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Organically-Grown Cynicism

Tue, 10/14/2008 - 12:27pm
Karen Langhauser, Editor-in-Chief

When given the choice, I have never purchased an organic product over a "regular" product. I have friends who swear by organic food, and they can't understand why I haven't made the switch.

Organic food enthusiasts cite numerous reasons for their buying decisions, with the most popular being taste, safety, nutritional content, animal welfare, and environmental impact. But when I sat down and attempted to research all of these theories, I found the information extremely difficult to sift through, and full of discrepancies.

I'll admit that the prospect of organic food sounds enticing – but deciphering between what is true, what is "sort of true" and what is completely false makes a huge difference when it comes to what I purchase as a consumer.

For example, the Soil Association, which claims to be the UK's leading certification organization for organic food and farming, states right on their homepage that, "There is a growing body of research that shows organic food can be more nutritious for you and your family. Put simply, organic food contains more of the good stuff we need – like vitamins and minerals…" And yet, this past August, the Society of Chemical Industry's Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture reported on a study that found no evidence in support of the argument that organic food is more nutritious than conventional food grown with the use of pesticides and chemicals. Not only did the study find no difference in the levels of minerals and trace elements in the fruits and vegetables they grew both organically and conventionally, but there was also no difference in the retention of minerals and trace elements in the animals that ate these specific fruits and vegetables.

Frustrated with the nutritional debate, I turned my attention towards environmental impact. Organic agriculture "reduces the overall exposure to toxic chemicals from synthetic pesticides that can end up in the ground, air and water," which makes for a cleaner, healthier environment, according to the Organic Trade Association. While this fact appears to be true, it seems as though the insatiable consumer demand for organic products has corrupted the purity of its production. I was recently standing in the produce aisle of my local supermarket, staring with disbelief at my organic versus conventional zucchini options. The conventional zucchinis were haphazardly piled on top of each other in one giant, messy pile. Across from the conventional zucchini pile up, sat the organic zucchinis in perfect order. Each zucchini was individually wrapped in some sort of polystyrene food packaging, covered with plastic wrap, and topped with a label identifying the product as "organic." I couldn't help but wonder if all the unnecessary packaging waste negated any environmental benefit the organic produce offered.

Forever a cynic, I guess I can't help but wonder what has happened to the organic food industry? What started out as a mission to produce tastier, safer food seems to have evolved into a race to produce higher profit margins. Has the industry become too successful for its own good, as it frantically races to keep up with consumer demand? It seems to me that if the decision to grow or purchase organic products was still an obvious one, there would not be so much conflicting information for consumers and manufacturers to sift through.

Have a different opinion? Send me an email – I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Reader Comments

Great article on organic vs. commercial food. To put it simply…well, it can't be. It's a very deep, intricate subject and one that is still be quantified in terms of health benefits, cost efficiency and environmental effects. For most people these days, picking something "organic" is the equivalent of buying bottled water instead of drinking from the tap. And when corporations can make money off of this you begin seeing the hypocrisy of things like organic cucumbers wrapped in plastic and Styrofoam and which was shipped in by a diesel-guzzling truck from out of state.

I'm a gardener. It is a difficult task to truly stay organic. This means no fertilizer, no pesticide and no fungicide. When your crops are attacked by fungus, or unseen insects that only come out at night, and your "organic" attempts to quell either of them fail you are faced with a decision. Get no food at all, or use chemicals to stave off the attackers? Think of this on a larger scale. If you're a small or medium sized farmer whose livelihood depends on their crop, how "organic" are they going to stay if they find acres of their land being ravaged by fungus and/or insects? It is easy for non-growers to expect and want organic, but until you've tried to do it yourself you will not understand why bigger farms use chemicals to preserve their livelihood.

And let's face the facts, we've all been eating vegetables and fruits that have been doused with chemicals for years. Has anyone been able to consistently directly link them to widespread diseases like cancer, or other serious health effects? If I had a choice I would always choose organic, however, as I'm guaranteeing that I'm not possibly adding any chemicals into my system. Do I know for a fact it's better for me? No, but I do know for a fact that if I eat non-organic foods, there is a greater possibility of putting a chemical into my system which I shouldn't be ingesting.

The biggest drawback to eating commercial fruits and vegetables is the very definitive environmental effects it has. You only have to look to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico to see how fertilizers are killing the ocean there. So much is used in the Midwest and washes out through the Mississippi, that it promotes the growth of a ocean plant that sucks the oxygen out of the water. This brings us to a whole other subject as well, dealing with the massive farm systems in our country that are subsidized by taxpayers. But, that is for a whole other discussion, and a very interesting one at that.

Finally, and this is my perspective. If you want to eat organic, grow your own food. It's cheaper, you get much more yields and you know for a fact it is organic. The flavors, to me, are infinitely better than stuff at the grocer. It isn't wrapped in plastic. It didn't require 10 or 20 different people to get it from the farm to your plate, it didn't require oil and gas to transport or to make the packaging materials and it won't harm the environment. To me, the greater goal we should be striving for is to live more locally. Grow locally. Eat locally. Reduce the economic and environmental overhead. Buy from farmers markets if you can't grow your own food. If people are really serious about being organic they need to get serious about it. Buying an organic cucumber wrapped in plastic is just being self-indulgent, and you're no better than the person who buys from the disheveled pile of commercial cukes across the isle. Thank you for your time Karen, and don't give up on organic. It is still a good and worthy concept, but don't feel so bad about eating the commercial stuff either when faced with organic hypocrisy.

1) You state "Society of Chemical Industry's Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture reported on a study that found no evidence in support of the argument that organic food is more nutritious than conventional food grown with the use of pesticides and chemicals." This study was widely published and when reviewed by other researchers were found to be very limited to some very particular produce items; I believe these other articles noted that the study was funded by Monsanto and DuPont - so you can draw your own conclusions on the objectivity of the study.

2) You write, "What started out as a mission to produce tastier, safer food seems to have evolved into a race to produce higher profit margins." Heck yah, we need higher profit margins! The governments' National Organic Program within the USDA is there to check everyone's integrity while we make money so we can sustain healthy food choices.

3) Lastly you say, "It seems to me that if the decision to grow or purchase organic products was still an obvious one, there would not be so much conflicting information for consumers and manufacturers to sift through." The industry is still in relative infancy and scientific research takes time. Remember when margarine was better for you, when hydrogenated oils were the best thing for bakers, etc., etc. I am confident that organic foods will stand the test of time. -Jim Shankin, Adrienne's Gourmet Foods

Nicely done. The organic food issue provides a fine look at the hypocrisy surrounding many of the issues that are in vogue simply because they are said to be better for us or better for the environment. The gaping hole in the argument is that much of the impetus in favor of these issues lacks any substantial basis in science. It's a combination of fear on the part of the consumer fanned by marketing by the supermarkets, organic growers and others who enjoy the large profit margins on organic foods.

And now that the concept of what can be labeled as organic has been diluted, there is even less potential benefit from buying organic, if there is any benefit. As far as I can tell (and I studied this rather closely when I used to work with Wegmans supermarkets), the difference between organic and pesticide-herbicide laden foods is the organics cost more and the chemically grown taste better and last longer in the fridge. -Paul Entin, EPR Marketing

Having been on the production research end of organics, there are several things about the program which gripe me.

1. Just as there is no proven benefit of organic from a nutritional aspect, organic alternatives to conventional pesticides have not been proven safer as there has been NO research done on their safety, whereas conventional pesticides have had extensive testing from a health and environmental perspective. Similarly, transgenic crops have the potential of carrying some trait of which we are not aware due to our thorough lack of exploration of every possible genetic permutation associated with enzyme activation or deactivation, but it is not much greater than traditional breeding techniques. The additional risk is so low, it is not worth worrying about since we don't fully understand the implications of eating any particular organic food either. As far as the potential of “super weeds” which is a concern with regard to herbicide resistant crops, there are plenty of natural variations in the plant community which are already resistant. There are other pesticides which would work.

2. With regard to organic weed control (which is the worst obstacle to organic production), the only two viable options are cultivation and plastic mulch. We've tried all others. Plastic mulch? How is that organic? Also, cultivation leads to soil loss by wind and soil erosion, as well as degradation of the soil structure and microbial populations which sustain crop growth. I will never be convinced that these alternatives are preferable to an application of pre-emergence herbicide which never contacts, internally or externally, the harvested part of the crop and degrades to carbon dioxide in a period of about two months. Just try to find a pendamethalin residue on a tomato.

3. I have yet to hear an explanation as to how fertilizer salts from non-manufactured sources are better than commercial fertilizer. Yes, manures are better for the soil and the release of the nutrients is slower, improving crop uptake, but the end products are exactly the same, unless the organic proponents have some direct line to God who has explained something that modern chemistry cannot. What is even more baffling is that mined salts, like Chilean sodium nitrate, are approved. Someone PLEASE show me the difference between the mined product and that in commercial fertilizer?

4. Why are tractors and steel implements allowed in organic production? Steel cultivation implements can leave more residues of abraded steel per acre than many of the latest pesticide products some of which are applied at 1 ounce or less per acre. Rubber tires are not organic. The burned diesel residue from the exhaust is not organic. If the organic proponents were true to their values, plastic mulch would never be allowed, and all operations would be conducted with draft animals pulling wooden implements.

What I agree with is the adoption of more natural and sustainable means of crop production. If a farmer can prevent a destructive insect from destroying his crop by planting other crops within the same field to attract beneficial competitors of the destructive insect, then I think this would be preferable from an economic, energy consumption and environmental perspective. There are many examples of natural means to control pests as well as preserve the environment. But when the judicial use of a pesticide is more environmentally friendly than the organic alternative, it should be justified.

In essence, the organic program is not a scientific, logic-based concept. It is a spiritual journey conceived by someone who was afraid of anything commercial and who had the gift of influence to convince thousands of others of his beliefs. When the organic program becomes scientific and logical, I'll be totally on-board with it. -John J. Silvoy, Ph.D. Tifton, GA

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