“What produce is organic?” I ask at my corner market near my apartment.
The women working the cash registers look at me blankly and say, virtually in unison, “None.” (And here I was thinking the fact that the store has “green” in its name meant that it would obviously carry organic products).
Ask moms and dads whether they would like to feed their kids organic food and you don’t have to be a mind reader to know that nearly 100 percent will say yes. None of us would choose to go for foods grown with chemicals that are likely carcinogens, neurotoxins, or endocrine disrupters. None of us would like to pump our kids full of milk and meat raised with growth hormones and drugs, fed a diet that includes animal by-products and chemically raised feed. Yet, just because we want to choose organic food, doesn’t mean we can easily find it.
Even in my relatively affluent Brooklyn neighborhood, where a brownstone can easily sell for a million dollars, it’s hard to find. Yes, we’re lucky enough to have two farmers markets, run by the City of New York’s Greenmarket program and within walking distance of my apartment. But in the dark days of winter, the pickings can be slim and you’ve got to orchestrate your week to make it to them on the one day they’re open. We’re also lucky to have half a dozen grocery stores in walking distance, too, a huge number in the context of a country where entire cities can have zero. But even in this neighborhood, with all our grocery stores, it’s challenging to find any that carry organic options with frequency. That “green” market around the corner from me never does.
So how to explain the disconnect between what Americans want and what we’ve got? Ask an economist and they’ll tell you supply is just a reflection of demand. And in the United States, “only about 0.7 percent of all U.S. cropland and 0.5 percent of all U.S. pasture was certified organic in 2008,” according to our Department of Agriculture.
No supply? There must be something off in our estimate of how much Americans want organic food, or we’d have more organic options and those women at my corner market wouldn’t stare at me blankly when I asked for it.
But the truth is that the market—especially for food—is a lot more complicated than those supply and demand curves you learned in Econ 101. We’re flush with “market distortions,” forces that get in the way of making the market reflect our real desire.
Yes, you and I might want organic farmers to flourish, but they don’t get much of a helping hand from our tax dollars or elected officials. Farmers who transition to organic generally have to take a huge economic hit—at first. Those who do have to wait three years in the transition between organic and conventional, during which time they can’t market their products as organic, even as they’re following the letter of the law. But unlike many governments in Europe, ours has historically given zero support farmers in the transition period.
Thanks to the new Deputy Secretary of Agriculture at the USDA, Kathleen Merrigan, organic farmers are getting a bit of a boost. A $50 million fund was created to support farmers making the leap and the National Organic Program itself saw a bump in its budget, from $3.8 million in 2009 to $6.9 million in 2010. But this support for organic farming is still just a tiny fraction of what we’d need to invest to spark a radical shift in our food system.
You and I could harangue our supermarket mangers for organic and demand it in our grocery store aisles until we’ve got organic carrots coming out of our ears. But we need to start shouting out our support for organic farmers from the rooftops so our elected officials can hear us, too. Until we do, organic food will continue to play second fiddle to the chemical stuff that grows on most of our nation’s farms and those women at my local corner store will continue to stare blankly when I ask: “Do you have any organic produce?”
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