Get Real: The Real Cost of Eating Organic and Local Food

The environmental, economic and health costs
In this first part of Gaiam Life's new "Get Real" series, find out how the price of eating organic may be well-worth the health and environmental costs PLUS real-world ways to stock up on organic food for less.

You make a lot of decisions in a single trip to the supermarket: Chicken or fish? Fresh or frozen? Debit or credit? Paper, plastic or canvas? But, one of the biggest decisions happens in the produce aisle. Confronted with stacks of apples, bunches of carrots and containers of berries, the choice of whether to purchase organic food from local producers looms large.

The decision to choose — or not choose — organic and local foods often comes down to price; however, the environmental, economic and health costs are also worth considering.

Read on to uncover the real cost of choosing local and organic food.

Dollars and cents

There is no question that it can be more expensive to purchase organic foods that were produced on local farms. In some extreme cases, organics can cost up to 50 percent more than their non-organic counterparts. But wait: There is good news.

"As organics have gone more mainstream and there are more organic producers out there, the costs have come down,” notes Honor Schauland, campaign assistant for the Organic Consumers Association.

Schauland knows that when it comes to organic and local foods, sticker shock is common. She encourages shoppers to look past the prices.

“Consumers are more educated than ever and more likely to see organic and local foods as an investment,” she says. “They believe that it’s worth it [to spend more on organic and local foods] because in the long run they’ll have fewer health problems and do less damage to the environment.”

It is possible to stock up on organic and local foods without maxing out the credit card. Schauland suggests purchasing in bulk, shopping at farmers' markets or joining a Community Supported Agriculture program. (See the sidebar below for more suggestions on how to save on organic foods from local producers.)

The cost to Mother Earth

Eat Local and Organic Food for Less
When it comes to choosing organic foods grown on local farms, it is possible to stock up without going broke. Here are a few tips:
Barter with the farmer: Go to the farmers' market just before it closes and make a deal with the farmer for his remaining produce. He’d much rather sell it at a discount than lug it back to the farm. Just keep in mind that farmers are not making big profits so offer a fair price.
Forgo fresh produce: You can find organic fruits and veggies in the frozen foods aisle of most major supermarkets. It’s a less expensive alternative to fresh organic produce but still packs all of the same nutrients and none of the chemicals. Shop for store brands to save even more.
Learn to preserve: Organic produce is cheapest when it’s in season. Stock up produce in the summer and preserve it. Canning, freezing and other methods of preserving offer less expensive access to fruits and veggies during the winter months. Check with local college extension services for tips on preserving produce.

The average meal travels 1,500 miles from the farm to the supermarket and accounts for over 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Choosing organic foods that were grown on local farms helps reduce the environmental impact of each meal.

The toll your food takes on the environment starts long before a hamburger or salad reaches your refrigerator. The pesticides used on non-organic crops have been linked to erosion and air pollution, contamination of lakes and streams, and illnesses in wildlife.

Organic farmers grow crops and raise livestock without pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Their efforts can help shift the environmental damage. Organic farming has been shown to improve soil health and create more productive farmland — no chemicals required.

“Organic farmers are focused on maintaining the health of their soil without using petrochemical additives,” explains Sonya Lunder, senior analyst for the Environmental Working Group. “Their approach is much more sustainable and can help rebuild soil health, stop erosion and prevent water contamination.”

The price of good health

You wouldn’t marinate a steak in fertilizer or sprinkle pesticides on broccoli, right? You’re at risk of ingesting those chemicals every time you bite into non-organic foods. A report published by the Environmental Working Group found that eating fruits and veggies from the most contaminated crops, dubbed the “Dirty Dozen,” means consuming an average of 10 pesticides per day. The produce on the most contaminated list includes peaches, strawberries, apples, bell peppers and potatoes.

The same chemicals used to keep fruits and veggies pest-and disease-free have been linked to health problems from asthma and diabetes to cancer and birth defects.

“You are what you eat — and the water that you drink and the air that you breathe — and a lot of it is covered in chemical residue,” says Lunder. “We urge people to make the choice to go organic for their health.”

Organic produce is a safer alternative because it’s chemical-free. Studies also show that organic produce has more nutrients and antioxidants and fewer nitrates than non-organic foods, making them a healthier choice.

Spending for greater good

Organic farming is expensive. Organic certifications, the loss of crops to pests and disease, and smaller crop volumes means that it costs about 15 percent more to grow organic crops than conventional crops. Your willingness to spend more on organic foods sends a message: Organic is important.

Your food dollars go to support local farmers, especially when you purchase foods at farmers' markets or through CSA subscriptions. Farmers who sell direct to shoppers don’t have to share their profits with national or international distribution firms and supermarket chains, which benefits farmers and local economies.

“The organic movement has grown because people have invested in it,” says Schauland. “It’s proof that if we believe in something and support it, we can create change.” 

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Katherine Robertson
Katherine Robertson's picture
User offline. Last seen 6 years 5 hours ago. Offline
Joined: 07/30/2008

Well put, Jodi! I especially like your tips for eating organic for less. My husband and I enjoy being creative in our food choices, and make our money last is not the least of the reasons why.

When we are in England, we order a weekly Fruit & Veg box from Abel & Cole, the elements of which come by truck from local English farmers and are never flown from anywhere. When we are in Nice France, we shop at the daily outdoor produce market, where the last half-hour or so vendors offer baskets of veg for €1.50. It's fun to buy these baskets with a friend, and split the bounty.

Both routines offer the excitement of beautiful, fresh and taste-rich produce; and both are good for the community – local and global. Personally, I love to buy from people who are actually in touch with their plants; love gives a special flavor to their food.

OliverSFG's picture
User offline. Last seen 5 years 38 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 11/30/2010

Not only is organic better for you, I feel that we should be supporting our local farms etc. Also the food is generally better too, and things like potatoes are cheaper!

jbrockca's picture
User offline. Last seen 4 years 15 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 05/03/2012

This is a good article. And while the cost might be worth it to eat organic, if you have a food budget like I do (30-40 per week), your budget might be blown for thw week before getting all the foods one needs for a week. For example, I used to buy about 3 apples during a week. Once I remember buying 3 apples at $1.29 a pound (non organic), which came to around $2.25 (so about 1.74 pound). When I worked that out with the apples being 40% more for organic, that came to $3.13, or .88 cents more ( 29 cents more per apple). If all the produce I bought was that price, and I bought 7 kinds of produce (potatoes, apples, peppers, carrots, onions, lettuce, strawberries say) that would cost $21.91 (73% of $30, and 54.77% of $40). I'd have eaten up 50-75% of my budget just on organic produce without considering bread, milk, eggs, meat or other dairy (such as cheese). I am not sure you know the cost or not, but if my grocery list was the following, how much could my bill be (for being completely organic): 3 apples, one 2lb bag of onions, 2 medium sized green peppers, 1lb of strawberries, iceburg lettuce, 2lbs carrots, 1 loaf of bread, 1 litre of milk, 12 eggs, 2lbs of boneless, skinless chicken breast

I am not saying there is anything wrong with what you are saying at all. My only concern is that even if the extra cost is worth eating organic/ local, if a person as budget nearly or as tight as mine, how far could that really stretch with eating purely organic, and without sacrificing too much a quantity of food (I mean one can't live on too little food, especially if that means it may effect how much nutrients one can consume).

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