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Home » Food & Drink, Health

Is Organic Food a “Luxury”?

Last updated by on 18 Comments

An interesting discussion ensued last week on my cheap vs. quality vs. luxury post on organic food and whether or not it is a “luxury”.

In the post, I had given an example of a cheap vs. a quality good: $3 per pound pink slime vs. a $10 grass-fed organic steak, to which a reader, Mike, responded:

I would absolutely classify an organic diet as a luxury for a few specific reasons.

Firstly, there are many people throughout the world, including within North America, who do not have the luxury of refusing food based on its method of production – since their only alternative is starvation. There is also a large slice of the population who simply can’t afford to eat organic, because doing so would mean sacrificing money required for other living expenses.

Secondly, there are no solid, peer reviewed studies that suggest organic food is healthier than non-organic food. In the case of some fortified GMO’s, the exact opposite may be true.

I’ve been purchasing organic whenever I can – not 100% – but probably at least 50%. Meanwhile, I’ve lowered my food costs by becoming vegetarian. And I’ve also cut the cost of buying organic through some good bulk food deals at Costco.

Mike’s comment got me thinking and debating both sides. Hmmmm….. am I, in fact, buying a “luxury” when I opt for organic food?

To answer that, what is “organic” in the first place? There’s debate on that, but according to the all-knowing Wikipedia, organic certification is a set of certification standards that (varying from country to country) typically involves:

  • cost of organic foodno human sewage sludge fertilizer used in cultivation of plants or feed of animals
  • avoidance of synthetic chemical inputs not on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (e.g. fertilizer, pesticides, antibiotics, food additives, etc.), genetically modified organisms, irradiation, and the use of sewage sludge
  • use of farmland that has been free from prohibited synthetic chemicals for a number of years (often, three or more)
  • keeping detailed written production and sales records (audit trail)
  • maintaining strict physical separation of organic products from non-certified products
  • undergoing periodic on-site inspections

Fortified GMO’s can be debated, but it’s hard to argue that synthetic chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics (in meats) should be a central part of a healthy and balanced diet. They were never sprinkled on top of the good ole’ food pyramid we grew up with. But seriously, study after study have proven that many of these chemicals, in high enough concentrations, can lead to ill effects, including cancer. Non-organic strawberries, for example, are often sprayed with methyl iodide, a toxic fumigant that has been shown to cause late-term miscarriages, groundwater contamination, and is used in labs to create cancer cells in animals. The bees that pollinate both the non-organic and organic food we eat are being killed off by pesticides. And we are in the midst of a well documented antibiotic resistance crisis due to antibiotics being pumped in to the meat that we ingest. And personally speaking – I’d prefer not to have my food get its nutrition from human feces (or any feces for that matter).

Granted, there is food out there that is cheaper to buy. GMO’s, fertilizers, and pesticides, in the short-term, have been proven to reduce crop loss and yield more output per acre of land. Antibiotics/growth hormones can lead to more meat in a faster amount of time or with less space per animal required. The result is more output and more output = lower average prices. And when organic certification is not a goal, there is less procedure and labor involved that would add to costs as well.

But just because there is a cheaper alternative available, does that mean that the purchase of the more expensive alternative is a “luxury” purchase to be shied away from in the name of cost savings?

And should the measuring stick be whether or not a very low income earner can afford the more expensive version?

I would agree with Mike that when the stakes are lower cost food = life, higher cost food = death, those who opt for the higher cost food are opting for a “luxury” that they cannot afford.

And if you are suffering from massive debt that you are tasked with paying off or have other immediate financial emergencies, a few years of buying cheaper food might be the route to go. Organic food might be a “luxury” to avoid in these scenarios.

But what about those who are not in such dire situations?

The median household spends $6,458 on food, while median income is approximately 8X that. A shift to an extreme 100% organic might increase total costs by 20-30%, maybe less if you find a good warehouse deal. And 78% of U.S. families knowingly purchase at least some organic foods.

If non-chemically altered food that we consume to give us life is regarded as a “luxury” because it hasn’t been doused, fed, or injected with bad stuff – just because it is cheaper – then shouldn’t any and every thing we buy that is not the cheapest alternative also be considered “luxury”?

That seems like a race to the bottom.

Maybe this is just one big, pointless clarification over semantics, but I think it’s more than that. Just because an item is not the cheapest alternative, I do not think that means it is, by default, a luxury to be avoided due to higher cost. And even if we all agreed organic food is a luxury, does that mean we should avoid it?

What do you think?

Is organic food a luxury?

And would you avoid it as such?

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18 Comments »
  • Gayla says:

    Most things are toxic if you ingest enough. You didn’t cite any scientific articles here, but a lot of toxicity studies in rodents are at levels much, much higher than you would ever encounter in day-to-day life. For example, cyanide can kill you, but you’ll be fine if you swallow a couple apple seeds. And like someone commented in your last article, there is no solid, scientific body of evidence that shows that organic food is any healthier than non-organic, or that the trace amounts of pesticides that are left on produce after washing have a significant negative impact on the consumer.

    Be careful not to equate the words “organic” and “healthy”. After all, would you eat organically-grown nightcap mushrooms? And plenty of our well-loved fruits and vegetables are not “natural” by any means – take the banana for example, which would be nearly inedible in its original form, or carrots, which descend from an uglier, less-colorful, less-tasty ancestor. At the end of the day, intensive selective breeding (which humans have been doing for hundreds of years) is not all that different from GMOs.

    My main problem with the organic movement is that it casts too wide a net and tends to encourage the spread of misinformation. GMO produce, for example, is perfectly fine and healthy to eat – sometimes healthier than non-GMO counterparts – as long as the technology is thoroughly tested before it hits the shelves (and it is). Unfortunately, the regulatory/patent situation regarding particular genes (see: Monsanto) is ugly, and terrible for small farmers. So maybe you’d buy organic to ensure you’re not funding bad business practices. But the erroneous notion is widespread that GMOs are “frankenfood” and “unnatural” and therefore – somehow – all GMOs in the world are bad and we shouldn’t eat them, ever. (You can thank sensationalist journalism for that.)

    So this is where my idea of luxury items comes in. Personally, I think that boycotting a particular food because it’s bad for the economy or the environment is a luxury, by your own definition in your last article. Vegetables are expensive, generally, and I’d argue that buying fresh vegetables is a decision toward *quality* over buying candy and chips which are *cheap*. Going beyond that and paying extra for the organic produce is a *luxury*. (I know you can find special deals at Costco for bulk purchases, but in many situations, the organic option does cost more.) Maybe this is a principled luxury, but it is a luxury nonetheless that does not get the consumer any more bang for his/her buck.

    • Natalie H says:

      I second this opinion. You basically said exactly what I would have said, but more eloquently.

      There is very little direct personal benefit to eating organic and or GMO free food, it is about making choices based on your principles. Making choices based on morals is a luxury.

      That said, I’ve found that organic food also frequently tastes better and is higher quality. This is not directly because it is organic, but, I’m guessing, that those willing to spend the extra time and trouble to do organic farming also take other measures to ensure higher quality produce rather than highest production.

      When I can, I buy grass-fed beef, organic produce, and shares in our CSA. I do this because I care about the environmental damage, bad business practices, and exposure of farm workers to dangerous chemicals caused by “normal” farming methods. It’s a bonus when it’s higher quality too.

      P.S. You *should* want your plants fertilized by feces, just not human feces. Steer manure, chicken manure, worm castings, fish emulsion are all excellent traditional fertilizers used on a sustainable farm and are organic. It doesn’t sound lovely, but when you are gardening, you come to appreciate these things.

    • Nate Maynard says:

      These studies with rodents do not look at the cumulative impacts of toxins, nor could they ever. A controlled study of human diets would be impossible given that our bodies are influenced by a wide range of chemical and physiological factors that are at this stage beyond the analysis of public health studies.

      Despite this, it is important to look with increased awareness at what we are consuming. Who really verifies the safety what you eat? What are their protocols? Do those protocols capture cumulative impacts of toxins?

      Not trying to be patronizing or suggestive, just encouraging of open minded research. I err on the side of caution by mostly following the purchasing habits of the main post post. Organic when I can, traditional when I can’t. It’s strange that people place so much faith in science based food production, when we have been mislead numerous times about the health impacts of the food we eat by an underfunded and bias regulatory system.

  • TC says:

    I joined an organic CSA this summer and found that the cost equaled $22 and change per week for a milk crate sized box of food each week. That is a rather good deal in my opinion and it forced me to eat more veggies of a much more varied variety than if I bought them at a store. This helped my health and my bank account, and it made me feel better knowing that all of my veggies were grown about 20 miles from my house. I would say eating 100% organic is a luxury, but eating some of the worst offenders for pesticide and antibiotic use (any meat, strawberries, potatoes, etc…) is a necessity. And I say necessity because if you don’t pay a little attention to what you are putting in your body you will pay more to take care of your body (think many prescription drugs, more doctors visits, etc…).

  • Simon @ Modest Money says:

    In as far as future health is concerned…its certainly not a luxury.
    That said, even with health concerns, organic food might be a luxury to many. At the end of the day I guess a lot comes down to ones financial situation and their beliefs and convictions in safeguarding the future health.

  • Tara says:

    Choosing food that is actual fuel for the body and not loaded with chemicals that impacts my body on a cellular level is not a luxury. These days with the increase in CSAs food that is not treated with chemicals is much more available and affordable. Though I grant you it’s not all labeled organic because of the expense of certification. Can everyone afford it all the time? No. But if more people stop buying things that only sort of resemble food, maybe we could change that.

  • Carla says:

    I eat a mostly organic, vegan diet, and I’m well aware that the *ability* to do so consistently is a luxury, but I do not consider the *items themselves* luxury items. Organics foods should be considered quality essentials, but given our current foods system, they’re priced as luxuries. But as far as I know, research suggests that the benefits of eating vegetables at all outweighs the risks of consuming pesticides in most of your food (see Dr Joel Fuhrman, who is my general nutrition source). I’m uncomfortable eating food I know has been sprayed, even if it’s from a local farm. I consider this a priority, and I can afford it. My hope is that people like us who can afford to pay a little more can create enough demand to drive prices down so that people who can’t afford the extra right now can start to afford organics. Note that I’m only talking about fruits and veggies- when we get into Mrs Happy’s All Organic Super Special Cookies, you better believe you’re spending the extra just because you can.

  • I do think organic food is a luxury in the sense that you’re very likely to remain quite healthy if you’re only eating conventionally grown fruits and vegetables. That being said, I do strive to buy organic where I feel it matters most, because there IS a difference between organic and conventionally grown produce (not to mention, I hate supporting huge agribusinesses that deal with GMO crops or who farm for quantity instead of quality/what is best for the environment). I think it’s a luxury that you should invest in as soon as you have the income to do so – food is one of those places you should be willing to pay more in because it makes a considerable difference as to what you’re putting into your body AND how the larger ecosystem that surrounds you is affected.

  • Samantha says:

    I do not think it is a luxury. Do I feel fortunate that I have the money to buy mostly organic food? Yes. But a line from a Michael Pollan book has stuck with me regarding food quality. He pointed out that in the past thirty years, we have somehow found room in our collective budgets for cable bills, cell phone bills (kids in elementary schools all have cell phones now), data plans, high speed internet bills, etc etc etc. What if instead of prioritizing things that actually ARE luxuries, we prioritize our health and diet? Our health care costs will go down in the long run, because whether the “benefits” of organic food have been proven scientifically or not, the benefits of not living on processed crap certainly have. Just some food for thought.

  • Garrett says:

    I grew up in a farming community and I once considered taking a job driving pesticide trucks for a crop dusting company. I attended the safety meeting that is required for all applicants. At the meeting we were told about the side effects of handling the pesticides.

    We were told that we would likely be made sterile by the pesticides but that it probably be reversible. That was assuming that we correctly used all safety equipment and stopped hauling pesticides once we reached a legal limit.

    I ended up not taking that job.

    When making the choice on whether or not to buy organic, keep in mind that the decision is not only about your health but also the health of the people and the communities that grow your food.

  • Evan Mullins says:

    You can either pay the farmer today, or the doctor tomorrow.

  • Mike F says:

    When in the produce section and the conventional apple costs $1.49/lb and the organic apple costs $1.99/lb and test after test shows these apples to be identical nutritionally, you are buying a luxury.

    The problem is that it is far too complicated:

    Sometimes, the apples are not identical. Sometimes the organic one was picked 3 days ago while the conventional one was picked 3 months ago so it tastes mealy, in that case you are buying freshness and the quality associated with it.

    On the environmental impact: both conventional and organic farming have exceptionally negative environmental consequences. Organic farms still use fertilizer, it just came from animal poop rather than chemical processes which use natural gas as the feedstock. Both of these runoff into streams and cause all sorts of problems like algae blooms and low dissolved oxygen. They waste the vast majority of their water to evaporation and cause a ton of runoff unless they use underwater drip irrigation, but again, that isn’t an organic requirement. Drip irrigation would solve so much of the ag pollution problem, it should be mandatory.

    Also, yields per acre of organics are nearly always lower which means that more cropland has to be used for the same output which prevents the land from remaining in its natural state.

    The anti monoculture argument is a good one, but being organic doesn’t stop that practice. Just look at the vast organic lettuce farms in southern California. An area that is irrigated with water piped in hundreds of miles from the Sierras but should be a desert. The Colorado River no longer reaches the pacific ocean because of all the dams and irrigation uses but again, the organic movement does nothing to address this.

    Free range and the like is certainly nicer to the animal, but remember we are still killing and eating the animal, which isn’t very nice. If you were on death row, you would obviously rather have a bigger cell and a yard to exercise, but I am guessing you would still be pretty pissed off you were on death row.

    Antibiotics are a trade-off. We get a higher meat yield per lb of grain (the antibiotics kill some intestinal bacteria which eat and therefore waste some of the grain’s nutrients) by using antibiotics, which is good for the environment, but breed antibiotic resistant bacteria, which is bad for humans.

    The best bet to lowering ones environmental impact is to go vegetarian. Eating in-season helps a lot too as flying in raspberries from Chile may be delicious and help farmers there but the jet fuel used to fly them is pretty bad for the world. Things like eating local may help, but it depends on the relative crop yields of your area versus the area it would be transported from and the method of transportation.

    Unfortunately, organic has nothing to do with nearly any of this. Take that money and donate it to a land conservation fund or an animal protection/wellness charity or to lobby for common sense regulation of the agriculture industry, organic or not.

  • Amanda M. says:

    “I’d prefer not to have my food get its nutrition from human feces (or any feces for that matter).”

    I think maybe you should go to an organic farm. As mentioned, natural fertilizers from animals are used, along with insecticides and pesticides. These must be on an approved list from the USDA for organic certification. They are naturally occurring, but like cyanide that doesn’t mean they are good for you. Just like many synthetic pesticides, these can cause cancer in high amounts (see D-Limonene). Of course they mention that this is well above normal exposure, but that how most of these tests are done.

    Also, because pesticides are needed to ensure production and typically synthetic pesticides are more efficient, the naturally occurring, organic approve variety mush be used in much higher quantities than their synthetic counterparts. From a UC Berkeley paper: “A recent study compared the effectiveness of a rotenone-pyrethrin mixture versus a synthetic pesticide, imidan. Rotenone and pyrethrin are two common organic pesticides; imidan is considered a “soft” synthetic pesticide (i.e., designed to have a brief lifetime after application, and other traits that minimize unwanted effects). It was found that up to 7 applications of the rotenone- pyrethrin mixture were required to obtain the level of protection provided by 2 applications of imidan.”

    If you can prove to me that this is better for the environment and your health, then I may be swayed, but it seems like either way your getting chemicals in you’re body, naturally occurring or not. However you’re paying more to have a warm, fuzzy, faux-healthy feeling vs. the non-organic.

  • I think you are spot on. Though my family is tightly budgeted and working on becoming debt free, food is likely the last area we cut on. I have a daughter and her diet is nearly the only thing 100% control which has such a direct effect on her physical health. I, like you, don’ buy 100% organic. However I have made the shift towards little to no processed foods as well as very little meat. We buy about 90% of our produce from the farmers market.

    I can personally say that our groceries bills have in turn gone down. With fewer “boxes” and less sweets and store-bought drinks, we spend less. SO if you ask me, eating healthier is cheaper.

    • Amanda M. says:

      Just to clarify, do your farmers market vendors advertise that they are organic? One common misconception is that local= healthier/less chemicals/better for you. The only thing local means for sure is that your carbon footprint is smaller. Local farmers use just as many chemicals as non-local (from my post above, this is often less overall chemicals-though not “naturally occuring- than organic). You could easily do what you’re doing by buying any kind of produce.

  • Chris J says:

    But then where do you call something a luxury and where do you not? You could eat boxed Macaroni and Cheese all day if you’re starving. It’ll give you sustenance. Does that make chicken and beef a luxury? To many developing worlds, it is. But here in the US, it’s a staple.

    I think luxury depends on the lifestyle and income of the person in question and is a very subjective term. A lot of the people who call organic a “luxury” item themselves splurge on cookies, chips, ice cream, and sodas. Empty calories with little to no sustenance.

    From my personal experience, I spent $40 a week when living by myself buying ground beef, chicken, pastas, bagged snacks, and boxed foods. I now live with my girlfriend, and we’ve moved to a more plant-based diet, mainly shopping in the dairy, canned beans/nuts, and produce aisles of our grocery. I’m definitely eating healthier. By cutting meat out and replacing it with vegetables, we probably spend $40 each now between us a week on groceries, and 50% is organic. So, if you’re going to call organic vegetables a luxury item, so is chicken and beef, because I was able to replace my meats with organic foods and spend the same amount of money.

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