You’ve probably seen them at Ralphs: those cool cats who slink up to the register and don’t bat an eye when their bill costs three times as much as it should. And when they slide past, they give you a superior smirk — you and your bag of conventional oranges.
Like Scottish accents, everything’s sexier when it’s organic. There is organic produce, meat, cereal, ice cream, chips and even soda. Stores have entire aisles devoted to the stuff. Whole Foods Market, despite legal battles, a recession and the nickname “Whole Paycheck,” still wrangled $49.7 million at the end of the first fiscal quarter. People clearly want their pot pie, and they want it free range and pesticide-free.
The obvious exceptions are poor college kids like us who can’t afford $3 cucumbers and $15 chicken breasts and skeptical folk who wonder if the government really is trying to kill us.
Is organic food truly superior? Just like an episode of Lost, the answer isn’t cut and dried. But there are facts that can at least help you make an informed choice if you’re considering taking a walk down the natural foods aisle.
Most organic arguments center on fruits and veggies. To some, conventional produce is awash in pesticides. To others, a rutabaga is a rutabaga. Since 2002, the United States Department of Agriculture has had strict standards in place for food to garner an organic label — basically, no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.
A 2005 study from UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine tracked down several previous studies comparing organic and conventional produce. Many of the studies, some dating back as far as 1997, show that organic vegetables had higher levels of vitamin C, higher quality protein and lower levels of nitrites. This would be a point for organics. What these studies did not consider, however, were plant genetics, location and the handling and storage of the produce, all of which contribute to nutritional value. Conventional growing techniques do put less stress on crops than organic ones, however, and some speculate these stresses can alter a plant’s biological composition.
Meanwhile, a 2002 study published in Food Additives and Contaminants concluded that conventional veggies are more likely to have traces of pesticides on them than organic ones. At the same time, natural pesticides and fertilizers have a far greater risk of being contaminated with food-borne bacteria. A similar study concluded that organic vegetables are more likely to carry E. coli, and organic spinach was the cause of an American
E. coli outbreak in 2006. Nevertheless, USDA-certified organic farms are much less likely to be contaminated than produce from self-proclaimed organic farms.
One of the latest publications on the organics debate, a 2009 review published by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, took into account an even longer time frame, 1958 to 2008, for studies comparing organic to conventional produce. The conclusion was that there are currently no clear benefits to consuming organic produce, but that even with the best research it is difficult to accurately compare organic and conventional food because there are many factors, including crop yields, produce management techniques and unreliably small studies.
Often, the organic argument relies on a specific crutch — natural fallacy. There is the assumption that natural fertilizers and pesticides must be better for you than something cooked up in a laboratory. The truth is that Mother Earth is not always kind. Would you drink arsenic-spiked water?
Most organic pesticides contain rotenone, which chicken farmers use to destroy parasitic mites. Though in pesticides the rotenone levels are deemed safe for humans, it goes to show that natural does not always equal good for you. Meanwhile, organic and synthetic fertilizers are both based in phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium. It is only the source that is different.
USC Keck School of Medicine professor Joseph Landolph points out that some plants, such as mushrooms, are toxic even without human meddling. While he believes in organic produce, he acknowledges that organic growing practices have their limitations.
“I’m in favor of it,” Landolph said. “But I don’t know how practical it is to feed the whole world with it … I would like to see us move away from pesticides if we could, but it’s not practical yet.”
Landolph believes pesticide use should be tightly regulated, both the synthetic and organic varieties. He himself likes to shop at farmers markets with his wife, but often they just buy what’s available at the supermarket.
Ultimately, according to Dr. Roger Clemens, a USC professor in the School of Pharmacy, organic and conventional produce fall under the same authority.
“The safety of fruits and vegetables is under the jurisdiction of the United States Department of Agriculture,” Clemens said. “The safety standards of these foods are the same whether they are produced using conventional agricultural practices or following the national standards on organic production and handling.”
Just because science has dabbled in your food does not render it something to be loathed. Take, for example, the green revolution, where the International Rice Research Institute, founded by the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, developed a designer breed of rice, IR8. It increased rice yield by a factor of five, saved countless millions from starvation and made India and the Philippines major rice exporters. Pesticides used with IR8 did contribute to the decline of some fish and amphibian species in the Philippines, but regardless, many people benefited from the rice. Later, the institute developed IR72, which could better resist breakage and pests, and further exploded crop yields.
And don’t forget, we’re talking about food here. Taste is a huge aspect when choosing what to stuff in your mouth. People often report that organic food tastes better. But consider where your food came from — if it’s a peach from Farmer Conker’s orchard a mile down the road, it’s going to taste better than one imported from Chile, organic or not. For the best tasting fruits and veggies, stay close to home.
And don’t think buying local or organic means you reduce your carbon footprint. Just because your food comes from the same country does not mean it saved energy. When factors such as the efficiencies of overseas farms (distant grassy sheep farms compared to feed-dependent American equivalents) and the quality of growing conditions are taken into account, you are not necessarily saving the planet by buying local.
At the same time, organic or not, when you support local agriculture, you really are helping domestic products and smaller family farms. Despite its homey image, the majority of organic produce in California comes from five farms, which earn more than $600 million a year. So you are not exactly supporting the little guy when you opt for organic blueberries.
Also, when you buy products from Kashi, Dagoba or Odwalla, you are ultimately paying their respective parent companies, Kellogg’s, Hershey and Coca-Cola. There is no reason not to buy from these companies, but do not do so under the impression you are actually aiding Grandpa Frank and Grandma Ann with their vegetable patch.
You might have also noticed shelves of organic cookies, crackers and ice cream. But don’t think you’re off the hook for moderation just because it’s organic. Sugar is still sugar, regardless of whether it’s cane sugar or evaporated cane juice.
“The most important thing for Americans is to eat a healthy, balanced diet,” Landolph said. “Too much sugar is contributing to too many carbohydrates, which leads to Type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome … There’s still great nutrition in a bag of tomatoes from New Jersey.”
There is nothing wrong with buying organic. But there is no evidence to suggest that there is anything wrong with buying conventional produce either. Most Americans do not eat the recommended five servings of fruits and veggies a day anyway — just chomping on a few more pesticide-laced, fertilizer-baptized apples is a good start.
Mimi Honeycutt is a sophomore majoring in print journalism. Her column “Gingersnaps” runs Wednesdays.