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Why We Can’t Afford to Drop the Push for Organic Food

Jan Lee
Jan Lee | Tuesday May 27th, 2014 | 5 Comments

Organic_food_Rusty_ClarkFor a lot of American families these days, the definition of good nutrition rests at least in part, on whether the ingredients are grown organically. Studies by the Organic Trade Association show that focus on wholesome, non-pesticide-sprayed food continues to grow. The organic food industry surpassed $29 billion alone in 2012, proving that U.S. consumers do care about good nutrition, and do see organic products as a way to attain that goal.

But is promoting the organic label really the way to improve eating habits and nutrition in the U.S? In fact, is it even a realistic benchmark for a society in which 15 percent of the population is impoverished (2012)? Even with the increase in organic sales, surveys still indicate that price is often a governing factor in whether people feel buying organic is really that important.

For New York Times food writer Mark Bittman, the organic label gets in the way of what really needs to be discussed and promoted: good food. In fact, says Bittman, well-meaning media and food experts confuse issues and “send the wrong message” when it comes to the value of organic and the debate over GMOs. The value of sustainable farming he says “is as important as any” (especially in light of climate change, which he notes, like many organic experts, is connected to how we farm).

But according to Bittman, “We can improve industrial agriculture more quickly and easily than we can convert the whole system to ‘organic.’” One reason is that transforming all agriculture to organic methods would be impossible without significant changes–and possibly losses in how we choose to live.

As the daughter of a clinical nutritionist who made his mark studying nutritional deficiencies from malnutrition and chemical pollution, I find Bittman’s ideas a bit unsettling. My earliest memories are visiting a ward of a Guatemalan hospital while my dad assessed critically malnourished infants. Most of the children on that floor of more than 100 beds never made it home–or if they did, they often didn’t survive beyond that year. From his research I learned that there is no one answer to solving the world’s food crisis. If people are going to learn how to eat more nutritiously, they do need to be given the tools to do so. But they also must be given the incentive.

For families that struggled just to put more than one nutritionally poor item on their plates each day, however, good nutrition really had nothing to do with knowledge. It had to do with access.

organic_food_nutrition_GSK“Yes, there are people who are too poor to afford real food; but that’s an issue of justice,” says Bittman. It is indeed. But leaving that sector of the world population out of the discussion about what constitutes healthy eating is leaving a portion of the puzzle out of the total answer.

Most of my father’s 25 year professional career was spent studying, cataloging and writing about the nutritional and developmental effects of chemical exposure, including mercury. For most of those children and adults he examined, good nutrition didn’t come with a brand or a food label, it was defined by the unseen and contaminating ingredients in their food. It was defined by the nutrients that a fetus received during gestation. And it was defined by the access his or her parents had to healthy food after being born. Those people he studied by the way, weren’t all residents of developing nations. They lived in the U.S., Canada, England, Japan, the European Union as well as Central America.

Not surprisingly, my exposure to my dad’s work and disturbing observations shaped my own healthy eating approaches, just as it shaped those of the rest of the family. Those insights included:

  • People improve their diets because of incentives, not because they should. Bittman calls this a question of “will and skill.” But there’s something about organic or nutri-farmed food that encourages us to that next level, more than knowing we “should” eat a more balanced meal.
  • Organic ingredients do matter if they offer less pollution in our food. Bittman suggests that the emphasis should be “a gradual and concerted movement toward making production and consumption simply ‘better,’” not necessarily organic. The issue should be in how the food is produced, not whether it’s organic. But pesticide exposure does affect people. We know this as a fact. Whether it’s by ingestion of an insecticide or exposure to a defoliant, the statistics now show that pesticide exposure affects the human body in growth and development.
  • No individual is the same. One heart patient may transform the way he eats in order to not have to take on a battery of pills, while another may lack the faith or the incentive to take on that “flexitarian” or vegan battle.
  • The secret isn’t in the diet you choose, but how you apply them, and the tools we’re given. The issue isn’t whether you eat a Mediterranean Diet or a Flexitarian Diet, any more than if you like Mexican food or Chinese. It’s in using common sense about what you put on your plate. But as Bittman points out, establishing regulations about how we produce our food will allow us to eat more sensibly and knowledgeably.
  • There’s no healthy nutrition without global food security. Just as transforming all farming to organic methods may be an unreasonable expectation, providing food security for one part of the world that relies on global commerce is impossible without providing it for the entire planet. Food security, including the expectation of food that isn’t contaminated by chemicals and doesn’t cause developmental problems, is a critical ingredient of healthy nutrition.

The truth is, I think my dad probably would have agreed with most of Bittman’s perspectives. He would have said that they made sense because they espoused moderation and common sense: the two hallmarks of sustainable living. And to that end, he would have agreed that organic food, while an excellent incentive to better eating in North America, is really secondary when it comes to eating sensibly.

But remembering those seemingly endless hours by his side in that Guatemalan hospital ward where his daughter was one of only two children not hospitalized for malnutrition, I know he would ask how food security could not possibly be counted as essential to good nutrition. The quality of soil our food is grown in he would say, counts as much as whether an impoverished family can afford to buy it. And that standard, whether applied here in the U.S., or in a small Central American country with a dependence on agriculture, affects us all.

Organic tomatoes: Rusty Clark

Child recovering from malnutrition: GSK


▼▼▼      5 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • Wayne Roberts

    i like the balance in this article, as well as the way of framing the dialogue around the needs of the most vulnerable.
    Bittman is right to oppose dogmatism on the part of organic champions. But he has to be on guard against dogmatism too, particularly around his insistence that nutrition is fundamental, and trumps all other considerations — including the need to reduce global warming emissions from industrial agriculture and long-distance food sourcing that goes together with industrial agriculture, almost like a horse and carriage.
    That human-centred focus can be very short-sighted, especially if we’re trying to maintain health in a planet suffering from global warming and trying to grow nutritious food in soils that have been depleted by industrial practices.
    One area that needs to be looked at much more — one that I focus on in my own book, The No Nonsense Guide to World Food — is the growing of crops according to local and sustainable criteria. Local and sustainable is easier for larger numbers of food producers to achieve than organic, and consequently lower in price than organic and easier to make a viable supplement to organic options.
    Bittman would perform an important service my making the existence of such options known.

    • J_N_Lee

      Hi Wayne –
      Thanks for your comment. I think what you have said is pretty close to what Bittman is saying, and I agree there’s value – essential value – in finding ways to expand sustainable production. It’s my question about where that leads us on the global level if pesticides and other contaminants aren’t considered a threat to food security. Bittman’s op-ed parallels much of what you’ve said and has great value. Your point about needing a redesign of how we have historically produced food since the early 1900s is bang on. My point is that oftentimes we look at food security as a question of access to food stuffs and volume, not to what the global implications are of our production methods are and the real numbers outcome. I don’t quite understand how sustainable can exist if pesticides and other issues are used that we can’t absolutely say aren’t going to affect people and the environment, and unfortunately we know they do, even if we don’t have solid quantifying numbers.

      Thanks again for these excellent points. It’s a discussion that is greatly needed.

      • Wayne Roberts

        Thank you for the reply, Jan. You might want to check the website of Local Food Plus in Canada, which was founded by my wife, Lori Stahlbrand about a decade ago. They tried to carve out sustainability criteria that did two things: banned the worst of the things that were common in industrial ag (ie followed European standards re many pesticides) while setting out positive criteria not touched on by organic (ie animal welfare standards, land left in wilderness, etc). Their aim was to provide opportunities for good and conscientious and stewards and farmers to gain some kind of premium that would encourage farmers of mid-scale to pop up around the continent, thereby making local and sustainable viable. A tough row to hoe, for sure, but I think they made a good start of it.

        • J_N_Lee

          Thanks Wayne. I will do so. I can see the value of a more moderate approach. One country has embarked on the road to total organic agriculture – and has a long road still to travel. So the discussion about options is certainly valuable.

          Thanks again for the input here!

  • Arthur Doucette

    Jan,

    FYI

    GMO crops do NOT compete with Organic.
    By and large almost ALL the Organic farming done in the US is for Organic PRODUCE, FRUIT and NUTS.
    There is only a very small amount of Organic crops grown in the US that compete with the big GMO crops.
    They are really two separate worlds.

    Source USDA Economic Reaseach Service
    Table 3–Certified organic and total U.S. acreage, selected crops and livestock
    Crop – Acres Organic – US Total – Percent Organic – Percent GMO
    Corn 234,470 – 91,921,000 Thus Organic = 0.3% and 90% GMO
    Soybeans 132,411 – 77,976,000 Thus Organic = 0.2% and 90% GMO
    Cotton 12,030 – 14,732,400 Thus Organic = 0.1% and 90% GMO

    Of course that applies to other big Ag crops that are not GMO at all

    Wheat 344,644 vs 54,409,000 or 0.6% Organic and 0% GMO

    In contrast produce is far more likely to be Organic, and benefit from being so:

    Vegetables–
    Tomatoes 9,271 – 367,510 2.5%
    Lettuce 34,967 – 302,500 11.6%
    Carrots 12,080 – 84,190 14.3%
    Tree nuts–
    All tree nuts 23,218 – 1,174,500 2.0%
    Fruits–
    Citrus 18,601 – 811,800 2.3%
    Apples 19,542 – 398,770 4.9%
    Grapes 38,664 – 973,638 4.0%
    All fruit 131,498 – 2,882,300 4.6%