Eating Organic: The Choice is Yours

organic-expensiveShopping at organic food stores is, at best, a confusing experience.  You push your cart through grocery aisles with a smug sense of satisfaction, sure that you are doing something good for your body and for the environment.  What does it matter if the fruits and vegetables are a little smaller and browner, or if the cereals and canned goods have funny names like “Oatios” instead of Cheerios?  At the register, that accomplished feeling slowly changes into horror as your watch the prices of your food add up.  How is it possible for groceries to be so expensive?  You seek comfort from your credit card bill by telling yourself, again, that the pricey food is worth the cost.  But is it?  Or is the organic food business just another example of successful marketing?

The aura of cleanliness and healthiness that surrounds organic foods prompts thousands of Americans to buy from their local organic aisles, and the number of consumers of organic products grows every year.  In 2012, American organic food sales reached an all-time high of $31.4 billion [1]. But this popularity comes at a significant cost: on average, Americans pay 23.4 percent more money for organic foods than they will for conventional ones [2]. For example, on FreshDirect, an online grocer, an organic grapefruit is $2.49, while its non-organic counterpart is 89 cents; an organic pineapple is $5.99, but a non-organic one is $3.99; and organic asparagus is $4.99 whereas non-organic asparagus is $2.99 [3].

What accounts for this large cost difference?  Popularity does have an effect on price.  But, there are many more costs that are uniquely associated with organic farming.  First, organic farming is more labor intensive, requiring more manual care and attention.  Second, because organic farmers eschew the use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, antibiotics, and hormones, crop and livestock yields are lower.  Additionally, organic farmers use expensive organic feed and must obtain and maintain organic certification if they want to sell their wares with the “organic” label.  All of these costs represent a significant premium in terms of labor — growing organic produce and meat (not to mention getting it to market) is an arduous process and costs the farmer significantly [4]. This premium is, of course, passed on to us as consumers.

Yet on every level, from farmer to grocer to consumer, the organic food industry claims that its goods are worth the price.  Advocates of organic foods contend that some of its greatest benefits are environmental: less soil erosion and more water conservation [5], as well as an increase in soil fertility and species diversity in soil [6]. They also extol their practices for decreasing air, soil, and water pollution and for being less dependent on fossil fuels [7]. Moreover, the farming practices and their decreased uses of pesticides supposedly provide health benefits to farmers, animals, and consumers by reducing exposure to chemicals, additives, and antibiotics. [5]

The biggest purported advantage and most cited reason for purchasing organic foods is the health benefits to the people who invest in it [8]. Organic foods are touted as meeting more stringent standards, exposing us all to fewer pesticides and artificial additives, and to be more nutrient-rich than conventionally grown proceed and livestock.  “On average organic samples [contain] higher total antioxidants and beneficial phytonutrients…than conventionally raised foods,” boasts Registered Dietician Vicki Koenig, adding that when “you buy organic…you’re doing yourself and your family some good.” [7] A 2013 study conducted by Cornell University found that “people tend to assume that organic foods are good for everything, such as low calories, more fiber, etc. ” because the organic food industry seems to indicate that such ideals are accurate based on the fact that they are pesticide and additive free.  Dr. Shimizu, one of the primary investigators of the Cornell study, says that this “health-halo effect can significantly bias consumers in their purchases of organic foods.” [8] To some extent, organic consumers become aggressively intense about the benefits of organic foods to the point of a “holier-than-thou” complex, says Kendall Eskine. Eskine, a researcher at Loyola University, actually helped conduct a study on the apparent “meanness” of organic eaters compared to those who did not care about the organic vs. non-organic label [9].  Part of organic food’s success and part of what maintains this “health-halo” has actually come from the excessive pushiness of its supporters.

We therefore often assume that foods grown without pesticides and animals raised without hormones are healthier for us, and are thus worth the extra expense.  The problem with this supposition is that there is scant proof of its veracity.  In fact, recent studies have shown it to be quite false.  In September 2012, Stanford University researchers Dr. Dena Bravata and Dr. Crystal Smith-Spangler analyzed over 200 studies comparing organic and conventional foods in the largest-ever review of the two types.  They reviewed fruits, vegetables, eggs, grains, dairy, poultry, and meat in terms of nutritional content, pesticide effects, and health benefits to determine whether there is a difference between organic and conventional foods.  What they found was, essentially, nothing: “if you’re making a decision based [on your health]…there isn’t much difference” between the composite nutrients of either type of food says Dr. Bravata [10]. This study caused shock and controversy both among the researchers and the organic food industry.  “Some believe that organic food is always healthier and more nutritious,” said Dr. Smith-Spangler, “[and] we were a little surprised that we didn’t find that.” [11] But the results of the study indicated that organic foods and their counterparts were essentially the same in vitamin, protein, and fat content among organic foods.

Additionally, further studies have begun to discard ideas of pollution and pesticide exposure.  A 2012 University of Oxford study conducted by Dr. Hanna Tuomisto has shed new light into organic environmentalism.  Tumoisto & co. reportedly found that the production of organic milk, pork, and cereals, actually emits more greenhouse gasses per unit of product than conventional methods of production.  Furthermore, although some organic fruits and vegetables input less energy while being made, they required more land than non-organic farming.  Often, although organic farms pollute less for some given area of land, they actually pollute more per unit of food produced [12]. The environmental impact from organic foods, says Dr. Tuomsito, is more than we believe it to be.

Much research on the benefits of organic foods is fairly recent and requires further investigation and experimentation.  But the current issue with organic food is not that it may not be nutrient rich or environmentally friendly.  Organic food may taste different, people may prefer the growing methods regardless of environmental or pesticide concerns, etc.  Rather, the issue with the organic food industry comes with the health bias that follows organic food.  This assumption of organic “betterness” disheartens people from purchasing conventional food products and pressures them into a lot of unnecessary overspending.  Eating organic should be a choice that should have little to do with health and the environment, but it is not portrayed as such.

References

1. “Organic Food Hardly Healthier, Study Suggests.” CBSNews. 4 Sept. 2012. Web.
2. Mielach, David. “Consumers Overestimate Benefits of Organic Foods.” Yahoo! News. 02 Apr. 2013. Web. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-204_162-57505328/organic-food-hardly-healthier-study-suggests/
3. Bonfils, Darcy. “Organic vs. Nonorganic: What Fruits and Veggies Should You Buy?”ABC News. 8 Apr. 2011. Web. http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/JustOneThing/organic-nonorganic-buy/story?id=13310727
4. “Organic Foods: Understanding Organic Food Labels, Benefits, and Claims.”Helpguide.org. Web. http://www.helpguide.org/life/organic_foods_pesticides_gmo.htm
5. “Organic Foods: Are They Safer? More Nutritious?” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 07 Sept. 2012. Web. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/organic-food/NU00255
6. Marshall, Michael. “Organic Food: No Better for You, or the Planet.” NewScientist.  4 Sept. 2012. Web. http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn22240-organic-food-no-better-for-you-or-the-planet.html
7. Koenig, Vicky. “Why Eat Organic?” Stonyfield. Web. http://www.stonyfield.com/healthy-people/health-tips-advice/why-eat-organic
8. Konkel, Lindsey. “Organic Foods No More Nutritious, Safe than Conventional, Study Says.” LiveScience.com. 4 Sept. 2012. Web. http://www.livescience.com/22893-organic-foods-conventional-nutrition-bacteria.html
9. Tepper, Rachel. “Organic Eaters Might Be Meaner Than Their Counterparts, Study Finds.” The Huffington Post. 18 May 2012. Web. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/18/organic-eaters-mean_n_1528529.html?ref=food
10. Brandt, Michelle. “Little Evidence of Health Benefits from Organic Foods, Stanford Study Finds.” Stanford School of Medicine. 3 Sept. 2012. Web. http://med.stanford.edu/ism/2012/september/organic.html
11. “Organic Food Is Not Healthier, Say Stanford Researchers; When It Comes to Nutrition, Organic Meats, Produce and Dairy Are No Better.” NY Daily News. 4 Sept. 2012. Web. http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/organic-food-healthier-stanford-researchers-nutrition-organic-meats-produce-dairy-better-article-1.1151470
12. “Wildlife and Habitat Conservation News: Organic Farming May Not Be As Beneficial As It Seems.” ENN: Environmental News Network. N.p., n.d. Web. http://www.enn.com/wildlife/article/44893

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