|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.