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Weekly Answers To Frequently Asked Questions

Why is organic food so expensive?

Question:
When I asked a green grocer at my local organic shop why were the two tomatoes I was purchasing so expensive, the response was, "well they're organic that's why". This type of attitude does a disservice to organic food. Does it really have to be so expensive?

Answer:
Organic foods are currently more expensive for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the yields are on average between 10 and 20% lower than in conventional agriculture and, with some crops (potatoes, for example), it may be as much as 40% lower.

Also, production costs are higher in organic farming. For example, organic farmers don't use herbicides so they have to weed some crops, such as onions and carrots, by hand. Such a labour intensive method contributes to a more expensive product.

This explains why organic foods are currently more expensive, and also why the differences in price are more for some foods (e.g. potatoes) than for others (e.g. mushrooms). However, this explanation is very simplistic as it doesn't take into account the hidden costs associated with food production.

The cost to the environment
Agricultural practices that make use of pesticides and fertilisers can be expensive because of the harmful effect they have on the human health and the environment. The price we pay for our food does not take into account the cost of solving these problems – we pay for those indirectly through tax, which the government then uses to try and limit the damage inflicted by agriculture.

Some scientists have estimated that the use of just one agrochemical (methyl-bromide) contributes to more than 20% of the global ozone depletion. This in turn is estimated to double the incidence of skin cancer globally.

Our taxes are then used to pay for operations and the care of terminally ill patients. This money is currently not added to the cost of producing crops (such as strawberries) using methyl-bromide. If the environmental cost were accounted for, organic strawberries would be cheaper than conventional ones.

The cost of reducing nitrate levels in drinking water amounts to many millions of pounds. Organic farming systems were repeatedly shown to produce significantly lower nitrate pollution than conventional farming; this reducing the water companies costs. However, we pay for water treatment through our taxes, rather than charging farms proportionately to the amount of pollution they create. If we did, organic food would be become cheaper than conventional foods.

There are many more examples, all of which amount to the same conclusion:

We are currently subsidising conventional farming by not charging farmers for the negative effects of their production methods. This creates an artificially low price for conventional foods and artificially high price premium for organic foods.

Thankfully, there is some hope on the horizon, EU and UK politicians are increasingly acknowledging this imbalance and are discussing proposals to correct it. This will involve either introducing 'pesticide taxes' for farming methods that damage the environment or rewarding organic farmers for environmentally friendly practices. If this becomes a reality, the net effect for the consumer will be that the price differential between organic and conventional food will be reduced.