May 4, 2014

You Should Buy a New Car Instead of Eating Organic Foods

Stop eating healthy food and go buy yourself a new car.    Serious, let me explain...

First a disclaimer:  This is pretty rough, ballpark estimates and I"m purposefully simplifying things by ignoring some factors, using simple numbers.   I could be off by a factor of 10 easily.   I'm not saying organic food is bad or that buying new cars is smart money.   But its all just to illustrate a point in how we should consider our spending and priorities and open to thinking differently.

 People buy organic foods because they are healthy.   Key reason is that organic foods are certified as being free of pesticide residue. I think we can all accept as fact that pesticides are not a good thing to eat. Lets then also assume as fact that eating organic foods is healthier than eating non-organic. We should avoid eating the pesticide residues on non-organic foods. But how much should we spend to avoid doing so?

Image credit : Some rights reserved by SummerTomato

If organic food was the same price as regular food then it would seem obvious that we should all eat organic foods. However organic foods are quite expensive so its a little harder to declare that everyone should pay that premium without a good idea of the risks and benefits associated with the choice. If you're rich and the money isn't a concern then I see no reason to not buy organic food.  But for most of us the difference in cost when buying organic is pretty noticeable chunk of change relative to our budgets. Some of us might say "I'd spend any amount of money to be healthy" and that sounds reasonable BUT you don't have unlimited money so how much you spend should be based on the actual value you get out of it. And you really do need to consider what other things could you spend your money on to safeguard your health?

Quantifying the impact of Organic foods

I'm going to say that key measurable health impact of organic foods is eliminating the use of pesticides.  Such pesticides could contribute to sickness that could result in death.  What is the risk of pesticides? The EPA regulates the amount of pesticides that can be on foods. The EPA defines a "negligible risk threshold for the amount of pesticide reside that they allow on foods. The "negligible risk" level is defined as a one in a million chance of getting cancer from the level of pesticides over a 70 year lifetime of eating that amount of pesticide. However there are a couple criticisms of this type of regulation level. First they don't look at the impact on a child versus the impact on an adult. A certain amount of a chemical will have a worse impact on a child since they are developing and their bodies are smaller. But the regulation applies equally to everyone. Another potential problem with the EPA definition is that it does not consider the compound impact of multiple pesticides. One in a million seems very small but what if you multiply that by 10 or 20 varieties of foods and then multiply that by 10 or more pesticides? You might eat 10 different foods that each have 5 different pesticides so you'd be looking at 50 in a million chance rather than just one in a million. If we start with the EPA's one in a million criteria and then assume that its compounded by 5 pesticides on 20 foods then that would make it 100 in a million or one in ten thousand risk of getting cancer from pesticides on food. Note this is obviously a ballpark estimate. I'm making assumptions here that there are 5 pesticide residues per food and you eat 20 food types. If you think those numbers are low you could double them both or multiply by 10 and rework the odds. As I don't know the exact numbers I'm picking some and using them for discussion sake.   But if we use this 1 / 10,000 estimate of cancer then we can estimate a fatality risk at about 1 / 30,000 as roughly 1/3 of cancer cases result in death.    So that gives us :  

Organic food benefit : 0.003% fatality risk avoided

I previously figured that organic costs about 80% more than regular foods.   An old NYTimes article said : "Organic food is typically 20 percent to 100 percent more expensive than a conventional counterpart"   I'm just going to 'ball park' this and say that organic food is 60% more expensive on average.   But a range of 20-100% is probably more accurate.
 Average household expenditures on food at home was $3,921 for 2.5 people in 2012. Thats $1,568 per person.    Organic would cost you then 60% more than that or $940 a year per person.   Or using the broader range the cost would be $313 to $1568.

Organic food costs :  $940 a year (or $313-$1568) per person

So if we take the cost and risk level and put them together then by buying organic food we'd be spending $940 a year (313-1568) to avoid a 0.003% chance of fatality.

How does this compare to other things we spend our money on?

How new is your car?   Is it a model with all the latest and greatest safety features?

The National Safety Council figures odds of dying from various causes. They figure the odds of dying in a motor vehicle accident sometime in your life is 1 in 112. So thats a 0.9% chance of dying in a motor vehicle accident in our life. Spending more to get a safer car could decrease that risk. A study in 1994 from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that
"A composite NCAP score, based on the test results for all three body regions, has excellent correlation with fatality risk: in a head-on collision between a car with good composite score and a car of equal weight with poor score, the driver of the car with the better NCAP score has, on average, a 20 to 25 percent lower risk of fatal injury." So a safer car could reduce your risk of motor vehicle related fatality by 20-25%. That would be a 0.18% to 0.225% reduction in lifetime fatality due to motor vehicle accidents due to car safety. Or simply adding side airbags could help a lot. This article refers to a study that found that side air bags could reduce fatalities by 37%. A 37% reduction would be a reduction of 0.33% risk for the individuals lifetime fatality risk.

This Consumer Affairs article reports that Electronic Stability Control option in cars saves lives. They say: "The NHTSA study found a 35 percent reduction in single-vehicle crash risk for cars and a 67 percent reduction for SUVs. Fatal single-vehicle crashes were reduced about 30 percent (cars) and 63 percent (SUVs)." and "...widespread application of ESC could save more than 7,000 lives per year." There are currently about 34,000 auto vehicle fatalities a year so a 7,000 reduction in fatalities would be a 20% drop roughly. Starting with the 0.9% lifetime risk of fatality in motor vehicle accidents, the Electronic Stability Control feature will reduce your fatality risk by 0.18%. The cost and availability of Electronic Stability Control varies between makers and models. For example the Vehicle Stability Control system was a $250 option on a 2009 Toyota Corolla and is now a standard feature on a 2014 model.

The 2008 Toyota Corolla did not have stability control or side air bags as standard features.   You might have those as options but its not standard.   SO lets say you have a base model Corolla that lacks those options.
source :
  If you upgrade to a new 2014 Corolla then it will come with stability control and side airbags as standard features.   Those features decrease fatality rates by 37% for stability control  and 18% for side airbags.   Roughly speaking I'll estimate that adding both those features will cut your risk of fatality from motor vehicle driving in half.   I'm saying you avoid 37% of accidents with stability control to get you down to 0.57% fatality rate and then 18% of that is avoided with side airbags for a total of 0.46%.  

Upgrading to a new car with safety features can cut your fatality risk in half.

 Knowing how much it will cost you to upgrade your car to a newer safer model is hard to figure.   It depends on what car you drive now.    For illustration purposes I'll assume you drive a 6 year old Toyota Corolla.     The average age of cars in the USA is now 11 years.    However I don't have data on cost of operation for 2003 vehicles.  

Edmund's True Cost to Own calculation for a 2014 Toyota Corolla is $33,939 for 5 years or $6,788 a year.   The TCO for a 2008 Toyota Corolla is $29,350 or $5,870

Upgrading from a 2008 Corolla to a new 2014 model would cost you an extra $918 per year.

Spending $918 a year in this example cuts your fatality risk by 0.45%.

Now lets sum up:

Organic food reduces pesticide consumption which can cut your fatality risk by 0.03%
Organic food costs about $940 a year

New cars have better safety features which can cut your fatality risk by 0.45%
New car upgrade over a 6 year old model would cost $918 a year.

Bottom line :

You get about 15 times as much 'bang for the buck' in improved safety in terms of reduced fatality risk if you buy a new car over paying for organic food.


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