The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The True Cost of Food

Its not that organic foods are more expensive,
Its that conventionally-raised foods are cheaper than they should be.

The above is a good perspective to keep in mind. Conventionally-raised foods cost less, because every corner is cut to get that food as cheaply to you as possible. Many long-term costs are not included. Paying twice as much for organics may seem outrageous, but it is a matter of perception. The question should not be, "Why are these organic foods so expensive?" but rather: "How terrible must they be treating the earth and these animals to get this food so cheap?"

Conventionally-raised foods would not be so cheap if they showed their true cost in terms of environmental degradation, ecosystem destroyal, and carbon emissions (that does not even include animal cruelty, for which you just can't assign a price). The day when farmers are required to compensate for the carbon emissions that somebody else will have to clean up and pay for all the destruction their chemicals cost down river is the day when organics will be the cheapest on the block.

Simply having the label "organic" is not always the best, though. The problem is twofold: "Certified organic" has rigid standards, but that does not mean the food is naturally raised. In contrast, there are no standards for "naturally raised", so just about any producer can use that label with impunity. For example, you can buy "certified organic" eggs, but the chickens could be locked into cruel cages and simply fed a diet of organic grain instead of conventional grain. Those are certainly not eggs I would want, even if they qualify as "organic". I want eggs from chickens who forage in fresh, green areas. Its not just a matter of animal cruelty. Pasture-raised are superior nutritionally, as well.

It gets more complicated. I have no problem eating something that is "organically raised" (but not certified). This is what you would get if you dug out a patch of dirt in the city and grew your own crops free from any pesticide. However, just being in the city with runoff from nearby roads and the potential of non-organic chemicals already in your soil would prevent you from meeting the criteria for organic certification. However, this is just fine with me (as long as you are not planting on the grounds of an extinct factory or something). Organic certification measures not only the chemicals the farmer uses, but also considers any second-hand exposure from the soil, air or water that could have been polluted generations ago. Sometimes this is an unnecessary extreme for the average consumer (although it would be a worthy goal for all food to meet this standard, someday).

As you can see, "Organic" is sometimes too extreme and sometimes inadequate, as shown above.
When in doubt, its still a good thing to buy organic. But if you can research a little more, that is even better. The most important thing for me is that farmers do not add any artificial pesticides or fertilizers to the land, practice soil conservation and that their animals are raised in the most healthy and natural way possible. If their farms have some minor contamination from up-river that is not as important to me as this other criteria.

Besides, if farmers are ever going to convert conventional farms to organic ones, it would be good if consumers would cut them some slack. Sometimes it takes years for the soil to lose all trace of the chemicals that were once used there. As long as they are not actively using those chemicals anymore, I will support them.

The most excellent website is Eat Wild. You can search for farmers and vendors in your area that supply pasture-raised meat, milk and eggs. There are also great articles on that website about the benefits of eating food raised this way. The list of benefits is substantial, from your health to the environment. Shop your local farmers markets for fresh fruits and vegetables, when possible. The vendors are usually more-than-willing to tell you exactly how they raised their foods.


  1. Yes! And in addition to buying fruits/veggies and meat that has been grown more sustainably, the act of eating LESS meat can also help reduce agricultural impact on the environment. It is so true that we do not think about the costs of cheap food. For instance, it takes 2500 gallons of water to produce one pound of edible beef--and that doesn't change signifcantly for "healthier" meats. It has also been estimated that per pound of beef, 35 pounds of topsoil are lost. I just started learning about this stuff through my job with the Meatless Monday campaign ( is not promoting strict vegetarianism, but more about helping people eat healthier diets, for themselves *and* the environment.

  2. Anna e,

    Nice to read your reply, and welcome to my blog.

    I totally agree that we need to think about the impact of agriculture on the environment. I believe that our food choices manifest our greatest environmental impact.

    You are probably right that the amount of water to raise animals is probably the same for healthy vs. unhealthy animals. However, I have come to believe that most of the environmental problems associated with meat can be offset by switching to organic and naturally-raised meats.

    For example, a pasture-raised cow can simply graze in a field outside her barn. You don't need to ship in 10 lbs of grain for every 1 lb of meat. Right there, that reduces all of the need for oil-based fertilizers, mass-produced grains laden with pesticides, and emissions from transporting all of it. And the manure from the cow helps to sustain an organic farm.

    You can eat fruits and vegetables that are much worse on the environment than the meat in my freezer ever was.

    The only downside is that an all-organic farming program would have trouble meeting worldwide food needs with the population so large. But farming non-sustainably isn't a solution, either, its just a temporary fix. Non-sustainable means just that: It can't be sustained for long without total loss of soil and environmental quality.

  3. Frank,
    I completely agree with you-- the environmental degredation from ALL of our current ag practices is completely detrimental. This can be seen in the destruction of fisheries, waterways, polluted air, etc. The likelihood of future resources being productive diminishes everyday. And here's another fact: about 1/4 (23%) of greenhouse gases are related in some way to the ag sector! Cow "burping" produces tonnes of methane and trucks & tractors emit CO2 in efforts to bring food so far from farm to table. You are right on that ALL agriculture needs to be re-examined!