Full transcript of serial entrepreneur and angel investor Ali Partovi’s talk: Why is Organic Food So *#@! Expensive? @ TEDxManhattan conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: Why is organic food so #@! expensive by Ali Partovi @ TEDxManhattan
Ali Partovi – Serial Entrepreneur & Angel Investor
I’ve invested a lot of my own money into organic and sustainable farming, into converting American farmland to organic. And I’m here to dispel some misperceptions about organic food.
There’s this prevailing notion that organic farming is more expensive and less efficient, right, and that we need industrial agriculture and factory farms to feed the world.
Well, I’m here to dissect some of the assumptions behind that logic and to share some information that leads to a very different conclusion.
We all know that organic food is expensive. This is a fact, and it’s logical to therefore assume that it’s for the 1%, the foodie elites, the rich people, not for ordinary people. Well, that’s actually not correct logic and I’ll show why in a second.
It also leads us to assume that if organic food is expensive, organic farming must be more expensive, which then leads to wonder surely it can’t feed the world and back to concluding that it’s only for the 1%. Well those assumptions actually are wrong as well.
The idea that organic food is only for the rich, only for the 1% is a powerful one, with huge implications on both business and policy. And we need both business innovation and policy change in this country to support organic.
Think about it. If you’re a business person or a politician, the way to be successful is to come up with products or policies that cater not to the 1% but to ordinary Americans. And so we need businessmen and policymakers to recognize that organic food is not just for the 1%; it’s for everybody. It’s for ordinary Americans. And the first step in that change is to change that perception.
So who is buying this expensive organic food? Who in America is buying it?
Well, according to Nielsen and NMI Research, three out of every four Americans have consciously chosen to buy organic food in the past year. Now some of them might have only bought a single organic product but there is a subsets that are so-called devoted organic shoppers, that represent the vast majority of all organic food consumption in this country. These so-called foodies are not 1%; they’re 25%, one out of every four Americans.
Now let’s look at these elite foodies. What does the elite foodie look like? Two out of five of them have an annual household income of less than $50,000. One out of five has an annual household income of less than $30,000. These elite people are about 20% people of color and another 15% Hispanic. Six out of ten of them shop at Walmart.
How does that profile compare to the general United States population? It’s exactly the same. The general US population is about two out of five, income less than $50,000, one out of five income less than $30,000, about 20% people of color, 15% Hispanic, and about six out of ten shop at Walmart.
In every respect the foodie elite who are buying organic are the average ordinary American. And it’s one out of four Americans and they’re doing — they’re already buying organic in spite of how expensive it is. Just imagine how many more Americans would be buying organic food if it wasn’t so damn expensive.
Well, we actually know some of the answer to that. Walmart asked its consumers and found that 91% of them would be buying organic.
So why is organic food so darn expensive?
It must be because organic farming is more expensive, right? Not true. Organic farming actually saves a ton of money on a lot of very expensive inputs. Fossil fuel is expensive; fertilizers are incredibly expensive. The chemicals or the antibiotics that are used by factory farms — these things are very expensive, not just their externalized costs but their actual dollar costs are very high.
Well, so maybe organic farming saves money but perhaps it produces less food. That’s not necessarily true either. Now this is not a blanket statement; it varies by crop and region. But there are a lot of ways in which when done right organic sustainable farming can produce more food.
One part of that is crop and livestock rotations, so that nutrients are recycled into the soil. Growing multiple crops at the same time, increasing the revenue of the land.
Exploiting natural synergies. One of my favorite examples of this is sheep and asparagus. Sheep love to graze but they do not like the taste of asparagus. And so when the asparagus farmer has a weed problem rather than spending a lot of money buying a chemical herbicide to spray in the field, they can invite in a sheep farmer, the sheep will clear the weeds. The sheep farmer gets free pasture for his or her animals and the asparagus farmer gets free weed control. And the sheep add fertility to the soil.
You must be thinking, well great but industrial agriculture for all of its ills surely at least the one thing it has is that it’s more efficient, right? I would say that it has the illusion of efficiency, and it’s a short-lived one. For example, think about the topsoil. America’s topsoil, perhaps the single greatest national treasure this country possesses, this rich topsoil is like a bank account that we’re drawing on every year, withdrawing money not putting it back in. That’s not efficient; it’s inefficient and unsustainable.
Similarly the way we treat nutrients. Nutrients are supposed to come from the soil, go through the body of a plant, into the body of an animal and back into the soil. We all learned that in high school. And that’s not how the vast majority of North American agriculture works today.
Instead we’re mining minerals in Morocco, shipping them across the Atlantic, spraying them on the fields only to have them wash off into the waterways and end up in dead zones in places like the Gulf of Mexico. That’s not efficient. It’s incredibly wasteful, not just ecologically but economically.
Similarly, what I said earlier about fossil fuels, antibiotics to feed the factory farm animals, and all of this to increase the yield of corn and soy — crops that humans don’t even actually eat. We’re maximizing the yield per acre of corn and soy, yet the vast majority of American farmland does not feed humans. Either it’s used to create ethanol or to feed livestock.
About less than 10% of the corn crop in this country actually to feed humans. This is the system that is supposed to feed the world. Well, it’s actually not feeding the world today. If you measure — the right way to measure productivity in agriculture is not yield of corn per acre or soy per acre but the yield of human food per acre.