Is organic food elitist?

Posted on 11 January 2011

Dear readers, although the current post can be read in and for itself, please note that it is a continuation of our two previous posts “Why we’ve decided to stop buying food from supermarkets…” and “Who is the ‘authority’ that said that Coca-Cola was safer to drink than raw milk?”

So, let’s consider whether organic food is elitist.

First let’s ask the question, is cheap food really cheap?

Yes, we understand that an industrialised jam sold for $3.50 is cheaper than an organic jam sold for $5.70, but behind the price tag, one needs to also consider the ‘hidden’ costs of industrial food.

Let’s, for instance, consider the environmental costs. According to Angela Crocombe’s book, Ethical Eating, industrialised agriculture contributes substantially to global greenhouse emissions because of its heavy reliance on chemical fertilisers, depleting the soil of carbon and nitrogen and releasing nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. There are many other environmental issues too – for example, nitrogen run-off creates algae blooms and subsequent dead zones in rivers and oceans. And, we haven’t even touched upon the animal welfare issues involved in industrialised farming…  In contrast, organic farming increases biodiversity, replenishes the soil, and it has been estimated “that if 10 000 medium-sized farms in America converted to organic production, this would be the equivalent of taking 1.1 million cars off the road each year.”

In addition to the environmental and social costs mentioned (also see a previous post) the following poster from the Windy Ridge natural poultry farms recalls all too well that one needs also to consider the health expenses related to poor nutritional consumption. These health expenses aren’t just for your daily ‘irritations’ like allergies, asthma, IBS (irritable bowel disease) or diabetes but can also be considered in regards to the costs of long-term consumption of industrialised processed food that may lead to tumors, cancer and heart diseases. In the US for instance, an average couple with one child spends on healthcare nearly half of the amount it spends on food. As crazy as it sounds, this may be partially explained by the fact that the health industry has brainwashed us in buying drugs rather than changing our food habits. A study has for instance found that “9 out of 10 mums are misled by tactics food manufacturers use to market foods for kids that are high in fat, salt and sugar.” Similarly, another has revealed how packaging affects the product preferences of children and the buyer behaviour of their parents in the food industry.

Industrial food may have a cheaper price tag at the store, but the long-term repercussions of eating this way for an extended period of time will definitely show a higher price tag in the future, in more ways than one: you’ll pay with your pocketbook and your quality of life. We were tempted to call to your common sense to substantiate this claim, but JSR remembered the case of a friend whose parents did not like cooking. Instead they had bought two microwaves able to simultaneously heat two dishes each (two for the parents, and two for the children). While their freezer was full of (industrially processed) microwavable dishes, their fridge gathered only (industrially processed) yoghurts and (industrially processed) juices; and their cupboards were full of (industrially processed) biscuits. When asked when were they eating fresh food, they explained that it happened “at least once a week when we go to the restaurant.” Although this example is of extreme nature, what struck JSR most, is that all of them were absolutely convinced that such lifestyle was healthy and bears no consequences whatsoever…

So, instead of calling for common sense, we then invite you to take the following into consideration: a recent report by the French Agency for Food Safety (AFSSA) revealed that organic foods are higher in both mineral and antioxidant content than their conventional counterparts. Another study from The Journal of Applied Nutrition found that average levels of essential minerals were much higher in the organically grown than in the conventionally grown food. Also, the organically raised food averaged 29% lower in mercury than the conventionally raised food. Another study found that switching to organic foods provides children “dramatic and immediate” protection from widely used pesticides that are used on a variety of crops. You can also read one of our previous post called ‘How worried should we be about everyday chemicals?’  We are pretty sure there are more of such examples out there, but we invite you to do your own research.

When it comes to the actual affordability of organic food, we have concluded that in our experience, buying organic food has not proven more expensive than our past industrial food. The reason being that we don’t find it useful to compare the prices of two products – one being organic, the other not. Instead, we compare two lifestyle choices, and prefer to eat less meat – which is both cheaper and more sustainable, and buy our fruits and vegetables from community supported agriculture (CSA). This in turn, means that we eat healthier, and fresher – and the positive side effects are that it supports local communities and healthy farming practices – and helps us spending less in healthcare.

Eventually and despite the fact that our income is very limited, we found that the cost-benefits of organic food considerably outweigh those of industrialised food. As Raine Saunders puts it:

I really do think there are ways to eat affordably that many people simply don’t try or don’t consider because they feel like if they can’t do it all, they can’t do anything. This is the kind of viewpoint I want to try to alter, even if slowly, because that’s where it starts. Awareness and taking small steps can bring a person or family closer and closer to sustainable living a little bit at a time. Also, I’d like to mention how struck I am continually by conversations with people and things I read – from ranchers and farmers to families and individuals who testify again and again that all during the times they were growing up, they were dirt poor and couldn’t afford to eat processed foods or go out to eat, and all they ate were just plain, whole foods. I don’t think eating healthy is entirely isolated to the wealthy, and to some extent, I think that’s just something people repeat because they hear others say it. So with all due respect, I guess I’m a little tired of hearing this because I know it can be done, I’ve heard countless people confirming it, and I’ve lived it over the last year and more of my life. Yes, it’s been extremely difficult to not have money for anything else – and I mean literally, ANYTHING. But we have also made this our priority. We pay our bills when we can and we buy healthy food. That’s it. If we have a big expense, we either just don’t do it or sometimes we receive help from our family – which I am eternally grateful for. Fortunately, nothing major has come up since our loss of income last May 2009.”

One may also wonder why do people persist in buying cheap food while paying for expensive health care? Maybe some of that could have been avoided if they had eaten healthily in the first stance? Indeed, eating healthily often comes down to making a lifestyle choice, itself shaped by available information and awareness.

Ok, eating healthy is good, but it’s sometimes difficult… Or is it really?

Despite the fact that we’re well aware of the importance of eating healthily, we sometimes find ourselves struggling to stay on track with this choice. JSR hasn’t for instance been able to give up his Nutella pot. He knows it’s full of oil and sugars, but still enjoys it. So you know what? He’s decided to take it easy. The result is that while he’s letting himself have as much as he wants (which in practice is limited to from time to time only), he’s also increasingly aware of the side-effects of such consumption and confident that he’ll soon enjoy making his own chocolate-nut paste from natural food… :-)

In addition, shopping in supermarkets is often perceived as convenient and easy, but the reality is that nothing beats the food deliveries of the local CSAs. Indeed, the way these work is that they usually consist of a system of weekly delivery or pick-up of vegetables and fruit in a vegetable box scheme (have a look at Abel and Coles or Food Connect websites). Also, instead of thinking in advance about what shall we eat this week and purchase food accordingly, we sit back and relax by making our menus based on the fruits and vegetables we receive every given week. Not only do we spend less time and energy wondering what we’ll eat next, but we also end up buying less food – hence spending less – and also end up throwing far less food (as well as less packaging).

Also, and despite the fact that JSR has never been into cooking, he’s now spending increasing amount of time in the kitchen, and even though he doesn’t want to fully acknowledge it, he kinda enjoys it actually. The side effect is that he also spend more time bonding and exchanging with CJG in the kitchen, making it a true fireside/hearth.

Last, and when occasionally tempted by either fast-food, convenient food, or even plastic bottled drinks (result of decades of bad habits!), JSR overcomes his craving by reminding himself of the daunting effects of industrial food. An easy way to picture these is by watching documentaries (see our Top 10 eye-opening ecological documentaries) – they do help in putting things into perspective…

Natural food is the way forward – but it doesn’t mean we need to go backward!

We once read that “organic food is what our grandparents used to call ‘food’.” Although we very much enjoy the cheeky dimension of this saying, we think it may be misleading in some ways. Indeed, when hearing some ecologists, we have the impression that they advocate for a return to a ‘golden age’, where natural food is said to have been naturally good and positive and farmers are said to have had great healthy life.

Laudan – a historian – however brilliantly recalls that “for our ancestors, natural was something quite nasty. Natural often tasted bad. Fresh meat was rank and tough, fresh fruits inedibly sour, fresh vegetables bitter. Natural was unreliable. Fresh milk soured; eggs went rotten. Everywhere seasons of plenty were followed by seasons of hunger. Natural was also usually indigestible. Grains, which supplied 50 to 90 percent of the calories in most societies, have to be threshed, ground, and cooked to make them edible. […] By the standard measures of health and nutrition – life expectancy and height – our ancestors were far worse off than we are. Much of the blame was due to diet, exacerbated by living conditions and infections that affect the body’s ability to use food. No amount of nostalgia for the pastoral foods of the distant past can wish away the fact that our ancestors lived mean, short lives, constantly afflicted with diseases, many of which can be directly attributed to what they did and did not eat.”

What we need is indeed to shape a society in which we have the best of both the industrialised and natural world. Although we are better at understanding what natural food is about, our question for you is, what are the best things we could keep from the industrialised society – while tempering its excesses at the same time?…

UPDATE: if interested, we invite you to read one of our previous post, in which we briefly look at whether organic farming can feed the world…


 


7 responses to Is organic food elitist?

  • iamihop says:

    This is precisely why organic/natural foods are seen as elitist (and why big agribusiness has taken over). The hidden costs, while potent intellectually, are irrelevant when you’re trying to feed yourself and your family for $5 a day. Sure, you may want to be gentle on the planet, but you’d rather not starve. And it’s a simple fact that organic food (and often local food) is more expensive than the cheap crap that huge agribusinesses like ConAgra can churn out. Obesity, malnutrition, and noncommunicable diseases ten years down the road are a lot less compelling than having nothing but a dozen organic eggs for a family of four for an entire day.

    [Reply]

  • Noah Slowey says:

    Organic foods are the best since they dont contain so many toxins compared to synthetic feed foods which might contain melamin and some contamination chemical preservatives. `.:,’

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  • Lavona Hoehn says:

    Organic foods are always the best since they do not contain trace amounts of pesticides and other harmful chemicals. .

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  • Jade Foerster says:

    Food prices have risen faster in recent years than ever before. As many of us are feeling the pinch, it is time to reevaluate some of our food purchases. The term “organic” has been thrown around in the shopping aisles like sprinkles on the jelly donut you’re trying to avoid. It seems like hundreds of new “organic” products have emerged, all with a price tag about 30% higher than the regular option. Is it really worth the extra money, or are we all being duped with a clever marketing campaign to get us to buy essentially the same thing for a lot more? ‘

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    Making Sense of Things Reply:

    Personally I think organic food IS worth it – even if only to avoid consumption of chemicals – but there are many many good reasons…

    [Reply]

    Making Sense of Things Reply:

    I should mention though that it’s up to each individual to do their own research on each of the ‘certifications’ or even better don’t worry about certifications and visit your local farmers instead – see what they are doing for yourself! Also, those of us who can afford it should support it to help make it more available to others in the long term.

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  • Dave says:

    Trying to improve the quality and health of our lives/lifestyles has always been(historically) and will likely always be a challenge for people of limited means. Industrialization and automation technology have the potential to lower cost of goods (and food) but then greed gets in the way.

    In the quest of greater yields of food and lower prices and many farming has found shortcuts that product on the surface a better quality but on the inside much less (nutrition/vitamins/minerals) and also hidden from most consumers (subtle poisons to our long term health).

    For those trying to feed your family on a very tight budget of $5/day. I say do what you must in your time of need but when times are better (economically), for the love of your family and your long term well-being, invest in better quality foods and diet. Google Search “Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen” to find the list of foods that are ok to eat conventional (in terms of very little pesticide or chemical residues), and choose those from Clean 15 over those in the Dirty Dozen. Look for sales and promotions, sometimes I found Organic produce on sale and got a great deal!

    Find a local church that picks up food donated from the Organic supermarket. Over here the local market by the name of Trader Joes and Wholefoods, donate produce that is close to expiration to the local churches and community organizations. My friend is a member of one of these churches and every Sunday he loads up on FREE organic food that was donated! That is cheaper than the $5 of conventional food per day some people have mentioned they have no choice but to buy and eat!

    Start a small vegetable garden, plant some fruit trees and water them regularly. It gets you outdoors and active with fresh air and sunlight and its a true therapy on the mind for those with distress. But most of all, growing your own food is the most economical for those without a job or low income. My friends parents are from Vietnam and they are low income elderly and in a project type housing with a very small patio area maybe 8x12ft of soil, they produce a crazy amount of FRESH FREE VEGATABLES from that space. The dad recycles everything he can find. For example, he composts grass clippings from the neighbors lawn to make a natural fertilizer for his garden. Tap water and sunlight and alittle effort is all you need and you will be eating FRESH ORGANIC HOME GROWN FOOD! Way cheaper than conventional foods and processed foods and waaay healthier!

    For those that are too busy working and don’t have time to make a garden, do you have a mother in law or relative that lives with you at home to watch the kids etc? Have them help with the garden. Do you have a spare room you can sublet? Ask the renter to tend the garden for you during the week while your are work for a discount on rent and a share in the harvest!

    There are many options and little excuse for eating conventional, non-organic, processed, pesticide laden foods, except laziness and bad habit. Change is never easy, but nothing in life worth pursuing ever is! Go for it! Make your life better, safe money on health care and insurance. Life longer healther happier lives through healthier lifestyle and nutrition. It is not elitist to recommend organic eating but it does require more effort because the exist system of things is slanted in favor of big business. As we demand more organic, so will the business respond to meet that need and prices will come down.

    Good luck to you all!

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