Category Archives: podcast

On the economics and growing pains of farming and consuming organic foods

I had the radio on while on a prolonged cleaning mission at home yesterday afternoon (having run out of the usual podcasts I listen to under such circs). I had what seems like a small moment of cognitive disssonance when, while jumping back from, and then stomping out a nest of Black Widow spiders hiding behind a trashcan in a dark corner of the laundry room, I caught fragments of a conversation on the radio about earth- and biodiversity-friendly organic farming practices.

The show was a world of possibilities, something I hadn’t heard before on our local NPR station. The fragments of conversation I caught were interesting enough that I had to go look for the whole hour online. And it turned out to be an hour well-spent, as I think you may agree too. Its about the growing pains of organic farming, especially in the current economic recession.

The second half of the program is particularly interesting when two organic dairy farmer from Northern California are interviewed. Fascinating if (like us) you try to consume organic foods as much as possible (or as much as the wallet permits), and even more so if you dabble in organic farming. We’ve been enjoying quite a harvest of veggies from our own, and several neighbors’ urban backyard farms – which has definitely eased the pressure on our furloughed bank balance this summer.

The dairy farmers raise one important question in response to complaints about how expensive organic produce is: why do consumers never complain about the ridiculously high prices of the latest iPhone/Droid/Wii or other gadgets they line up to purchase on the first day, but don’t want to pay a buck or two extra for food they actually put in their bodies? In a country where conventional industrial farming has been subsidised heavily to keep supermarket prices low low low, it has become rather hard for us to imagine – and pay for – the real costs of farming organically. The same advertising driven marketplace that plies us with cheap unhealthy foods also mesmerizes us with the shiny tech baubles to the point where our family budgets have become strangely skewed, with food eaten at home – which should be the very core of our lives – taking up a mere 7% of our paychecks on average, which is less than half what we pay to drive around our farflung suburbs! Take a look at this graphic of where the average US household paycheck is spent:

Where does the money go?
Click on the image (or here) for a larger version, courtesy of Visual Economics 

The other interesting question to ponder (and hope about) is whether the recession is changing people’s priorities in ways that might actually lead to healthier eating! I raised a related question in my reconciliation ecology class when I last taught it two years ago, thus: will the recession encourage more people to start growing their own vegetables in their gardens? I think, tentatively, that we have the answer now in the growing urban farming movement around the US, with more and more people like us growing our own veggies, and more often organically than not. I think the scale problem of organic farming – that it doesn’t scale up very well when you think of the mass market – actually works in our favor here, because we are scaling down to small yards where it is easier, and cheaper, to grow a healthy crop organically.

The recession may also give us some pause before plonking down the credit card for the latest non-food consumer items or gadgets. Although mainstream economists do not like that because they tell us we have to keep buying stuff in order to keep the economy running and growing again! And the sales figures of the new iPhone 4 (for example) don’t suggest that such discretionary consumer spending is down all that much even now. But, if you do cut down on this part of your budget, is it likely that some of the savings may actually go towards healthier organic foods? After all, healthier eating should also lead to lower healthcare costs in the longer run. Is there any evidence that people are changing their spending patterns, especially on food, in this more rational direction? Or are our brains too irrational and too severely manipulated by advertising and farm subsidies to be swayed away from all the shiny and “cheap” unhealthy highly processed/industrial edible food-like substances (to borrow Michael Pollan’s phrase) filling the supermarket aisles and food courts of America?

I’ll stop rambling now and let you listen to the conversation on the show. Let me know what your thoughts are too.

Organic agriculture has grown up.  A once-marginal movement of plucky and slightly eccentric home gardeners has bloomed into mega-farms that ship around the world selling at premium prices.  In this program we’ll examine both ends of the organic industry food chain — a mid-size organic farming family and the world’s largest organic food retailer.  We’ll see what growing mainstream has done for – and to — organic farmers, and what remains to be done to give farmers and consumers the sustainable food system we urgently need.
This program is funded by listeners like you.

Blake and Stephanie Alexandre, Alexandre  Family Dairies
Walter Robb,  Co-CEO,Whole Foods
Host: Mark Sommer
Senior Producer: Gregg McVicar
Associate Producers: Naihma Deady, Matt Fidler
Production Engineer: Michael Schwartz
Music in this program: “The Sinking Ship” – Jerry Douglas – Sugarhill Records; “A United Earth I” – Alan Stivell and Youssou N’Dour – Putumayo World Music; “The Bounty Of The County” – David Gans – Perfectible Recordings; “Commodity Cheese Blues” – Wade Fernandez – SBW; “One More Cowboy” – Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks – Surfdog Records.
Duration: 55 Minutes
Original airdate: 
Tue, 2010-08-10