Monday, October 1, 2012

What it Means to be an Organic, Vegan Consumer

No matter how much money I’ve earned--from the time I was a broke college student to now--good food was always a priority. While I probably should have curtailed my consumption of $9.00/lb organic salad bars loaded with locally-grown produce when I had $400 textbooks that needed purchasing, I reasoned to myself that good, healthy food was the best form of health insurance. 

I don't even want to know how much
of my income went to this.
Now, however, I realize ethical consumption—even at a higher price tag—goes deeper than merely “treating oneself.” Ethical consumption is a vote. And in these times when deep-pocketed corporations can lobby for legislation, what one purchases is an extremely powerful vote.

Not only is what we buy a vote, but being a vegan consumer is, essentially, a boycott as well. It’s a boycott of powerful farming and agricultural interests, not through signs and pickets (though many vegans opt for this form of protest as well) but through non-participation. Though he's most known for nonviolence, Gandhi's statement of noncooperation is, to me, more powerful. Gandhi actually stated that nonparticipation, noncooperation, is one of the most powerful instruments of creating change. By not partaking in something, we take away its power. In this case, GMO tech corporations are nothing without revenues... derived from consumers like me and you. 

This guy's such a badass
Unfortunately, ethical consumption is not easily explained in any standard economic model. How can it, when purchasing decisions are guided not by price or supply and demand, but by intangible reasons like ethics and morals? And yet, being aware of these purchasing factors is critical for getting others to adopt the same conscientious purchasing behaviors.

Let me give an example—today I was purchasing moong dal, something I love to use in my salads. Anyway, I noticed one brand was approximately Rs. 30. Another brand was Rs. 80. I put the second, more expensive brand in my cart even though both are nearly identical. Now, this act broke every definition of a “rational decision” set by economists. After all, both packs will taste about the same. One wasn’t fortified with anything more than the other pack. The coloring of the package didn’t wow me enough to make me feel like I was somehow more special for purchasing the second one (ie, the branding wasn’t anything unique).

Moong dal, nom nom nom
So why did I purchase the second pack of moong dal? It was organic. While the health benefits of going organic could be an article in and of itself, I’m going to stick with the economic incentives of the choice.

Now granted, everyone switching to organic overnight would be a disaster. Large swaths of the population who are most price sensitive would face serious food shortages and consequently, starvation because now everyone is willing to pay twice the amount for what used to be affordable to them. But we all know that the entire world going organic isn’t an overnight thing. It’s a baby step thing. And those baby steps will be the driving force of lasting, sustainable, equitable change. How?

This baby's saying, "aw hell yeah, stepping to organic!"

Okay, this next part won’t be very sexy. But I’ll continue the story of lowly organic moong dal to illustrate my point. The story is a game of telephone, really—one of a basic, oversimplified supply chain. So let’s begin: me purchasing organic moong dal was the equivalent of me saying to the grocer, “hey, I like this stuff. I’m willing to pay for it.” The grocer then says to the supplier, “consumers want more moong dal, so you need to get me more of it.” That wholesale distributor then goes to the farming village and says, “people like this organic product—can you give me more of it?” And THIS is where some magic happens. Because you know what the farmer can do? She can say to the pesticide supplier, “I don’t need to buy as many of your products,” and, “I’m going to allocate some of this land for more organic crops.

"Yes I will grow organic, thank you."

The effect of not buying as many pesticides is cool in and of itself. Because hey, if the pesticide company doesn’t get as much business, they won’t have the massive influence they do now. But wait, there’s more! Look what else happens: there’s less pesticide residue in the local water supply. The farmer doesn’t have to breathe in as many toxins. In the short run, their income increases because they fetch a higher price for their organic goods. More money for farmers is a good thing. In the long run, however, there’d be more competition as other farmers see, “hey wait, my neighbor’s getting more for their organic crop. I should start an organic crop, too, and take some of their profits for myself!” More competition lowers the price of organic moong dal, which is great for consumers. Why? Instead of organic moong dal costing Rs. 80, it’ll go down to, say, Rs. 50.

So there we have it: an incredibly simplified version of why it might suck to pay so much for organic food in the short-term, but why it’s oh-so-necessary to support these businesses for the long-run. Farmers—especially ones living from paycheck to paycheck—are bound by short-term demands. Such short-term demands dictate growing conventional food even at their long-term welfare on factors like their own health and well-being. But consumers? Many consumers have the choice of thinking long-term. They can purchase organic from those farmers who have made the leaps of faith to eschew conventional, cheaper methods.

No, none of these (likely) old, white guys
care about the food supply. They just want
money. Your money. However they can get it.
Businesses, unfortunately, are not lending their models to much long-term thought. Not when shareholders dump their stock at a moment’s notice from one quarterly release to the next. But it’s not shareholders who can nor should change the world. That’s us. Me and you. And that’s why it’s our responsibility to go organic… if we can. If it’s too expensive right now, then just wait: those for whom it’s not too expensive will do the best we possibly can to create enough demand to make it affordable for all down the line. 


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  3. I just love organic food, I support our farmers.