Is Organic Food a “Luxury”?

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 75% 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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