Contemplation: The Benefits of Organic Foods

If you are somebody who keeps an eye on food studies and agricultural news you may have seen that the release of a recent Stanford University study has found that there is little measurable difference in nutritional value between organic and conventional produced foods.  Some people might be quick to be dismissive of this study, but it seems that the methodology is sound, and the university strove not to present a bias, refusing any outside financing to conduct the research. As such, a skeptic of organic food might be tempted to ask, “Well then what is the point of organic food?  It’s just a way to push up prices.”

Perhaps from a purely nutritional perspective that is true (though already there is some debates about this).  However, I think that it is important to consider that the interest in organic need not only be based on a desire for more nutritious food.  Other benefits and factors of organic food should be considered before being so quickly dismissive of it as nothing more than a marketing ploy.

For starters, organic foods do not rely on chemical fertilizers and pesticides that conventional agriculture does.  While there should be restraints to assure that these chemicals are not harmful to people properly preparing their food, arguably, the absence of them provides a certainty that there shouldn’t be any harm.  Furthermore, what greater environment impacts do these chemicals have?  While they may promote greater produce yield, they can have negative lingering effects (such as breeding more resistant strains of weeds and insects).  Within reason, organic practices then may have a net less influential and negative impact on the environment.

While all agriculture, whether organic or conventional, requires resource use, the use and production of chemical fertilizers and pesticides probably place a heavier strain on resources.  Organic farming often relies on the reuse of composted organic matter, cover crops, and resistant plant varieties.  While growing anything will require use of space and local nutrients in the soil, good organic practices do not need to rely nearly as much on additives to the system.

I am further interest in the scale of production that was done in the study.  It is not clear to me from the article above, but my suspicion is that this study primarily focused on larger scale production.  I think that it is reasonable to assume, that anything produced at a large-scale might not have significantly different nutrition levels, regardless of production means (organic of conventional).  I’d be curious to see if there is a difference in nutrition when the production is scaled down and there is a wider variety of crop rotation.  I am curious is gardened organics or small non-mono-cropped organics would indeed offer greater nutrition.  It is important to remember that just because something is “organic” doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t produced on a massive far that focuses on one or two crops in particular. 

From my understanding of things, plant variety matters a lot more in regards to nutrients more than anything else.  A lot of the produce that we buy at grocery stores, whether organic or not, is from plant varieties that are meant to look pretty a uniform, adhere to our expectations of what the fruit or vegetable is “supposed” to look like.  Within reason, there are varieties that can be grown, with either method, that may be more nutritious, but have not yet been widely adopted or distributed.  If this is true, then that should be an encouraged outlook, to grow the most nutritionally useful varieties available, and get people to look beyond just appearance.

Personally, I still think that organic agriculture provides net benefits, even if one of them is not necessarily nutrition.  Encouraging more organic, sustainable, and multi-culture (instead of mon-culture) agriculture is apt to be better for us and the planet in the long run.

As an aside: Can we please stop calling agriculture that is based on the use of chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics “conventional?”  Listen, the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and antibiotics is anything but conventional.  Most of these practices have been around for only a century or less.  Arguably most organic agricultural practices have more claim to the term “conventional.”  I think that proponents of organic farming should work to reclaim the term “conventional.”  Just sayin’.

Update: Xeni Jardin, from Boing Boing has a very good (and probably more articulate) response to this study, which I think further sums up my feelings about this information.

~ by Nathaniel on September 4, 2012.

One Response to “Contemplation: The Benefits of Organic Foods”

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