The Organic Food Study: Why so angry?

Beautiful produce shops like this one (at the base of the building we lived in) are scattered every few blocks throughout Buenos Aires. It’s probably not organic produce, but it’s delicious and cheap.

A couple people have asked for my opinion about this study that came out a couple days ago on the nutritional value of organic food. To summarize: The findings made for great internet – you could get the gist by reading just the headline (which made for easy tweeting and facebooking), and it was counter intuitive (which made it worth tweeting and facebooking): Organic no more nutritious!

Was this really news? I’d seen several studies with similar findings. And this new study turned out to be nothing more than a reanalysis of that past work. There have been a few critiques the study, but if you want my opinion (as someone that tries to sort substance from superstition about all things “natural”) it’s basically right. There’s very little evidence that one person eating organic food is going to be getting superior nutrition. Yes, non-organic food has trace levels of pesticides (after reviewing the science, those don’t worry me), and yes, non-organic meat is more likely to have antibiotic-resistant bacteria (this does worry me but it’s primarily a public health problem, not a problem for individuals). But all the science really doesn’t support the idea that organic food is a wonder drug that will keep you young.

At the same time, I think it’s indisputably true that organic food is healthier. That is – if you are narrowly focused on how it will benefit you, about how the known molecules will interact with your metabolism for good for for ill, then organic and industrial food are pretty much the same (as far as we know with the current science). But if you take a broader view, things look different:

Buying from farms that make the world cleaner and more beautiful rather than uglier and more polluted is healthier. Buying from farms that support a broad middle class rather than tycoons and destitute laborers is healthier. Buying from farms that don’t torture animals is healthier. Buying food that you can take pride in is healthier. Buying delicious food, and taking pleasure in every bite is healthier.

Roger Cohn made essentially the same points yesterday, but unlike me he “can no longer stomach” organics. “Organic has long since become an ideology, the romantic back-to-nature obsession of an upper middle class able to afford it and oblivious, in their affluent narcissism, to the challenge of feeding a planet,” he wrote.

Affluent narcissism? Perhaps in some cases. But besides being annoyed by some picky Yuppie in Whole Foods, what’s the harm? It’s not as if these people are against feeding the world, or are taking food out of the mouths of the poor. And on the other side, the people who are actually figuring out how to meet the challenge of feeding the world aren’t against organics. They recognize that sustainable agriculture will be a vital part of our food future, and that the next set of farming innovations will have increase yields while also improving the environment: A Doubly Green Revolution.

At worst, these affluent narcissists are confused. They’ve conflated the fact that organics tend to be healthier in the holistic view, with the idea that they are healthier in the reductive, selfish sense. This, it seems to me, is a wholly virtuous confusion: I wish that everyone treated the good of the commonwealth as if it were the same as what’s best for them as individuals.

8 thoughts on “The Organic Food Study: Why so angry?

  1. Yes, I agree there's the karma of it all. Organic wins there. No doubt.

    I assume that people who eat organic are most likely health conscious (or very wealthy). They probably engage in other “good for you” behaviors (exercise, etc.) so organic foods is just part of an overall strategy for good health and appearance–this muddies up the research waters. So I take all of it with a grain of salt–both positive and negative results.

    I certainly don't begrudge people who only buy organic their food choices. Nor would I call it full-out narcissism. Getting religious about it can get annoying. And judging others for their bad food choices can get sanctimonious. These give “Whole Foods,” shoppers a bad name.

    I don't buy organic much, mostly because I can't afford it. But I probably would buy only organic meat if I had a bigger food budget.

  2. We've moved gradually into organics–probably up to 90% of our diet now–even though they're generally more expensive. We never believed they were more nutritious, though some veggies, like tomatoes, taste much better.

    We do this as a vote for naturalness and sustainability, so our grandchildren will have access to real food, not just the pesticided and chemical-preserved imitations the corporocracy serves up.

    Jeff Kane MD

  3. Thanks wise commenters! Jeff, let me thank you on behalf of the world at large (in case you didn't know I represent the world at large). Lisa I can't afford it either – but then I stop and think about how much money we are talking about: $2.99 versus $1.99 seems like too high a burden in the grocery market sometimes – but really not that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things.

  4. I agree, the benefit of organics is best viewed through a broader lens. Soil fertility is an issue, as is the health of farm workers working in fields sprayed with pesticides, and water pollution.

    I'd be curious about the types of food compared—big organic, which operates the same was as big ag just with less (or simply different) additives, vs. smaller farms where the distribution chain is shorter and food fresher. I'd also be curious as to who funded the study.

    I'm always amused by the lengths people will go to discredit organic (elitist! lacking in added nutrition! isn't going to feed the world!). Why they are protesting SO much?

  5. Hey Tea!
    Yeah – there's organic and then there is organic. This study was a mixed bag (or mixed farmshare box). Because it was a re-analysis of many old studies. But regardless it seems besides the point. I've been dismayed to see organic partisans get just as angry (for instance this is just silly The study was funded entirely by Stanford (though some conspiratorially-minded folks have noted that Stanford has begun receiving donations through a partnership with Cargill – on the other had Stanford has partnerships with just about everyone). It's just a losing argument for organic folks to worry so much about the reductive perspective on vitamin A etc. Because if that's what we care about why not just buy the cheaper food and take a pill? Or buy nutraceutically fortified processed foods? It only makes sense from a more holistic perspective

  6. I started buying organic food after I read the book Secrets of the Soil by Tomkins & Bird and not long after my mad scientist friend explained the workings of microwaves and told me emphatically the best thing I could do for planet Earth was to eat foods that do not contaminate the soil. And the water. That’s it, isn’t it? Preserving the soil and the water for future generations? Notwithstanding all the economic and healing values of sustainable everything and joy, the foundation must be good to support all the rest, yes? earth, water, air – what we are made of – and the chemistry that sustains their relations. Nate, how do you speak to those who say it is too late? Has your research given you the impression it is too late?

    • I’m hopeful! Look we’ve screwed a lot of things up and we are going to break more. With climate change we have already made the biggest mistake in generations (and the future will look back at us and shake their heads). But there’s something Gary Snyder said about embracing change and impermanence. All this shaking up of the world is also creating opportunities to tear down the old structures and improve things. It’s going to be slow and messy and political, but I see nature and people reintegrating.

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