part of their brand name.

The bottom line is that we must put our money and our principles where our values lie. Buy Certified Organic, not so-called natural products, today and every day. And tell your retail grocer or coop how you feel.

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