More and more people are making the switch to organic produce, meat, poultry and dairy because they are concerned about the heavy use of pesticides and other additives in industrial farming, or because they are committed to supporting sustainable farming practices. In fact, many of these people, like Joshua Manocherian, have begun to grow their own food in their backyards as a way to be sure about the quality of their food. However, there are many other people who think that “organic” is just another way to justify charging higher prices for food. Without getting into the debate about the benefits of organic produce, it is true that organic food tends to cost more than the conventional version. Why is that?
One of the basic principles of organic farming it the avoidance of chemical pesticides. Instead, organic farmers use natural strategies – one of this involves introducing non-damaging insects into the crops to feast on the damaging pests, much like ladybugs can be used to control aphids. Other techniques include crop rotation as a way to interrupt the life-cycle of insects, trapping them, or using barriers to prevent them from getting to crops. The methods are less effective than chemical treatments, and more labor intensive. Both of these facts must be factored into the cost.
Just as chemical treatments are not used to control pests, they are not used to control weeds either. Instead, organic farmers use traditional methods to deal with weeds. One of these involves planting “cover crops” in a cycle with the primary crop. These cover crops work to suppress the weeds that are commonly associated with specific crops. Organic farmers may use the most traditional method of all – that is, mechanically pulling the weeds. They can also lay plastic ground cover to prevent weeds from growing. As with natural approaches to pest control, these practices can be highly labor intensive, and will contribute to higher prices for the consumer.
One of the most political and controversial features of organic farming is the rejection of genetically modified crops. For some, this is because there is some question about the health implications of eating modified crops, either in terms of active risks posed to consumers or in terms of reduced nutritional value. For others, this is a political stand against large agribusinesses seeking to patent and “own” seed lines that are the common heritage of humanity. GMO seeds have been engineered to withstand pests, drought, and other challenges, and have also been engineered to grow faster and bigger. Organic farming does not use GMO seeds which means that their crops will not be as hardy, and will not produce the high yields that GMO crops produce. This too has an impact on the final price of the organic produce in the store.
As you can see, the practices used by organic farmers are more labor-intensive and produce smaller yields per acre, and these realities will translate into higher prices at the cash register. It is up to the consumer to make the decision about whether these practices make the final price paid at the register worth it.