There has been a fair amount of hoohah about a Stanford Study that suggests that organic foods are no more nutritious than conventional foods. This shouldn’t be a shock, but many health claims have been waved about over the years that say otherwise. The Atlantic’s Brian Fung rightly points out that only over the last few years has the discussion shifted to imply that nutritional content is why we grow organic – in fact, that’s not how the organic movement started. The reality is that such claims are hard to evaluate – what varieties are you comparing? Is this industrial or small scale organic? But in a way, I don’t think it matters much.
Buying organic is also a statement about public health. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of antibiotics. Conventional farms have been putting the stuff in animal feed for decades — even though we’ve known since the 1970s about the health hazards that the animal use of antibiotics poses for humans. Reducing society’s chances of inadvertently creating a superbug is a good reason to purchase organic foods.
There are the more immediate health benefits of buying organic: you’ll avoid the chemicals, preservatives, and hormones that conventional farms often use to treat their foods. In the Stanford study, just 7 percent of organic foods were found to have traces of pesticides, compared to 38 percent of conventionally-farmed produce. Again, that doesn’t mean organic foods will supercharge your health — you’ll just be at less risk of exposure to potentially harmful substances, for whatever that’s worth to you. Quantifying that benefit is a contentious area and certainly worthy of more research.
And then there’s the reason many people find most compelling of all: the health of workers in the field. For some consumers, buying organic is a human-rights issue. Reading Atlantic contributor Barry Estabrook’sTomatoland on the ruinous health problems of tomato planters and pickers in Florida because of the use of herbicides and pesticides is enough to make almost anyone choose organic over non-organic. Yes, there are safety rules in place for the use of these lethal chemicals, but as Estabrook’s work and the the work of others shows, those rules are frequently not followed.
The reality is that organics started because of concern about the larger environment, not to make your food extra nutritious. Yes, reducing our personal individual exposure to whatever and getting maximum nutrition out of our food is a good thing, but I tend to be troubled by the idea that our primary focus should be on protecting ourselves and our immediate families, rather than everyone – we ultimately all need to be invested in our collective health. So the farmworkers and their children are as critical beneficiaries as our own kids.
There’s another side to this, however. To move beyond the middle class, what we really need is an agriculture that isn’t saturated in fossil fuels. As I’ve written about many times, the oil-food connection has gotten tighter and tighter (for example, while other areas have gotten less fossil fuel intensive, the fossil fuel intensity of agriculture has doubled in the last 20 years) between biofuels and globalized food production – meaning that everyone’s access to food is tied to global energy prices. For the two billion poorest people in the world, that’s a disaster. For the rest of us it means we never know how much of our budget to allot to dinner – and that’s why so many people in the US can’t put dinner on the table reliably without the help of food subsidies.
Not all organic is less energy intensive – industrial organic often actually uses more fossil fuels. In the end, small scale, sustainable, mostly organic may be the only way we can avoid starving the world as the oil-food connection draws tighter and tighter and chokes us.