Why I Can’t Afford Brussels Sprouts: Surmounting the High Cost of Organic Food

Brussels sprouts

I acquired a taste for brussels sprouts fairly late in life as they were not common fare at our family dinner table. A leafy green vegetable that looks like a miniature green cabbage, brussels sprouts are one of those vegetables that can draw a mixed response. But if you like them, you really like them and you will go the extra mile to add them to your shopping cart. Hitting the register at $8.99 a pound in my local natural food store, they stand as a symbol of the rising and often beyond the reach of most people’s “sensible-food-budget-price” of certified organic food.

We used to go to the nearby farmers’ market (this was in the 60s) and get a bushel of apples. I want to emphasize it was a whole bushel of wonderful, fresh, tart, in-season local apples for five dollars. At today’s organic food prices, if you are lucky, you get five small certified organic apples for the same amount. Then there is my favorite sprouted grain bread. The cinnamon raisin often weighs in at close to $10 a loaf unless it’s my lucky day and they happen to have it on sale. While I can’t imagine that this price is justifiable, I often get the impression that someone out there thinks that 100% markup on food is okay. Bread after all is a basic commodity and in remote locations, organic and safe food purists often have no choice but to buck up and pay these outrageous prices. Think of the Great Depression and compare 5 cents a loaf to $10 a loaf. This is far beyond normal inflation, putting up a red flag to both consumers and the industry to give full attention to the cost of basics when it comes to certified organic food.

How many times have you walked into your local natural food store and reached for your favorite fruit, vegetable, supplement, or packaged item and wondered, “Why does organic food cost so much?” For health conscious organic shoppers, it can be a real dilemma, causing consumers to seriously weigh and sometimes sacrifice important health considerations as well as family food preferences with the constraints of their pocketbook. “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” said Hippocrates, but what if it costs too much?

In today’s chemically-laden world with pollutants, pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, GMOs and other toxicants bombarding our homes, the environment, agricultural developments and our planet, it is getting harder and harder to source pure and transparently labeled food. Cost is one very important factor. With increasing consumer awareness about the pitfalls of conventionally produced foods, educated consumers have no choice but to buy organic. The health and environmental risks of conventionally grown and packaged foods are simply too great. Add to this the fact that recently signed labeling laws are so vague, with so many loopholes, that new doubts and challenges may soon be added to organic shoppers quest to buy 100% organic with accurate and transparent non-GMO labels and this could affect pricing as well. It is still not clear if the organic label will really protect every ingredient as non-GMO.

The good news is that researchers are suggesting that it is possible to feed the global population sustainably. In fact, current food production is sufficient to feed seven billon people and yet 30-40% of it is wasted. Perhaps addressing food waste can help to keep organic food prices down. Hundreds of published studies reveal that not only can organic agriculture produce sufficient yields, but that it is profitable for farmers to go organic. The choice for organic offers side benefits (e.g., going organic can offer sustainable healthy food while simultaneously protecting and enhancing the environment). So rather than conventional agricultural and food production having a negative health and environmental impact, the choice for organic offers win/win solutions to feed the world while enhancing the ecology and the environment.

In an ideal world, if all agriculture really transitioned to certified organic and the requirements for 100% certified organic really became mainstream such that the quantity of produce and products equaled conventional production, the organic commodities market would be flooded, the competition amongst growers and manufacturers would be much greater and supply would finally exceed demand. This scenario would effectively pull the prices down. Although organic agriculture currently represents at best 1% of the world’s agricultural land, organic has been ranking as profitable for farmers because consumers seem to be willing to pay more for certified organic produce. Consumers want foods that are farmed in a sustainable and socially responsible manner.

Processed organic foods and supplements ideally do not contain chemical preservatives, additives such as colorings or wax, are not subject to irradiation and are not fertilized with sewage sludge. So although WW II chemicals used in warfare (DDT and ammonium nitrate) have been used as low-cost sources of pesticides and fertilizer in the past, certified organic has addressed and reversed this trend to protect consumer and environmental health. A comparison of organic and conventional farming prepared by Washington State researchers suggests that organic agriculture scores higher in a number of areas including soil quality (e.g., less soil carbon, reductions in soil erosion), biodiversity, minimizing soil and water pollution, lower greenhouse gas emissions, reduction of worker exposure to pesticides, reduction of pesticide residues, greater energy efficiency due to lack of reliance on synthetic pesticides and fertilizers as well as increased profitability.

We Can Feed the World Sustainably
But Why Is the Cost So High?

Industry experts have offered a variety of explanations for the high cost of organic food. Some say increasing crop yields and growing larger quantities of food could lower consumer prices and make food more accessible. Geographical location may also make a big difference in food prices. For example, the abundance of local produce in California may keep produce prices down, whereas shipping to long-cold-winter small towns in the Midwest may hike prices up.

According to Eric Holt-Gimenez, Executive Director of Food First Institute for Food Development and Policy, comparing the price difference between organic and conventional produce often reveals a difference of as much as 300%. Citing low supply and high demand, greater labor input and post-harvest handling costs, inefficient distribution chains, and disadvantages in economy of scale, in layman’s terms the main concern has to do with the cost of human labor. In other words, all commodities including food have the value or cost of labor embedded into the final consumer pricing. Pointing out that organic uses on the average at least 15% more labor than conventional farming systems and that the cost of organic labor is higher, (i.e., workers need to be paid more due to greater skills needed), he concludes that the necessary labor time to produce a conventional carrot, for example, is 1/10 of what is needed to produce an organic carrot. Fortunately, even though the math suggests that the organic carrot would then cost 10x more than a conventional carrot, for the consumers at the far end of the supply chain, the cost has escalated such that the organic carrot is only two or three times as expensive as its conventional counterparts. Although we all feel grateful for the potential savings, a 2-3x increase in overall pricing as compared to conventional, while juggling the family budget we may still be wondering, “Does real food, pure food, safe food have to cost so much?”

What more can we do to keep shelf and produce bin prices down, other than grow, mill, cook, bake etc all of our own food? Some think tanks have suggested that high fuel and transportation costs have been a major cost factor in the last years and that smaller growers and manufacturers don’t have the pricing “edge” of conglomerate corporations, who can really slice their prices. Organic policy leaders familiar with operational details of large organic/natural distributors acknowledge that certified organic products are generally more expensive than their conventional counterparts because the organic food supply is limited as compared to demand. Reiterating that production costs for organic foods are typically higher because of greater labor inputs per unit of output and because “greater diversity of enterprises” means economies of scale cannot be achieved, it should also be emphasized that post-harvest handling of relatively small quantities of organic foods results in higher costs because of the required segregation of conventional vs organic produce with regard to processing and transportation. Currently the marketing and distribution chain for organic producers is not as efficient as it could be and costs are higher because of the relatively small volume as compared to conventional marketing and distribution. A vision for the future acknowledges that as the demand for organic food and products increases, technological innovations and the cost advantages that the industry could obtain in proportion to the size, output and scale of organic operations, should reduce the costs of production, processing, distribution and marketing for organic produce. Other factors which affect the price of organic food have to do with environmental protection requirements, such as crop rotation to protect soil fertility, avoidance of health risks to farmers, and a commitment to rural development to assure a fair and adequate income for the farmers.

Major organic distributers can and currently do help to reduce the cost of organic food and institute cost savings measures as a standard operating procedure by giving attention to implementing efficient transportation and distribution costs which allow them to economize while reducing their carbon footprint. The advantage is that they can pass on their savings to help to lower costs for consumers. However in the final analysis retailers have to step up and do whatever they can to cut high organic food costs. It may be important for retailers to realize that no matter what prices they set, that most shoppers will stick to an overall monthly food budget such that lower prices will not result in less business, but conversely will result in greater sales. With today’s retail markups as high as 50-60%, it is now essential for retailers to go the extra mile to lower their margins and create a significant decrease in over-the-counter consumer pricing, ultimately contributing to consumer health, nutrition, overall well-being, and a reduction in food waste.

Growing your own brussels sprouts may not fit into your busy lifestyle or be a top priority for your on-the-go family, but understanding the supply chain and the background challenges of the industry, can give rise to better market solutions. We need to take action to reduce the cost of pure, healthy food and decrease the competitive edge of today’s conventional market. In the interim, it’s time to renew your commitment to 100% organic by not letting the constraints of your pocketbook override the importance of pure, safe food choices for your health, your family, and your world!

Simi Summer, Ph.D. is an organic advocate, independent researcher, educator, and free lance writer. She is a strong proponent of organic consumer education and informed consumer choices.

NOTE: The opinions expressed in bylined articles are not necessarily those of the publisher.

Posted on WholeFoods Magazine Online, 8/23/2016