In the early days of Navitas when Zach and I were starting our family, we were already avid consumers of organic food. As young adults, we were fortunate to be introduced to health foods through a hippie counterculture that inadvertently introduced us to the plant-based diet. I also spent time working on an organic farm in college, learning about cultivation practices like biodiverse planting, crop rotation and other methods to improve soil health. By the time we met, we both felt strongly that eating foods free from chemicals was the ethical choice, not just healthier for people, but healthier for all ecosystems that people depended on to live. As fate would have it, our son was born at the same time we were introduced to the idea of importing Maca from Peru. A new sense of urgency emerged with parenthood to protect our child from exposure to anything that could potentially affect his development. In retrospect, it was a sign that we were meant to start an organic food company and work in an industry that we believed could positively influence the world into which we were bringing our child. Albeit scary starting a business at the same time as starting a family, we were comforted in the idea that we were investing in healthier communities and wanted to support farmers who shared in that commitment.
Our early partners in Peru were some of the first organic certified operations cultivating Maca and Cacao for export at the time. Through our partnerships, we gained a deeper understanding of how traditional farming practices are inherently organic and sustainable due to the smaller scale, slower production rate, and inability to pay for expensive agrochemicals in the remote farming villages where the products were grown. But in the US, the organic label grew to mean something we relied upon and we felt obligated to share that sense of security with our customers.
We struggled at first with the cost of some of our products by the time they hit the shelf, mainly because we wanted these special foods to be accessible to the masses, not just for those who could afford them. Some of the main reasons why organic food costs more at the grocery store is that it takes more labor in the absence of chemicals to deal with weeds, mitigate problems and pay careful attention to a crop’s health. As such, farmers take on a greater risk and suffer higher loss when natural methods fail to protect crops. Organic farmers also occupy far smaller plots of land, which naturally reduces potential yield. The ancient food varieties that Navitas sells are even harder to come by, as they are grown on small-scale farms in very specific regions of the world. Crop rotation slows down the production of organic food to market because soil health is a top priority. Thus, elaborate rotation patterns are conducted where a cover crop might be grown temporarily over an area of land to add nitrogen back into the soil for future planting. Other times, land is left fallow, which helps to prevent soil erosion and allows for repopulation of microbial species to ensure nutrient density. Finally, certification requirements, coupled with a lack of government subsidies, all contribute to higher prices. But, considering the primary food system in this country is making us sick, organic is well worth the price.
The Cost of Chronic Disease and Obesity Far Exceeds the Cost of Organic
Through my work as a nurse and my knowledge of public health nutrition, I’ve learned that obesity and associated micronutrient deficiency is often the catalyst for chronic disease. Living with a chronic illness has been compared to having a part-time job, requiring an enormous amount of time, stress and energy to manage medications, attend doctor’s appointments and deal with the fluctuations of disease. Processed, fast foods and sedentary lifestyles are largely to blame, but we cannot ignore other insidious factors contributing to this epidemic. Exhaustive, overproduction of land using conventional monoculture, planting the same crop repeatedly over large areas of land, does not follow logical ecological patterns and degrades soil microbiology necessary to produce nutrient dense crops. Conventional farming produces less nutrient density as a result, although this has yet to be definitively proven through the available research. However, anecdotal evidence does demonstrate marginal differences in nutrients between conventional and organic vegetables, and increased levels of omega-3 fatty acids in organic meat and dairy. Most concerning, new research is shedding light on chemicals called obesogens, some which are used as pesticides, that potentiate fat storage and increase the number of fat cells in the body. With influences like these acting against us, it makes it far more challenging to maintain a normal weight over the lifespan eating conventional food of any kind.
Agrochemicals Harm Humans
An extensive literature review published in 2017 has implicated pesticides as being a considerable threat to population health. Pesticides, an umbrella term including herbicides, insecticides and fungicides, are indiscriminately sprayed in conventional agriculture. It has been established that pesticide residue from food sources is the primary way that the population is exposed to these chemicals. Children and developing fetuses are particularly vulnerable, and many cases exist where exposure results in specific neurological and cognitive deficits, as well as an increase in childhood allergies and asthma. Humans, insects and fungi rely on similar neurochemical pathways, therefore, chemicals designed to be toxic for pests are toxic to humans as well with repeated exposure. Studies have illustrated a direct role in the development of Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and specific types of cancer. If only 5-10% of cancers are caused by hereditary or genetic mutations, environmental influences must be identified in order to reduce prevalence of these common diseases.
Poor Animal Welfare Requires Medications That Are Passed to Consumers
Mass consumption of meat in the US prompted the livestock industry to increase production by 7 times since in the 1950s. Resultant overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and an unnatural diet comprised of corn and grain requires copious amounts of antibiotics to keep animals healthy. Growth hormones are routinely fed to animals to increase size, milk and egg production causing discomfort, inflammation and infection. The biproducts of these medications are inevitably ingested by consumers of conventional meat and dairy. Moreover, arbitrary use of antibiotics in livestock is contributing to the problem of antibiotic resistance in bacteria, a threat to population health that cannot be understated for the future health of our citizens.
Considering these factors, paying for organic now to avoid devastating health complications later seems a worthwhile endeavor. Part of the problem is that 82% of households are now buying organic for their families – the demand is greater than the supply. There are strategies that can make organic more affordable but supporting the industry, as an imperative to public health, will be the impetus to drive down costs over time. It will require dedicating more US agricultural land to organic farming by holding legislators accountable to support legislation under the Farm Bill that will expand organic transition such as with H.R. 3637 – Homegrown Organic Act 0f 2017. When consumers speak with their dollars, the price of organic will eventually be comparable to conventional. For now, investing in your health and the health of your family should be compelling enough reason to consider paying a little bit more at the market.