Monday, September 10, 2012

What are the advantages of organic?

There has been a lot of kerfuffle on the internet in the past week since Stanford University scientists published a meta-analysis of many studies regarding health and organic foods. They found that there was no evidence that organic foods are "more nutritious" than conventional foods. However, they did note some differences between conventionally grown and organic foods. Organic fruits and veggies had less pesticide residue, and organic meats were less likely to be contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

At this point, many people have thrown down on either side of the organic food divide. Proponents of eating organic say that we still don't know the long-term health benefits of an organic diet, as these studies mostly looked at short term effects of an organic diet. Opponents say that organic food is a pricey fad, a method of food production that can not feed the world's large population, and offers little benefit to the consumer.

Overall, I do still think organic food offers some benefits. Organic farming reduces our dependence on fossil fuels and prevents the damage done to soil and ecosystems that are a result of industrial monoculture. As the farmer from the CSA that I belong to pointed out, most people on the planet currently do not get their food from an industrial agricultural system like one that we have in the US, suggesting that feeding the world's populations using organic methods might be feasible. Eating organic  also reduces our exposure to pesticides and antibiotic resistant bacteria, the long term effects of which I agree are not well studied. However, this study did not interrogate the long-term health effects of organic food, nor did it consider the effects of organic agriculture on anything besides consumer health, and it also grouped all organic food into one category, when there are a diversity of types of "organic" farming practices, from industrial organic to small-farm biodynamic.

Overall, this study is part of the big picture of food production in the United States. This also an excellent example of a study that can be interpreted multiple ways. We should take the conclusions of this study, that organic produce does not seem to be higher in nutrients than conventional, into consideration. We should also avoid extrapolating the data in an unfounded way to align with whatever political point we're trying to make. This study sought to help inform consumers of organic food to make better decisions about what to buy, but it did not address the larger questions of what type of food production are best for the economy, environment, or long-term sustainability of agriculture. Organic food has not been proven to be healthier, but neither has it been condemned as being completely without benefit.

(Image: The sign reads "Organic no chemicles" a Creative Commons 2.0 image from friendsoffamilyfarmers's photostream)

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