The internet seemed to explode last week with news of a Stanford study that showed organic food to be no more nutritious than non-organically produced food. Some good follow up articles appeared in the NY Times and on the NPR food blog. Many people let out a sigh of relief, glad for the “mask” to be pulled off of organic food. Others let out a sigh of frustration about the misleading headlines and conclusions from the study. Lots of confusion abounded.
I took an interest in the study as someone who studies sustainable agriculture, was required to learn about the National Organic Program for class, and as someone who also apprenticed and is now employed part time at a certified organic farm. All that to say, I’m probably not your average consumer. I probably know a little more than the average consumer about organic food. So did this study come as a surprise, or shake any ideas I had about organic food?
Not really. As Michael Pollan pointed out in one of his tweets, the nutritional value of organic food was never the case for organics.
In fact, there are studies that consistently show conflicting evidence about nutritional content. On the one hand, this Stanford study claims no nutritional difference. Yet I also have seen evidence that there is some nutritional difference, with more nutrients in organic food. (Source: this book) I think the best assessment we can come up with is that nutritional content is highly variable based on soils and individual farming practices. As one news article relayed, “the researchers stress that there may be individual differences in the way specific farmers, either those that use organic methods or those relying on conventional ones, grow their plants or livestock.” (NY Times article.) Exactly.
There are also criticisms of the analytics of the study. If interested, I’ll direct you to this critique.
So what of organic food? What IS true, and what is false? Why would you buy it?
Here’s my take.
First, what the heck is Organic anyway? The National Organic Standards Board defined organic thus:
an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony
Sounds great, right? Yes, but the actual standards for certification does not mean that every producer is fulfilling this spirit of organic. More on that later.
Second, some people believe organic necessarily means smaller scale, no mechanization, and no chemical usage. None of these are necessarily true. Yet organic food is lower in pesticide residue. This glossed over fact is actually affirmed by the Stanford study, and for some people is significant. For more on this, see this excellent Mother Jones piece. This is a reason some consumers choose to buy organic. If this concerns you at all, then I’d encourage you to consider buying organic for the “Dirty Dozen” list. But many foods are not nearly as pesticide heavy and so buying organic may not make a huge difference. But does this mean organic food is free of pesticides? No. Farmers simply have to use pesticides that are approved as organic, which for most means they must be derived from plant sources instead of synthetic sources. This does not make them harmless. In fact, some plant-derived chemicals are still neurotoxins.
Theoretically, organic production methods would embrace a spirit of less chemical usage. Furthermore, the overall danger of synthetic pesticides tends to be greater than organically approved ones. (Silent Spring, anyone?) In these regards, buying organic is also a boon to the producers, and to the environment. See this Civil Eats commentary. But let’s think about this for a second. Some organic producers can easily follow the letter of the law but not the spirit. In fact, some organic producers may actually spray MORE than conventional producers. Why? Well, the fact remains that you can be certified organic and still produce in huge monocultures. Monocultures — intensive cropping of a single crop — can lead to problems. Insects, diseases, weeds, soil fertility depletion, etc. All of those factors add up to one thing: more inputs. More fertilizers (usually petroleum based), and more pesticides to control insects and weeds (also usually petroleum based). So not all organic programs are inherently superior to conventional programs. That unfortunate assumption by many consumers is just false.
The University of Kentucky’s Organic Research Farm embraces mechanization for their scale.
So how does the average consumer navigate these convoluted waters?
+ Not all organic food is worth the cost. Don’t patently reject all organic, nor blithely accept all organic food, and definitely don’t feel pressured to buy organic as part of being a responsible parent, spouse, and consumer. Make organic choices wisely, which may mean going organic when your conscience about pesticide residues dictates that choice. In that case, start with the Dirty Dozen.
+ Prioritize local, not just organic. Local food does not rely on such large transportation costs, both monetarily and to the environment with CO2 emissions. Local food is also fresher, which means, it will taste better. As someone astutely observed in the NY Times piece, “Taste is what’s going to get us to eat seven portions of fruits and vegetables a day… To not consider taste and quality in this whole discussion is to completely miss the point about food.” I agree. Fresh, local food just does taste better. In addition, buying local means you have an opportunity to know your farmer.
+ Know your farmer, as far as possible. This is the only way to know how your food is produced, and whether the producer is embracing the spirit of organic or not, regardless of a certification. In fact, many producers choose not to get an organic certification because of the costs and legwork associated with the process. (Kentucky is one of the few states where certification is *not* costly.) Look into other labels (Certified Naturally Grown, Rainforest Alliance, American Grassfed, Biodynamic, etc.) and talk to your producer at markets as much as you can. This is the best insurance to support food that is produced with regard to consumer, producer, and environmental health.
+ Be an educated consumer. Ask questions. Read books and articles. Talk to farmers. Grow your own food. Figure out what’s important to you – personal health? Farmer livelihood? Protecting the environment? There are ways to fulfill your goals in our marketplace.
My friend Geraldine selling organic produce at the Farmer’s Market for one of the larger organic operations in Kentucky.
Now I’ll go out on a small limb: I know for many people cost is the only issue. I get it. But for those who choose food based on cost but don’t have to, I’d challenge you to think about the true cost of food. Americans are notorious for our assumption that food is cheap. This means that for many, cheap food is the only food, and this means fast food. We as citizens along with our home planet are suffering the repercussions of this lifestyle, including rampant obesity, heart disease, and eutrophication in the Gulf of Mexico resulting in a “dead zone.” Food production is anything but cheap.
We are a nation that spends less than 10% of our income on food, while our neighbors (specifically other developed nations) spend upwards of 18 or 20% of their income on food. We can’t change the tides of our food system unless we “vote” and voice dissent of our industrialized system with our dollars. Support local food if you can, spend a little extra even, and ensure farmers a fair wage outside of the industrialized, petroleum-based food system that reigns in our nation. Petroleum is a diminishing product, and we need alternatives in agriculture. Local food, on smaller scales that is less reliant on petroleum fertilizers and chemicals is one answer. We did it with Victory Gardens during the war, we can do it again.
Many people criticize organic and small scale as not being able to feed the growing population. Yet there is also a significant 30 year study out of the Rodale Institute that would counter with evidence of organic systems performing yield-wise on par with conventional agriculture; furthermore, organic outperformed conventional under drought conditions. This means, organic may be not only a viable option, but a better option, for the future of our world undergoing climate change and population growth. I commend the study to your attention.
Conclusion: Organic may not match nutritionally with what you have been led to believe by popular media, advertising, or mere assumptions. Yet there are solid reasons to support organic, for the planet, the farmer, yourself, and the future. Likewise, there are also ways to support the health of those same things through means others than organic. Just do your research.