There’s no doubt organic, eco-eating is costly, but given its health and environmental benefits, can we afford not to eat it? David Goding investigates

Consumers are scrutinising food like never before. No longer is a steak merely a steak or rice simply rice. It matters where it comes from, the carbon footprint it has made in processing, whether or not it is organic or free-range, free-trade or ethical. Such choices are made – some unconsciously but many consciously – on a daily basis.

There are a variety of reasons for our concern. The way we now scrutinise food can be driven by health concerns (avoiding additives and genetically modified ingredients), environmental concerns (minimising our impact on the planet) or it can be part of a dietary principal or plan, such as vegetarianism.

The increased demand for eco-products has inevitably brought about an increase in their availability but, it appears, not much decrease in price. Organic products are still considerably pricier than their non-organic counterparts, and free-range for many is still considered too expensive.

Trolley truths

Business information analysts IBISWorld took the trolley around for a typical shopping trip – stocking up first with conventional produce, then with organic products, and found a startling difference.

Consisting of 38 common products including fruit and vegetables, meat and dairy, breads and cereals, spreads, drinks and cleaning products, the conventional trolley cost $147.82. The 38 equivalent products in the organic trolley, however, cost $246.54 – a mark-up of almost $100 or 66.8 per cent.

Within this comparison still lies organic ‘bargains’ and areas where prices have fallen in recent times.

The conundrum is that to have cheaper eco-products, we need more people buying them, but to get more people buying them, we need the cheaper prices.

Ironically, to bring prices down, consumers probably need to be less concerned about the bottom financial line and more intent on making a stand. After all, it’s not all about the price.

Why go organic?

Despite the higher costs, there are undoubtedly good reasons to go organic.

Conventionally grown fruit and vegetables are often treated with a wide array of pesticides, may be subject to farming procedures many people would prefer to avoid, and can spend a lot of time, transportation and energy getting onto the supermarket shelf.

Yet, they are also extremely convenient, cheap and available year-round.

For the vast majority of human history, we have eaten organic food – that is, we ate food grown without the help of chemicals, artificial fertilisers, hormones, preservatives, antibiotics or genetic modification.

That all changed in the 20th century when factories and industries of mass production changed the way we ate.

People who follow organic diets believe their foods are most conducive to health, wellbeing and disease avoidance. In addition, any meats or animal products they consume are produced cruelty-free, so the organic eater can feel safe in the knowledge their food is ethically produced.

Some organic advocates claim their food is higher in nutritional content and tastes better, but as yet there is no evidence to prove this.

Green your fruit and vegie

According to IBISWorld’s shopping trolley comparison, a typical selection of conventionally grown fruit and vegetables costs about 60 per cent less than their organic counterparts.

Relative organic bargains were found in the form of bananas (only 33.4 per cent more), cabbage (only one per cent more) and pumpkin, which was actually 33.4 per cent cheaper than the conventionally grown pumpkin.

On the flip side, organically grown granny smith apples cost a whopping 115 per cent more than the conventional option, and oranges and brown onions double the price.

Of course prices do fluctuate, particularly in the organic food industry. A good idea is to buy seasonally and locally wherever possible.

“The best way to ensure that the produce you are buying is grown locally is to shop at farmers’ markets or at an organic greengrocer that obtains produce from within your state,” author of Ethical Eating Angela Crocombe says.

Crocombe says if it’s not possible to source an organic alternative, it’s always better to buy Australian rather than an overseas product as Australian foods tend to have lower levels of pesticide residue.

Then there is the cheapest option of all: to grow your own. With preparation, a good vegie patch can yield an extraordinary amount of produce for next to nothing.

Meet your meat choices

Like a lot of organic produce, many people claim that organic red meat and chicken taste better.

Organic, free-range chicken breasts cost a staggering 146.2 per cent more than the conventional, caged chicken, one of the biggest movers in the Australian diet over the past 20 years.

According to IBISWorld, there is an even bigger price discrepancy when it comes to beef sausages, another huge seller, with the organic choice coming in at 172.5 per cent higher than their conventional counterpart.

Organic beef mince, perhaps because it is more widely available, offers far greater value for money at a little over 30 per cent more than the conventional option.

Organic free range eggs have come down in price considerably over the past 15 years, grabbing a quarter of the Australian egg market, but still cost about two dollars more per dozen than eggs laid by caged chickens. Drought conditions continue to impact on free-range chicken meat and eggs.

One way we can cut costs – and have a positive impact on the environment – is to eat less meat.

Wealthy countries like Australia consume a staggering amount of meat. In fact, the average Australian now eats five times the amount of meat as 1950.

“By eating less meat, you should be able to afford to purchase higher-priced, more ethical meat when you do choose to buy it,” Crocombe says.

Other organic options

Dairy foods offer surprisingly cheap organic options, with low-fat milk only marginally more expensive than conventional milk, and cheese costing 39 per cent more, according to IBISWorld research.

Other bargain organic products include olive oil (5.6 per cent more), chocolate (27.5 per cent more), orange juice (32.5 per cent more) and rolled oats (8.7 per cent less).

Fish, by nature, is an organic, healthy choice and can also be an economic option. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to buy ethically, with overfishing rife around the globe and much of our canned fish coming from overseas.

“There are safe, environmentally sustainable seafood choices out there, although they make up only a small proportion of what is currently available,” Crocombe says.

She recommends avoiding overfished species such as shark, orange roughy and bluefin tuna and instead looking for seafood that has been caught in Australian waters, particularly wild bream, flathead, King George whiting and Australian salmon, all of which are categorised by the Australian Marine Conservation Society as the most sustainable in the current marketplace.

Also, look for canned fish – always a cheap and healthy option – that has been certified by the Marine Stewardship Council.

The eco-food future

The ballooning world population, growing towards seven billion people, has put food supplies under enormous pressure, particularly in the West.

Crocombe points out, for example, that people in developed countries eat about 224g of meat a day compared to only 31g in Africa. The increasing wealth of China has them eating double the amount of meat as 10 years ago.

The demand for such high quantities of food is the big challenge for the eco-food industry, which is essentially competing against a player whose greatest asset is mass production, arguably at the expense of quality.

The organic industry, though, is certainly growing and prices will inevitably fall for many organic products.

“Demand for organics is growing by between 20 per cent and 45 per cent each year, with organic food sales accounting for around one per cent of total food sales in this country,” general manager of IBISWorld Robert Bryant says.

“That puts us a long way behind the UK and the USA, where organics have a respective 2.5 per cent and 2.8 per cent share of total food sales.”

Robert says these statistics show we can expect the organic industry to grow in Australia, driven by increasing health consciousness, concern for the environment, awareness about organics and the fact organic products are becoming more widespread and convenient to purchase.

“We expect that a downward trend in price premiums – with growing economies of scale in organic production and increasing supermarket participation – will also help boost demand,” he says.