The Organic Food Fable

Every so often, the concept of organic comes under heavy fire. This time around the backlash was prompted by a study released by Stanford University which questions the nutritional value of organic foods vs conventionally grown produce. Critics like to associate organic food with an elitist lifestyle, and while accessibility remains a barrier for wider consumption, opponents tend to abhorre organic consuming folk based on the premise that they are narcissistic and privileged. A most recent nay-sayer, Roger Cohen of the New York Times got down and dirty when he descibed organic like this:

Organic has long since become an ideology, the romantic back-to-nature obsession of an upper middle class able to afford it and oblivious, in their affluent narcissism, to the challenge of feeding a planet whose population will surge to 9 billion before the middle of the century and whose poor will get a lot more nutrients from the two regular carrots they can buy for the price of one organic carrot. [It is…] An effective form of premium branding rather than a science, a slogan rather than better nutrition, “organic” has oozed over the menus, markets and malls of the world’s upscale neighborhood at a remarkable pace.

And so it goes.

Since the Standford study was released, many have pointed out that the nutritional value  has never been the main point of organic food. In fact, self proclaimed critics have done a pretty good job of touting the host of  other benefits associated with organic production including  environmental protection, resurgence of small scale farms and the strict certifications and standards enforced to ensure no pesticides, GMO’s, sewage or herbicides are up in your meal. Oh, and the study did conclude that organic is a significantly better choice when it comes to the presence of pesticide residue on produce and antibiotics in meat.

While Mr. Roger and co make important points about the accessibility of organic food his assertion that we must go against nature to “have more people better fed” seems to come from a resource unlimited perspective, among others. We do have to think  very carefully and strategically about the future of food on this planet, but  increasing  conventional production does not equate to more people being better fed. Eating fewer resource-intensive foods and reducing the massive transport and waste aspects of our food system alongside the education of more women in the developing world as a way of stemming some of that population growth are just a few of the ways that might help us  more than wrangling soybeans from rain forests.

In the Omnivores Dilema, Michael Pollan describes  the organic business as Big Organic; a booming $26.7 billion industry that participates in some of the damaging aspects of the conventional production system, including lengthy transportation networks and monocultures. What is important to take away from his and Mr.Cohen message is that producing and eating organic food isn’t the end-all answer to our food system woes. Organic principles should fit into a larger framework of change that ultimately values the food we eat and with what and how we grew it.


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