Are Organic Foods Worth the Premium? And Has Anything Changed in the Last 35 Years?

Organic foods per se were quite new to the public in the 1970s and certification patchy. A 1975 Readers Digest article suggested that they were nutritionally indistinguishable from regular crops and, because of a lack of pesticides, much more liable to crop failure and spoliation — and this made them dangerous to health, as well as expensive. I thought it would be interesting to see what more research and developing viewpoints would show us after a third of a century.

If you want to look it up, the article is in the April 1975 UK edition of RD and was by Elizabeth Whelan, condensed from the June 1974 Glamor (Condé Nast).

In the 1975 article, Nobel Prize-winning agronomist Norman Borlaug was quoted claiming crop failure up to 50% and a consequent 4-5 times food price increase if all crops became organic. (This was in the days of the Green Revolution of new agri-business in the third world, which tripled world crop yields using new seeds, fertiliser and pesticides.)

Pesticides

So, what’s changed? First, for many people, nothing. They still see organic foods as a costly alternative to ordinary food for the ‘picky greens’.

Second, some agronomists are saying that crop yields are now down 50% on the 1950s even with pesticides — the problem is that pest predators have been wiped out and pests have become resistant to the chemicals. It’s a pity that we haven’t!

We can now make a good argument for using natural pest control (not none at all) — but  where the land is contaminated with 40 years of pesticide use, we’ll still get pesticide residues in out food.

One effect of a lack of pesticides is the small amount of pest spoilage. Organic food eaters find this natural and acceptable, and it’s far from the predictions of Borlaug. In fact, spoilage is going up generally as pests become pesticide-resistant.

Fertiliser

The article was right. Artificial fertiliser gives crops nutritionally indistinguishable from those grown with natural fertilisers. 

But, there’s another side to this. Constant lack of natural humus in a field results in breakdown of the soil; 4 decades is usually enough. So good modern farming puts emphasis on that traditional skill, keeping the land in ‘good heart’. It wasn’t thought about by most bright young scientists in 1975 and the result was huge wastage of land by erosion. Crop rotations, strip cropping, resting (fallow) and other methods all add up to keep plenty of humus in the soil, as does the  ploughing in of organic matter like animal dung and crop wastes. This gives better crops than a ruined field blowing away on the wind.

Go for Organic?

So, are organic crops more nutritious? Yes, if the regular crops are lacking in essential nutrients from over-cropping and monoculture of super-high-yield varieties. Otherwise no; good farms look after their land anyway. Why, then, are organic crops said to be tastier? Because the varieties grown are tastier, though lower yielding (making them more expensive). The same varieties grown the chemical way should also taste good (and cost more, too). Typical organic crops often grow more slowly, too, and this can concentrate flavour.

There’s a good argument for allowing small amounts of artificial fertiliser on organic crops — maybe 5% of what is used regularly by most Western farmers. The key reason farmers give for heavy fertilising is that they’d be ruined if they didn’t use it and their competitors did. The other main reason is that consumers demand food to be as cheap as possible and damn the consequences, so supermarkets force their buying prices down and the farmers have no choice. I see truth in both of these arguments by farmers, and the fixes are obvious – though maybe unpopular with price-led consumers.

But to answer my own question at the top, do I think organic foods are worth the premium? Yes — because they are generally tastier varieties and because the less pesticide residues we eat, the stronger our immune systems. On the other hand, I wouldn’t pay double the price for organic. I DO buy it a lot and by preference when the price premium is under 30%, or when it’s on offer. 

And it’s notable that in the last few years, some supermarkets have been selling some organic food at only a small premium over the regular price. What IS a disgrace is the practice of marketing organic manufactured foods like pickles, jams and ready meals at a 50%-100% premium when the total cost of production is only 2%-3% over that for non-organic.

And You?

So, where are you on this?  Heavy pesticides or minor pest damage?  Lowest price or farmers guarding the land?  Oh, and what do you feel about market forcing by agribusiness and supermarkets?  Are you for cheapest price today whatever the future problems?  Or would you pay more today to keep up a healthy food supply and maintain the land in good heart for your lifetime and more?

Let’s put it on the line: would you vote for a government that had promised as its key policy to tax food by an extra 15%, then use the money to force sound farming practice, including phasing out heavy pesticide and fertilizer use?  How would you vote?  Cynicism about government promises aside, THAT’s where your true opinion lies.

BOLA TANGKAS