This thing with cost of food… It seems counter-intuitive that something grown naturally should cost more than the reverse. That unnatural inputs (chem fertilizer, pesticides) should add to the cost of food production is intuitive. But, the story isn’t just unnatural inputs. The price for organic really comes for the time and level of effort in growing something slowly.
Some variables to consider:
1. Growth hormones. To meet demand, growers pump produce with growth hormones (typically oxytocin) to look bigger and reach maturity faster. An example, the much loved bottle gourd (a.k.a. lauki/doodhi) typically takes up to 180 days (that’s 6 months) from seed to fruit. Similarly, cauliflower’s natural cycle is 3 months. However, a simple injection of oxytocin can achieve a fully matured fruit within half the period of time. (The human related side effects of consuming such food is an entire paper in itself, but I’ll leave you with the idea of forcing the human body to achieve full size within half the period of time it would naturally take.) In terms of output though, a food producer using oxytocin can output double the amount of produce in the same amount of time.
2. Management. Organic produce needs more hands-on care. A simple example, a chemical pesticide will kill everything in the area, instantly. One spray and your produce is saved from the pesky ones. To avoid pests naturally, growers introduce several steps into their production. For example, companion planting to “safeguard” some crops and “forgo” others that function purely as pest bait. Another example is making fermented pesticides, which requires more labour and effort in preparing the brew, time to allow fermentation, and application is typically double, if not three times that of a chemical spray. In addition, chemical sprays are subsidized by governing bodies.
3. Seeds. Sadly, these days, sourcing heirloom seeds (i.e., seeds naturally pollinated (by wind and insect) passed on through farmer generation), is harder than finding the laboratory prepared ones. GMO seed (i.e., seed where the plant’s DNA is altered in a way that cannot occur naturally, sometimes including the insertion of genes from other species) has flooded our market, even the deep interiors where agriculture is abundant. Not too many traditional producers save their seed. Hybrid and GM varieties have shown immediate results, and most farmers need immediate income. To source heirloom seed requires legwork, connectivity in farmers, and a financial ability to wait out the slowness of natural.
4. First market appearance/challenging seasonality. As consumers, we’ve become ready to pay high value for produce that reaches us early. A simple example here is fruit like mango. Mango sold in February will receive three times the price versus the mango sold during it’s natural cycle of ripeness, just before the rains. But for mango to reach the market in Feb, it’s been harvested early and ripened by ethylene gas or calcium carbide, making it market ready at optimal price. This also means that by the time the natural producer enters the market, despite his produce being more holistic in flavour and nutrition, the markets already been flooded with produce.
5. Perfectly appearing food. As consumers, we’ve become used to that perfect looking food. Spinach leaves without holes in them, mangoes without blemished skin, bananas all the same size, and typically, bigger is better. At the production level, this gave rise to all kinds of food manipulation. One example is of bananas, where producers replaced their traditional saplings with tissue-culture banana (i.e., Dolly the sheep and her offspring). At the production level, this means every banana in the overall banana head will be the exact same size. It also means greater outputs. From the traditional banana, the bananas furthest on the banana stem will be smaller in size, as naturally, more nutrition is received by the bananas closer to the stem. But who wants to pay the same price for the smaller fruit, when you can get more at that value?
For us at the farm, we supplement our produce with other sources of income, thus allowing us to keep the price of spinach close to that what’s sold in the market. But when I saw the massive amounts of spinach being grown along Bandra terminus, and compare that with the spinach we’ve grown and brought to the city, it really drives home the point of cost variance.
The bottom line, growing naturally is slow, takes time and effort. When it boils down to costs, you’re paying for this time and thus quality of your food. To all natural food producers that manage to keep their selling price low, kudos. And to those that can support such food producers, go for it, as it allows others not at the liberty of buying good food, to purchase the same.