top of page

The Cost of Convention {Week 8 CSA}

People are inclined to ask why organic produce is so expensive when they ought to know why conventional produce is so cheap.

Before diving deeper though, it should be made clear that the division between high quality, nutrient-dense produce and its more depleted counterparts is not delineated by the USDA organic label. Not anymore, unfortunately, as I dove into in this post. But it is still the easiest way to begin your search for food that offers what it should: clean and robust nutrition.

It's a sad and ironic reality when growing food without the input of harmful chemicals carries an extra sort of tax. Especially among the backdrop of rivers of subsidies flowing to gargantuan monoculture farms of commodity crops (like corn, soy, cotton, and wheat) with a host of well-documented negative downstream consequences.

Appropriately, in a system as industrialized and distorted as this, vegetable farms are referred to as "specialty crops" and are ineligible for such subsidies. These government-issued payments were originally intended to stabilize our food supply by keeping farms from going bankrupt when market values dropped too low or an 'act of god' ruined a crop. Naturally, these insured commodity crops offer more reassurance to farmers and now comprise more than 97% of all production. Meanwhile, forms of agriculture that promise better societal outcomes lack subsidies that might encourage more widespread adoption.

While the most recent 2019 Farm Bill included new funds to cover 50% of the transition costs for farms converting to organic production, the crops they grow can't change. Any commodity farm that diversifies more than 15% of its monoculture operation must relinquish its subsidies. The debate over subsidy regulations is a long-standing one, dating back to Depression-Era policies seeking to prevent dust bowl farmers from fleeing to the cities as the market tanked. Now, with more than 90% of commodities flowing to industries and other countries, that conversation is dominated by corporate interests. For the 2019 Farm Bill, over 600 companies funded over 500 million dollars in lobbying to gain their preferred version. That's more than double what big tech, big oil, or even big pharma spent on lobbying that year.

Subsidies are the primary reason processed foods (heavily reliant on commodity ingredients like highly processed corn, wheat, and soy) are so cheap and ubiquitous. As for produce, however, the price difference between organic and conventional comes down to farming practices.

Since organic farming, and anything above and beyond it, can't rely on dousing fields in biocides and then pumping synthetic fertilizers into the ground (to make up for killing its inherent vitality), it is often a much more hands-on process. As in... many, many hands. It varies, but some surveys have found organic farms require 35% more labor to manage their crops. Organic farms also tend to be more diverse, meaning that a few swipes of one massive tractor won't suffice for its multi-crop layout, and they often require a more manual suppression of weeds and pests. Further, organic seeds and soil amendments (like micronutrients or compost) are more expensive than conventional seeds and inputs, and the organic certification itself carries a decent price tag, too. Beyond those unavoidable overhead costs, there is a trend among organic farms (especially the small, family-run ones) to pay their farm workers a liveable wage. All of these factors account for the cost of organic food, and when grown truly organically, there aren't any other costs hiding in the shadows.

Yet so much lurks behind conventional farming. While that conventionally grown cabbage head may only be $1.50 at the supermarket, it fails to reveal the cost its production had on the land, air, water, and communities it was grown near or upstream. These seemingly distant consequences are all too easy to divorce from their causes and vast amounts of marketing and PR dollars are allocated to keep it that way. But blatant tragedies like the 7,000 square-mile dead zone of the Gulf of Mexico (where the Missippi river dumps into it) or findings of conventional