Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Rule of 1.6

Today, I came across an article in the Huffington Post called "Why You Shouldn't Buy Organic." The author, an agricultural economist from Oklahoma State, attacks organic food on the following grounds:
  1. It's "much more expensive."
  2. Organic farmers sometimes use "natural" pesticides that are "just as toxic and carcinogenic" as synthetic ones.
  3. Pesticides in foods don't really hurt you anyway.
  4. It's healthier to spend the same amount of money on a larger amount of conventional produce.
  5. Organic food doesn't taste any better.
  6. And it's not more nutritious.
  7. Organic farming is "not necessarily more sustainable," because crop yields are lower (so it takes more land to grow the same amount of food).
  8. Organic food isn't lower in calories.
Now, some these arguments just seem to me like straw men. (I mean, does anyone really think organic food is lower in calories simply by virtue of being organic?) Others seem to contradict each other: if synthetic pesticides are as harmless as the author claims, then why is it a problem for organic farmers to use natural pesticides that are "just as toxic"?

But to me, the real problem with the arguments on this list is that most of them—like most of the articles I see arguing either for or against eating organic—seem to miss the point. To me, pointing out that organic food is no tastier or healthier than conventional is a bit like saying that it's throwing away money to give to charity. After all, if you give money to, say, an organization that helps the homeless, yet you're not homeless yourself and it's highly unlikely you ever will be, then there's virtually no chance that you'll ever recoup your investment, right? Um, well, right, but so what? I don't give to charity because I expect to benefit from it personally (in any tangible way, that is)—and that's not why I eat organic, either. I'm not worried about how much pesticide might end up in my food; I'm worried about how much pesticide might end up in the soil, and the water, and the bodies of the birds that eat the pests, and the bodies of the workers who pick the crops. I don't buy free-range meats and eggs because I think they're going to reduce my chances of getting heart disease; I buy them because I'm not willing to be a party to the way animals are treated on factory farms. (I'm not the first to be struck by this, by the way; articles from The Atlantic and the Christian Science Monitor make essentially the same points.)

However, there is one argument on the list that carries some weight with me, and that's the first one. While I do believe firmly in the benefits of organic farming, there's a limit to how much I'm willing to pay for them. So one thing I do is prioritize my organic purchases—not on the basis of how much pesticide residue the foods contain, as the Environmental Working Group recommends with its "dirty dozen" list, but on the basis of how much damage they cause to the environment when grown conventionally. Thus, there are some foods that I will only buy organic, such as coffee, sugar, and bananas. The price markup on these, as I've noted before, is pretty high, but that's okay, because I can keep my cost down by cutting back on how much I use. Drinking less coffee or eating less sugar certainly won't do me any harm.

For other products, I follow a simple rule of thumb. I call it the Rule of 1.6. Years ago (in fact, probably decades ago now), I read that organic food cost, on average, 60 percent more than conventional food. But since this was an average, some organic foods cost way more than that—up to 4 times as much as their conventional equivalents—while for others, the price difference was almost nil. So I decided then and there that I would be willing to pay up to 60 percent more for organic foods, and that was my limit. Any more than that, and I wouldn't be getting my money's worth. Organic apples at $1.99 a pound, as opposed to $1.29 a pound, yes; organic breakfast cereal at 50 cents an ounce, as opposed to 20 cents, no. 

This rule is, of course, a bit arbitrary, but in general, it's worked out pretty well for me. It's helped steer me toward whole foods, which have a lower cost differential, and away from highly processed foodstuffs—which is just what folks like Michael Pollan say we should all aim to do anyway. Of course my original benchmark of 60 percent may no longer be an accurate average of the cost difference (if it ever was); the most recent figure I was able to find comes from a 10-year-old USDA study, which puts the organic price markup at anywhere from 10 percent to 100 percent, which is a pretty broad range. Still, 60 percent is close enough to the midpoint that I think it still works as a reasonable guideline. Lowering my cutoff to 50 percent would make the math a bit easier, but I'm willing to do a little more work to give the organic farmers as good a chance as possible.

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