Organic: Some Conclusions

Should we spend more to buy organic? It’s a tough decision. We want to be good stewards of our the environment, our bodies, and our finances. For some of us, the added cost is prohibitive. We simply can’t afford it. But others have some discretionary income. Is this a good place to spend it?

Back in January, I pointed out that we tend to consider buying organic for a number of reasons:

  • We expect these products to have been grown in an earth-friendly manner.
  • We assume they are free of dangerous chemicals.
  • We expect the food to be healthier and more nutritious.
  • We might assume it tastes better.
  • We hope that meat and dairy animals were treated humanely.

It turns out that, in many instances, these assumptions are well-grounded. Organic growers, especially smaller ones, do tend to be more conscious of the impact they’re making on the environment. (Sadly, some of the larger corporations are more focused on the bottom line.) While both conventional and organic growers do use pesticides, there tends to be less residue on organic produce. The food may be healthier—with fewer antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and sometimes more antioxidants—although nutrition depends on a number of factors, not all of which are controllable. Organic food might taste better, depending on your preferences. And often, though not always, those who raise organic meat care about the well-being of the animals in their care.

However, organic isn’t always better. An article in Scientific American points out two very substantial reasons. For one, “[F]actory organic farms use their own barrage of chemicals that are still ecologically damaging, and refuse to endorse technologies that might reduce or eliminate the use of these all together.”

Even more significantly, organic farms produce far less food per acre than conventional ones. The same article points out:

Right now, roughly 800 million people suffer from hunger and malnutrition, and about 16 million of those will die from it*. If we were to switch to entirely organic farming, the number of people suffering would jump by 1.3 billion, assuming we use the same amount of land that we’re using now.

And bringing more land under cultivation has its own negative implications—the best land is already in use, water resources are dwindling, and there would be a commensurate loss in wilderness.

(Some argue that the true problem is one of over-population. That’s a complicated issue that I’m not going to address at this point. Let me just point out that the 800 million people mentioned above are already born. Which ones would you like to eliminate?)

So buying organic is probably a good thing, but you shouldn’t feel bad if you can’t afford it, or choose not to. It’s more important that we choose to eat vegetables at all, than that they be organic. If you have a limited budget to spend and want to spend it wisely, the EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” lists will tell you which produce uses the highest and lowest levels of pesticides.

Perhaps more important than the specific quality of the food being produced is the effect the whole “organic” mindset is having on how our food is raised. Many growers are paying more attention to sustainable practices. Conventional farmers are using safer pesticides and using them less often. Plant breeders are working to create insect- and disease-resistant cultivars, reducing the need for pesticides even further. They’re rotating crops, fertilizing with renewable manures, and composting. In many cases, it isn’t an either-or decision. Growers look at a problem and innovate to solve it in the best way possible. And that’s a very good thing.
*Fedoroff, N. (1999). Plants and population: Is there time? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 96 (11), 5903-5907 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.96.11.5903

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