Why is organic food so expensive?

Spraying Strawberry

As an organic farmer, I am often asked “Why is organic food so expensive?”

The simple answer is that it’s not. It is that conventional (chemical) food is cheap. Or more accurately, the price of conventional food does not reflect its true cost. Let me explain:

The introduction of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides dramatically increased yields and lowered labor input costs, thereby decreasing the price of food. However, they also imposed costs that are not reflected in the price consumers pay for food, what economist call externalities.

Chemical fertilizers are cheaper and more potent than organic fertilizers, resulting in widespread overuse. The use of these highly concentrated fertilizers has created vast dead zones in our oceans, rivers and lakes. This is a cost, but we as consumers don’t pay for it. To grow an equivalent amount of food, organic farmers need to transport and spread much larger quantities of slow-release, low concentration fertilizer on their fields which results in increased labor costs that is paid for by the consumer.

Chemical pesticide and herbicide use is contaminating ground water worldwide. Atrazine, one of the world’s most widely used pesticides, wreaks havoc with the sex lives of adult male frogs, emasculating three-quarter of them.  So while the price we pay for conventional food is cheap, the cost to the environment is not. Without chemical pesticides, organic farmers suffer greater crop loss from pests. Since consumers will not accept blemished fruits and vegetables, organic farmers end up with significantly less salable produce. Hence, they need to sell the salable produce at a higher price in order to survive.

Finally, there is no such thing as organic herbicides, so the organic farmer must manually or mechanically remove weeds. This again, increases the cost of production and needs to be paid for by the consumer. In contrast, the conventional farmer sprays herbicides causing widespread pollution and damaging ecosystems, the cost of which is borne by the environment.

All farmers face the same issues. These include the need to: fertilize crops, eliminate weeds, and control pests and disease. The methods used by conventional farmers transfers the cost of these activities from the producer and consumer to the environment. The methods used by organic farmers requires that the consumer pay the actual true cost of producing the food.

I hope this helps to explain the economics of conventional versus organic food. When you choose organic, you are choosing to protect the environment and your health.

15 thoughts on “Why is organic food so expensive?

  1. Hi there! Great site and a quick hi!

    Am curious what’s the level of traction in HK (amongst the residents both foreign and local) when it comes to sustainable living? In terms of adoption of ways to live sustainably, have you seen more people making the effort now and what are the challenges/obstacles you see?

    I’ve just moved to HK and its an interesting phenomenon hearing about the complains of pollution but the very ones complaining are the perpetrators themselves.

    Its heartening that there’s nationwide effort (ok i know only of green mondays and clean tuesdays) to promote sustainability but it hasn’t been widely adopted here from what i’ve seen… The way i see it, i think cost is a huge obstacle for the locals here for adoption of method. As you’d addressed it in this article, its the availability of competing cheaper sources that makes adoption a challenge. But i could be wrong and seeing things from a very small scale, given that i’ve just moved here!

    Will much like to hear your thoughts on it. Look forward to hearing from you! 🙂

    1. Hi Janice,

      Thanks taking the time read GGHK.

      We believe it is the consumerism/materialism that pervades Hong Kong society that is the primary obstacle. It is not a matter of cost but of values. It is the pursuit happiness through instant gratification (eg. shopping, short weekend flights to Thailand, etc). If we pursue happiness through experiences (painting, writing, reading, sports, cooking, hiking, dancing, growing plants, music) we can reduce our waste and impact on the environment.

  2. “Finally, there is no such thing as organic herbicides, so the organic farmer must manually or mechanically remove weeds.” Is a lie. The reason “organic fresh produce” is so expensive is supply and demand speculation. The cost of organic food production is very low in comparison to so called “conventional agriculture”. To say otherwise is totally ignorant of the facts of countries that sell organic foods at the same price as “chemically produced” foods because the supply is high. Organic farming done the same way as “chemical farming” is very labor intensive, but why do it the same way? If you go a natural parkland and observe nature, how does it produce itself so much? Does it grow in neat rows? No. It grows as a homogenous interdependent community. Therefore if we replicate the wilderness, guess what happens, it grows itself and all we need to do is harvest it. That is the crux of the problem. Man is so bound up in being different to nature that we have divorced our thinking from natural occurrences, but we are a part of nature too. I have been a very successful natural farmer by replicating nature and let the food plants grow themselves. Just set it up and watch. No need to dig or weed! Easy as 1, 2, 3!

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