Why I Don’t Buy Organic

by on May 25, 2011 · 35 comments

in Environment, Health, Popular

Lured by the Romance of Shopping at the Ocean Beach Farmer’s Market

The Author in her Garden

Buying locally grown, organic produce from the Farmer’s Market has always seemed like a romantic thing to do until I realized it was also an outrageously extravagant activity too.  Whenever I try to participate, the cost of the produce quickly tarnishes the experience for me.

Recently I read my friend’s incredible book, Apples to Oysters.  In it Margaret Webb writes rapturously about the taste of food raised or gathered by passionate farmers whose love of their harvest and livestock, and the respect they pay mother nature, is captured in every morsel they reverently deliver to their lucky consumers mouths.  Not only did Webb’s book make me fall in love with her farmers, she made me yearn for a better, more honorable way of eating.   Inspired, I trotted over to the Ocean Beach Farmer’s Market with my two reusable bags, visions of them brimming with lovely local and tasty vegetables, cost be damned!

I bought 4 small plums for $3, 6 oranges for $5 and a box of strawberries for $5 and then, I panicked.  I looked at my meager supplies and felt stupid, embarrassed that I had spent so much money to get so little.  I scurried home, defeated.

Ian Smith the Loving Pig Farmer from Webb's Book

Thriftiness Next to Godliness

I am sinfully proud of my ability to save money. I make my own deodorant and yogurt, use powdered detergent, buy flea medicine for an 80 pound dog and split it between our 4 cats and 40 pound dog (DON’T do this without careful research on which medication can’t be used on cats!).  I haven’t entered a Ralph’s, Alberstons or Vons in years.  My favorite grocery store is North Park Produce on El Cajon.  When I had a job, I always brought my lunch to work. I average less than one Starbuck’s fancy coffee a year.  I shop at Ross, AmVets and Big Lots.  I am very good at paying the lowest price possible. The truth is, I feel superior to people who spend so much money on things they could get for cheaper.  When I purchase things at a good price, I feel in control and proud of myself.

Growing up, my family’s motto could have been:

“Work Hard. Waste Nothing.  Save Money.”

My grandmother would scold my mother for washing dishes in anything more than 1 inch of water.  She rinsed dishes with dripping boiling water from a pot, she froze lemons and boiled the lemon peels to make lemonade even though a fruit laden lemon tree grew within 5 feet of her back door.  She buried compost in her garden long before composting became fashionable.  My mother was similarly vigilant in her own way, saving jars, reusing Christmas paper, eating food past its expiration date, drying clothes on the line…

Frugal and Green Kissing Cousins?

Frugality was our goal but it seemed to unavoidably lead to a healthier and greener lifestyle–whether we wanted it or not.  Today, I still want these two virtues to naturally coexist.  I want strawberries that I buy from California to be cheaper than the ones imported from Mexico.  I want things I buy direct to be less expensive than things I buy with middlemen.  I want small farmers to sell things for less than corporations.  I want eggs that require no fences or growth hormones to be less costly than the ones that do. Perhaps, that was true once, if so,  it isn’t any longer. Importing, middlemen, corporations, fences, and hormones all exist to increase the profitability of selling food, which, in part, includes growing things faster, bigger, prettier, all that lasts longer.  It makes sense to me that mega farms have spent a century figuring out how to do all this AND under-sell the small farmer.

Producing cheap food probably involves things I am ethically opposed to, like allowing fertilizers, hormones and/or chemicals to damage the environment and natural life, to take advantage of less advantaged people, and to treat livestock inhumanely.

Saving Money or the World?

I would think that any sane person would recognize that saving money is not as important as protecting our environment but, when it comes to money I am not sane.

Let’s say I buy a single locally grown organic $1 tomato, here is a sample of my ensuing anxious thoughts:

“Did I really need this tomato?  I better use it well and not waste it.  Should I buy locally baked organic bread to go with the organic tomato?   I should go home and bake my own bread and make a BLT.  But how can bacon be ethical?  I should be a vegetarian.  But first I should give up sugar.  I haven’t been successful doing that so why do I think I could be a vegetarian?  I should exercise more too.  Maybe a garden will help me exercise?  If I didn’t need to find a job I could bake bread, have a garden and exercise.  I won’t have a place to garden if we can’t pay the mortgage  because I’m spending my time baking bread and growing tomatoes.  Fuck!  Why am I out here spending our money on $1 tomato when I can’t even find a job!”

One of the things I can’t answer for myself is when have I done enough and get to feel good about myself? For me to have the capacity to buy organic, locally grown produce means I’d need to be the kind of disciplined, internally joyful person able to give up TV, shopping, sugar and beer too.   I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do enough to be free of guilt, and no matter how much guilt I feel, it doesn’t stop me from being a fat, meat eating, leather wearing, chocolate chip ice-cream eating, $1.99 Chilean wine drinking person who loves buying ecologically destructive clothes probably made by children.

I tried to explain my dilemma to a holistic healer but she was unable to offer any solace. In fact, she reminded me of my responsibility to the earth and my body, which managed to increase my guilt but not my motivation to begin a more ethical purchasing lifestyle.

Why I don’t Want to Buy  Organic Produce

It comes down to this:

  • Buying food at the best price alleviates (momentarily) my overabundant guilt.
  • I enjoy feeling a little bit superior for knowing where to buy the best deals on coffee, cilantro and chickpea flour.
  • I  lump all people who buy organic food with people who drink Starbucks while driving and talking on their cell phones while reaching for their hand sanitizer

For me, buying organic produce costs me more than money.

(Brenda has just joined a CSA-Community Supported Agriculture- at Ocean Beach Farmer’s Market where she gets to pay up front for several months of boxes of pre-selected and delicious produce.)

{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

Citizen Cane May 25, 2011 at 4:20 pm

Any tips for frugal cat food?


Brenda McFarlane May 25, 2011 at 4:42 pm

Oh, I’m laughing at myself now! I DON”T save money on cat food… I buy.. are you ready? Organic! Oh my! I never thought about what that says to me, maybe I place my cats (4) before myself… ya think? I did try making it myself for awhile but I wasn’t confident it was the best for my cats. I tried the Petco Plan where if you buy 10 bags in a year span of time, you get one free. Even with 4 cats it doesn’t always work. And the coupon they send looks like junk mail so I’ve thrown it out twice. Last month, I moved my business to Bone Appetite (http://www.boneappetit-ob.com/) on Newport in a moment of local enthusiasm. They really helped me choose a different brand of cat food and had good info AND, the brand I chose has a buy ten, get one free deal. Thanks for asking Citizen Kane. I hope someone else might have better suggestions than I am able to offer!


Abby May 25, 2011 at 10:43 pm

I refuse to shop at Bone Appetite, they were really snotty because one of my cats is a pedigree and we’d like kittens someday.


Abby May 25, 2011 at 4:59 pm

I buy whatever meat is marked down at the Fresh & Easy and chop it up myself. But I have a hybrid cat who can’t eat normal cat food. The other two would rather eat kibble.


dave rice May 25, 2011 at 9:59 pm

I’ve tried before making my own, buying whole cut-up chicken when it’s on sale, boiling it, and mixing it with rice. Some cats love it, the one I have now doesn’t – and I value the hour and a half I spend prepping a couple weeks’ worth to be more valuable than the buck fifty or so I save anyway. He’s okay with most of the cheap brands (except Ralph’s), which is lucky for me considering he’s almost 30 pounds and probably eats as much as four regular ones.


Patty Jones May 25, 2011 at 10:05 pm

Hey Dave! Good to see you!

I do the chicken and rice thing sometimes, especially for sick pets. But then they come to relate it with not feeling so good and quit wanting to eat it!


Frank Gormlie May 25, 2011 at 8:03 pm

Laughed all the way through, Brenda! Thank you. Ya hit one of our true dilemmas on the head.


Brenda McFarlane May 26, 2011 at 7:12 am

Thanks Frank!


OB Mercy May 25, 2011 at 8:23 pm

Yes, it’s true, some of the produce and products at the FM tend to be expensive. Being Certified Organic costs a shitload of money, and ultimately, that cost is passed down to the consumer . I usually ask if there is any spray on their produce, and if not, I buy it. Doesn’t have to be Certified Organic to be healthy. Also, ya gotta do your homework and comparison shop. I find the blueberries from….damn, can’t remember the name now at the FM…but he sells in bulk, so you can buy as much or as little as you need, it’s cheaper than at the big markets. And the FM has become a social time for me. I am friending a lot of the vendors (sometimes they give me free stuff just for patronizing them!) and I run into neighbors, free music and good OB vibes all around. I consider all that worth a few dollars more, love my OB Farmer’s Market!


Brenda McFarlane May 26, 2011 at 7:20 am

Good advice. The Ocean Beach Farmer’s market is now the highlight of my week since I’ve started picking up my food from my CSA there!


Molly May 25, 2011 at 8:31 pm

Brenda – why no mention of People’s Food Co-op? There are some great deals there. Also, what about Trader Joes? More good deals, especially on eggs, butter and cat food.


Abby May 25, 2011 at 9:33 pm

I have yet to meet a cat who didn’t love the cat tuna from Trader Joes!


Diane May 25, 2011 at 9:38 pm

how sad…please reconsider and look around and fine better prices for organic foods. buy what you can afford and buy mostly organic and local when you can…..it’s worth it in the long run maybe you’ll save yourself from getting cancer from all those chemicals in non-organic foods!


Brenda McFarlane May 26, 2011 at 7:15 am

Diane, I am actually reconsidering, not so much to avoid cancer, although that would be nice, but to support environmentally responsible farming (and local farmers when I can)


Patty Jones May 25, 2011 at 10:02 pm

:D You are better at the guilt thing than I am!

I don’t buy much organic either, for pretty much the same reasons, $$$

But if I did buy organic, there would be less food in the house and maybe then I’d lose some weight… or not.


Robert Burns May 25, 2011 at 10:11 pm

What crap. Is this from Faux News?!? I once spent 5 months so ill I barely continued my college education while living amidst pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers which were delivered by airplane and everywhere where I lived in Imperial Valley. Were I to pay double the author’s prices I’d still be ahead with something far more valuable than crap money, i.e., my body and health.


Patty Jones May 25, 2011 at 10:22 pm

Sheesh… some of us are just trying to get by while keeping our sense of humor and sanity!


dave rice May 25, 2011 at 10:15 pm

Great article, Brenda – I liked and could really relate to the internal conflict between organic food (especially at the farmers’ market) and value shopping. I do like patronizing the local vendors, as much for the experience (as OB Mercy mentions above) as for the goods. But because of the cost, I only go once every couple months.

There are some decent deals to me, even on stuff that looks expensive at first glance – $10 for a bucket of fresh almonds sounds steep, but I can breakfast and snack on them for a week and a half at work. For $3-6 I can pick up a nice flower arrangement that would cost $15 or more anywhere else, and it’s bonus points with the wife when I bring those home. The Baba Foods guys (super loud and aggressive hummus peddlers) just bumped their prices from $10 to $11 for 3 items, but for $11 I get a bag of pita, two tubs of hummus, and that’s 3 days’ worth of lunch, less than $4 a day and way better than a drive-through combo.

I do find that there are a lot better deals on in-season produce at People’s, too. If I don’t want to drive to the store I’ll pedal over there – usually cheaper and always way better quality than the Appletree. The prices on their organic processed foods, though, make it unlikely I’ll switch from major chain generics anytime soon.


Margaret Webb May 26, 2011 at 6:57 am

Enjoyed the fantastically funny article and yeah, of course it’s crazy that the RIGHT food –local and organic — costs more but that’s because US (and Canada’s) tax dollars are subsidizing the industrial food system (ie. massive corn subsidies; tax-payer built highways and airports and railways for shipping; health-care to fix obese and unhealthy bodies after fast-food makes folks sick etc. etc. etc.) Local and organic food receivers virtually NO taxpayer support. What we need to understand is that organic and local food saves us money in the long run with lower environmental clean up costs and lower health-care costs and what we need to do is press for political change to support a food system that makes sense for citizens rather than big bucks for big business. In the mean time, what we don’t use, we lose. So I’d suggest finding small and economical ways to support local and organic farming and enjoy the joy in that and not feel guilty about not being able to change the whole world in a day.


dave rice May 26, 2011 at 9:17 pm

Nail head, I’d like to introduce you to my friend Hammer…


thinking out loud May 26, 2011 at 8:48 am

Certified organic….hummm who checks on that ?? I can bring in my food stuffs leave a little dirt on them and jack up the price by calling it organic….great !!
No body police’s that….just like they dont police no pets at the farmers market it is very lax you really dont know if that ” organic” term is a easy way to hike prices or what…


dave rice May 26, 2011 at 9:18 pm

Actually there’s a rather stringent and cost-prohibitive USDA process to go through in order to become ‘certified organic.’


OB Mercy May 26, 2011 at 10:06 am

I interviewed several times at a company right here in La Jolla that certifes most of the organic food in the USA. You absolutely can NOT call something certified if it hasn’t been!


Gretchen Hatz May 26, 2011 at 1:09 pm

thank you for your families motto. i only wish is that more people thought this way. i also love that you have a picture in your garden, which is also a way to be frugal. grow your own!

although, i would encourage you to do your own price comparison’s at your preferred store, fruit is also just generally more expensive than vegetables. here are two links i think you should check out:

please don’t lump me in with those ‘people who drink starbucks while driving and talking on their cell phones while reaching for their hand sanitizer,’ because i don’t do any of those things. ;) i’m also very frugal and hate waste, which is one of the reasons i choose to shop at farmers markets. the produce, herbs, etc just last longer and taste better. period. i understand there are obvious things that just cost more, but as some of the commenters mention, at what cost is eating non-organic affecting us all? also, i feel the more i go to farmers markets the more i am able to know which vendors have better prices and products than others, which helps a lot as far as keeping my spending down.


Sarah May 27, 2011 at 9:20 am

I have a friend who claims that you’ll either pay the grocer or the doctor.


Ernie McCray May 28, 2011 at 12:28 pm

Hey, we do what we can. Sometimes it’s worth paying a dollar for that hard but sweet tasting peach that’s in season as opposed to buying some fruit that could be a question on a show called “What the hell is this?”


Allen Lewis May 28, 2011 at 4:57 pm

Yea Ernie,you are so right it is worth paying for that great peach, and I do at times by vegetables also. I don’t really care that it’s organic it just tastes better. I do have a Schipperke and he goes to the farmers market with me, they have free samples of dog snakes that are organic and he spits them out, I feel sorry for the people trying to sell them. It’s all about taste for me and my Dog Django.


thinking out loud May 28, 2011 at 9:57 pm

Well I guess IF ” they” don’t check to keep pets out are ” they ” really checking on whether a peach is organic or not ??
A Farmers market is a food establishment no pets allowed…nless they are a certified assist animal….. NOT a therapy dog or a companion dog according to code….


ilovetheoutdors May 30, 2011 at 8:35 am

Have been shopping at peoples for 5 years and i will they you what, i get more bad potatoes ,cucumber,tomatoes, i am done with them. Farmers market What a joke is there like 3 vendors that are organic in my opinion it is just a flea market with food


Allen Lewis May 30, 2011 at 1:32 pm

For me it’s all about vine ripe, when you pick when it’s green it has no taste. If they have to dust to keep out the bugs I’m good with it, I wash before I eat it. Up here in north washington and in BC it is a farmers market/ flea market, and I like that. You can hear live music, get some vine ripe produce, sit and have lunch, and O yes… up here in the north your pet is welcome. you can even pick up a pet if your looking for one.


justadumbteenager June 1, 2011 at 8:49 am

I, for one, would like to see OB, as well as all communities, become independent from ‘shipped in’ food sources. The modern concept in the past ten years has been urban gardens, I believe.

In my little fantasy world, I can see residents turning their front or backyards into mini-farms and trading at, what is now, the overpriced local farmer’s market. Even chickens and their fresh chicken eggs can be traded. On a recent trip to southeast Portland, I recall walking down neighborhood streets with small, one or two chicken coups in front yards.

Let’s say that you grow, I don’t know, 20lbs of lettuce. Well, wouldn’t it be nice to eat a pound of it and trade the other 19lbs for some carrots or onions? Or maybe somebody specializes in tomatoes. You could trade whatever you specialize in growing for some of them.

It would make Ocean Beach sort of self-sustaining, not dependent on food sources in which we have no control over pricing, pesticides, age, genetic modification, etc.

meh, probably wouldn’t work for some reason.


Frank Gormlie June 1, 2011 at 9:23 am

Don’t stop trying to think of ways we can do it all better, though.


Elizabeth April 17, 2013 at 7:57 am

“I lump all people who buy organic food with people who drink Starbucks while driving and talking on their cell phones while reaching for their hand sanitizer”

Really? I buy organic because my daughter had health complications and she is sensitive to growth hormones. I do not have a frequently use hand sanitizer (I wash my hands) nor do I talk on my phone while driving.


Brenda McFarlane April 17, 2013 at 1:24 pm

Hello Elizabeth, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you or other people who buy organic… I believe we’d all be better off if everyone bought organic… I was trying to poke fun at myself by showing my own prejudices and biases. Thanks for reading!


Nikolai January 30, 2014 at 10:14 am

I enjoyed your article very much! However, you are forgetting the most important reason not to buy organic. Despite the ideological tide of anti-gmo dogma, there is zero credible evidence to support organic being any more healthy than non organic/gmo variety.


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