Organic vs conventional: Is it enough?
A recent study put out by Stanford University was all over the news this week. The study posited that organically grown foods are nutritionally equivalent to those grown by conventional means.
The conversation in much of the media soon became an all too easy vilification of organic farming and farmers, specifically around the cost of the items produced in these manners. “If it’s the same thing, why should I pay more?” was the predominant question/comment.
The thing is, it’s not the same thing. And that’s not the question that should be asked here.
The questions should be, “Does it matter if the foods are nurtitionally equivalent?” No. It doesn’t. Nutrition isn’t the key ingredient in this equation. Ecology and ethics are.
First, the ecology.
Is organic farming the right way to grow food? That depends on what organic farming is.
At its core, organic farming is a system of growing/producing food that tries to minimise an ecological impact on the land in which it is grown. Yes, there are issues around organic farming (monoculture vs biodynamic farming, what is “organic” from a legal, ethical and even marketing standpoint), but basically, organic farming is a system that generally doesn’t rely on the introduction of petrochemically-based pesticides, as well as hormones, antibiotics, etc. into the food chain – a chain that ends with us as the final and penultimate link.
Depending on where and how you grow food, “organic” can mean a lot of things. Many organic farmers are certified by a body that regulates what foods can be deemed to carry that label. That certification, however, is dependent on various factors, which can vary from certification board to board, province to province and country to country. Certain forms of organic farming allow the use of pesticides that are deemed to be food safe and/or organically derived. This doesn’t make it any more or less organic. It’s just that the use of the term is still a ontologically grey area. And it will be for a time to come.
Organic farming isn’t about money (the spending or making), or costs (for the farmer or the consumer). It’s about ecology. It’s about obtaining food that may be less exposed to certain factors that some of us don’t want to be exposed to.
Hence the ethical portion of this debate.
I can eat organically grown tomatoes, but what about the people who picked those tomatoes? Were they paid a fair wage? According to some, probably not. And will that tomato be tasty? Probably not either, especially if it came all the way from Florida, California or Mexico. The only way I can be sure that it will be tasty is if I bought in the middle of the summer, and that it was grown (relatively) close to where I live.
You can raise organic beef, but that doesn’t mean the animal was raised in an ethical manner. Sure, it was fed organic corn, but what about the debate around if ruminants should be fed corn. Was that cow fed at a CAFO? How and where was it slaughtered? Does the organic certification board that regulates what these animals are fed allow the use of antibiotics? In what cases? In the United States, 80% of the antibiotics that are produced go directly into the food chain, and within the current system, there is very little way to track how much each animal is given. These are questions I want to know the answers to.
Should I buy organic beef from Argentina, when I can buy grass-fed but not organically certified beef from a farmer who pastures his animals less than an hour away from my door? If I want to eat food that falls in line with my own gastronomic and ecological ethics, than I can’t blindly accept that organic certification is good enough. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. This is not to blame the organic certification boards, who do good, hard and underappreciated work. It’s not their responsibility to make sure that the food I eat is safe, it’s mine. And yours.
But the study wasn’t about ethics, it was about nutrition, wasn’t it? Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics, encapusaltes the ridiculousness of the entire “nutritive” argument on her website:
Here’s what the authors conclude:
The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Isn’t reducing exposure to pesticides and antibiotic use precisely what organic production is supposed to do? [...] [A]ren’t those lower levels—in production and in the body—good reasons to buy organics?
I think so. You?
Yes. Yes I do. But is it enough?
I believe that our food system is flawed. I believe in buying food that is grown locally and with sustainable means. I understand that even though food may be organic, it may not be ecologically or ethically sound for me to buy organic produce from somewhere far away. I understand that it can be costly for my farmer to get organic certification for his crops, so he may not have it. He does his best and grows things in a way which work for him. I support him and his choices by buying his food. I also ask him if certain things are sprayed with chemicals. He willingly tells me what is and what is not, any why or why not. I also understand that it’s important for me, as a consumer (here I use consumer as both an economical and physiological adjective, as in I consume (read: eat) food and food products) to know how my food is grown and raised. It’s important for me to ask questions, to educate myself so that I can make educated choices when it comes to what I put into my body.
I am not perfect. I will freely admit to owning and purchasing foods on occasion which I may take ethical, environmental and even gastronomical umbrage to (frozen meals, I’m looking at you, you tasty sodium-laden foodstuffs). But I make efforts. I do what I can when and in ways that I can afford to. I understand that not everyone can or will. But for myself, I try to buy and eat food that I can feel good about putting into my body.
At the end of the day, the questions that should be asked by the media is not whether organic’s nutritive value is superior to conventional means. It should be how and why we make the choices in what we eat and how it’s made.