My concern about the science literacy of Whole Foods shoppers aside, from a purely practical point of view, if I were a farmer and walked into a store and saw berries for $8 a pack and hamburger for $10 a pound that has no difference but process I'd immediately ask why I am competing with giants over razor thin margins when I could segue into an area where price is basically no object.
We have been convinced that an organic label doesn't matter for most people, only this one does...
Credit and link: Capital Press
...but that is clearly not true. The public has voted on cheap and found it wanting. Junk food consumption is down, artisanal food is up, people want gluten-free and organic labels and they want hoppy seasonal microbrews to go with it.
It may be that the food industry is becoming the experience of eating, a way of aesthetic self-identification. 'You are what you eat' was once a nutritional belief, perhaps now it is an existential one too.
If that is the future of what consumers want, why resist it?
Is it for the public good? While I have long argued that food is a strategic resource (it is one of few things deserving subsidies) I am unconvinced when someone in a money-making business claims some higher moral purpose - be it about saving the world or doing it for science. The first time I saw that guy who runs Tom's Shoes walking on the beach in a phone commercial cooing that he had to have good cellular reception so he could give away a pair of shoes for every one he sold, there is no way he was helping the developing world more than missionaries building schools do, he had simply found a group of customers willing to assuage their First World guilt by overpaying for their footwear.
But he's walking on the beach collecting orders for shoes and I am writing on the Internet for peanuts, so I respect that he pulled it off.
I feel the same skepticism about any noble purpose regarding selling food. Teachers will not teach for free and farmers won't farm for free either. 93 percent of American farms are family run and I would run, not walk, to the local post office and mail my paperwork and fee to whatever organic certification body struck my fancy if I was employing my family on my farm and yields were flat while costs were rising with regular food - which is what has been happening - and someone else was willing to pay a lot more.
I can charge double and all I have to do is use an organic pesticide? Sorry, Monsanto and all the rest, you are on your own, I don't care how much more yield I lose, my margins make up for that. Bring on the nicotine sulfate and its giant DANGER label and the mask and the protective gloves, the risk is worth the money that goes with being organic.
As Rich Keller at Dairy Herd management notes, all of the corn and soybeans revenue in Iowa only came out to $26 billion if everyone got the highest price in 2013. That's for 2.3 billion bushels of corn and 500 million bushels of beans. If I am a conventional farmer paying employees and buying expensive equipment to make $10 for a bushel of corn (and have environmentalists sending my home address out to eco-terrorists) or I can sell 1 pound of organic hamburger or a small pack of berries for the same money and have customers thank me for the privilege of buying it, I'd have to reconsider my farming strategy. I can even charge them to come and pick it themselves.
Growing up on a subsistence farm the last thing I wanted was to be more organic - it was called being poor - and I had to watch with envy as farms with money embraced science and dematerialized in a way that was startling, growing more food on less land than could be fathomed by those people believing The Population Bomb. With a Soylent Green future more remote than ever, science and plentiful farming is now the enemy, because for the first time in the history of the world it is possible for even the poorest people to be fat. Thus, the tables have turned on making food more affordable and helping meet basic needs like eating and having electricity. We don't just want food to be cheap, the government wants food stamps for farmer's markets so poor people will buy organic and millions cheer about Earth Hour and plead for a return to backwardness and poverty.
Given that cultural landscape, and the concern about yields and environmental stressors that have always been an issue, it would seem difficult to get motivated to grow conventional food when it is easier to just fill out some paperwork and charge more and tell the consumer if they care about their health, they will pay it.
It's not just Iowa corn farmers who have to be wondering what the point is. The average cattle producer in the U.S. is 58 years old and in total they are producing 26,000,000,000 pounds of beef per year. Do we realistically think the generation of ranchers that follows them is going to work that hard so some people can have a $1 hamburger when so many others are happy to pay double if cows have a little more space?
They have calculators on their smartphones so I am betting they do the math.
Usually a question in a title is just a smug kind of rhetorical device, and at the end we are supposed to provide an answer everyone knew all along so that everyone involved feels better that there are no unknowns in life, but I am truly stumped: Why aren't more farmers running to organic food when the money is easier and the only difference is a process and a sticker?