First Person: Why on Earth Is Organic Produce More Expensive?

By Shirley Barker
Thursday November 12, 2009 - 09:51:00 AM
Organic produce can have a cost structure that sometimes defies logic. Tomatoes wait for takers at a Berkeley farmers market.
Michael Howerton
Organic produce can have a cost structure that sometimes defies logic. Tomatoes wait for takers at a Berkeley farmers market.

When at a farmers’ market I had to pay $2.25 for a tomato which, to add injury to insult, looked as though it had a shelf life of half an hour, I asked the vendor why it was so outrageously expensive.  

“Because it’s organic,” was his reply as I knew it would be. What did he mean by organic? He responded that it means growing things without pesticides and fertilizers. Why not? “Because, er, they’re poisonous.” 

So far so good, but he could have gone much, much further. If this really is what “organic” means, fruits and vegetables grown organically should be cheaper than those grown with chemical pesticides and artificial fertilizers, since such items are expensive. Instead, the very word seems to have become an opportunity to charge exorbitant prices, a gilded bandwagon on which many middlemen have landed, including restaurateurs. 

We all know that our ancestors for centuries grew food plants without artificial additives, and in so doing developed a respect for and understanding of the earth barely recognizable today. Hands up how many of you gardeners out there taste the earth before planting? I thought not. 

Less well known seems to be that they also practiced genetic engineering. In the full title of Charles Darwin’s famous book (preface to a larger tome he never got around to writing), On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, the implied emphasis is on the word Natural. Artificial selection or plant breeding or genetic engineering had been going on for years. The original parents of wheat and corn are no longer known. Now and then a long scrawny ivory-colored root will appear in a bed of plump orange carrots. That is a wild ancestor, evidence of man’s intervention. 

Darwin was a gardener, developed his experiments with the help of his own gardener, corresponded with gardeners. In a book on poultry published in 1906, the author Edward Brown is on familiar terms with Mr. Darwin, as one of a happy breed of like-minded tinkering husbandmen. 

At about the same time the so-called modern organic movement began in India, where Albert Howard, hired to advise Indian farmers, instead became their advocate. After observing how Indians were farming, he realized that the modern agriculture he was supposed to teach them had become fragmented because of the adoption of chemical fertilizers, insecticides and drugs, so that soil, crops, animals and humans were unnaturally separated. He could see that such deteriorated and poisonous agricultural practices combined with population increase would lead to food shortage and ill health.  

Scrutinizing the natural and ancient agriculture of Punjabi farmers, Baluchistan tribesmen, West Indian planters, and English growers, he became convinced of the importance of maintaining healthy soil, subsequently laying the foundation, literally and figuratively, of organic gardening and farming, as J. I. Rodale describes in his Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. Rodale published many titles after coming under Howard’s influence and his name remains significant today. 

All good organic growing processes arise from this foundation. The crop rotation that discourages disease, the frequent sowing of nitrogen-rich legumes, the aeration of the soil by planting root crops, the encouragement of earthworms that aerate the soil and break down particles for micro-organisms to absorb, the carboniferous materials dug under and spread over the earth to enrich and protect it, the absence of pesticides that kill indiscriminately, the use of natural fertilizers that fortify the substrata, unlike artificial ones that poison it—all such efforts are in the service of the soil. Soil is king. 

If your plant in a pot is wilting and diseased, check the soil. Knock the plant out of the pot and look at its roots. Is the plant pot-bound, its roots twisted or pressed against the sides of the pot, with insufficient earth to nourish them and no space to aerate them? Is the soil too wet, too dry, too over or under fed? The solution to many gardening problems lies beneath or within the ground, or pot. 

Once while I was traveling in Oregon my car broke down on a country road. A farmer appeared, towed my car to a garage, and while it was being fixed, gave me a tour of his organic farm. Two things struck me. First, its size: healthy looking fields stretching as far as I could see. Second, the farmer’s relaxed behavior.  

Despite the size of his farm, he seemed in no hurry to work at all. Indeed, why should he? The fields were mulched, and Oregon gets summer rain. Microbes, sun, air and water were doubtless combining to grow healthy crops with no need for human intervention. 

That he also prospered, an expensive-looking black shiny sports car parked under a tree gave evidence. Good for him. But was it due to the tomatoes?