Proponents of organic food have long argued that crops grown with the support of pesticides (herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides) cause cancer and other terminal diseases.
For many people like me who live in developing countries, the choice of food is not really about whether it is organic or inorganic. The choice of food is determined largely by the monthly income of a household.
Organic food in India, for example, is currently more expensive than non-organic variants.
This is understandable. Lower productivity, slow growth rate, more labor, increased attack by pests, use of expensive bio fertilizers, and reduced shelf life are some of the reasons that force the farmers to sell organic food at higher cost to meet their actual production cost. My uncle and my mom both own farms, and for the same reason neither of them grows organic crops.
The high cost of production is then passed on to consumers, many of whom simply cannot afford it. Choosing between organic and non-organic can mean a world of difference in the monthly household budget.
In the online grocery sites I use, organic vegetables are priced much higher than their inorganic variants. The same is true in Europe and the U.S.
While many claim that organic food prices have now fallen and that they have already hit the markets, it is not yet a reality in any of the local stores I visit.
To counter the cost factor, some organic crusaders argue that the investment in healthier organic food will reduce the potential financial loss that individuals are likely to experience due to healthcare expenses from their consumption of non-organic food.
That logic falls flat when we consider the life expectancy rates in recent decades.
Life expectancy rates of the biggest developing countries that use non-organic food have increased, not decreased, in recent decades, despite the exponential growth in the use of artificial chemical fertilizers and pesticides during the same period.
Life expectancy has increased steadily in the past five decades in India, where I live currently. In the same period, India became a global leader in agriculture, producing record crop outputs for the third consecutive year in 2017 and projected to do the same in 2018. This would be impossible with organic crops.
In India and a few other developing countries, some farmers use excessive amounts of pesticides, and some are adversely impacted because of not following proper safety procedures. But those reasons do not warrant an abandonment of non-organic food altogether.
Instead of falsely blaming the non-organic food, the organic crusaders should turn their attention to the proper implementation of farmer safety procedures, weeding out fake pesticides from the market, and stopping traders who use coloring substances to make their produce appear more desirable.
With little effort, consumers like me can easily avoid vegetables that are excessively sprayed and colored artificially. But what we cannot afford is more expensive and lower shelf-life organic produce.
If organic food is only for the rich, then it is not for me and certainly not for the other 1 billion people in India who can’t afford it on a regular basis. Even if organic food prices reduce, organic agriculture cannot meet the demand-supply gap.
Organics will remain unrelatable to the growing food demand of our world and are certainly not a sustainable option for either individual households or whole countries.
Vijay Jayaraj (M.S., Environmental Science) is the Research Associate for Developing Countries for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation. He currently lives in Udumalpet, India.