Organic, schmorganic?

The recent kerfuffle over the Stanford organics study has dominated lots of the blogs and media outlets that I follow, but I haven't yet commented on it in writing (see a partial list, with links, below). But now, this new piece, "The Organic Fable," by Roger Cohen in the New York Times has put me over the edge. How can there be so much bad writing on this topic in the country's leading newspaper? How can an esteemed journalist write such poorly-argued drivel?

The Stanford study began with the somewhat questionable goal [perhaps a topic for another post] of determining whether organic food was more nutritious than non-organic food. The key findings of the meta-analysis the Stanford doctors conducted were that "the published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods," and that, with regard to chemicals, eating organic food "may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria."

On the whole, these results are not damning at all, given that organic proponents rarely tout the nutritional benefits as one of the primary reasons to go organic. Instead, they point to the lower exposure to pesticides and antibiotics, the decreased development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the protection of farmworker health, less toxic run-off into waterways and thus fewer hormone disruptors in our marine ecosystems, the decreased reliance on petroleum resources, the reduced production of greenhouse gases, humane(r) treatment of animals, and more.

But Roger Cohen takes the Stanford findings and says, as though it's the last word on the matter: "Organic, shmorganic." (Really. That's an actual quote.)  Unfortunately, his "argument" goes no further. As far as I can tell, the only claims he makes, none of which follow from the Stanford study at all, are these:
  1. Organic food is elitist, and only the oblivious upper middle-class can afford it
  2. Organic food is somehow threatening to poor people because it provides lower yields, and we need more food in order to feed more people
  3. The "overall impact [of buying organic] on society is debatable"
  4. We need genetically modified crops, pesticides, and fertilizers to feed the world
  5. The industrialized food process had led mankind to "live longer than at any other time in history"
The thing is, though, that none of these claims are founded (and Cohen doesn't even try to offer evidence for them). Some evidence to the contrary, for each of his claims, in turn:

1. Organic food is elitist, and only the oblivious upper middle-class can afford it 

For one, although producing organic food is more labor-intensive, and thus can increase costs, in the U.S., the high cost of organic food is in part due to massive agricultural subsidies for conventional agriculture under the Farm Bill. With its roots in the agricultural depression of the 1920s and 1930s, today's agricultural policies benefit large farms producing commodity crops like genetically-modified soy, corn, and wheat. These crops, rather than being primarily used to feed people directly, are instead used throughout the food industries to produce unhealthy processed food or to feed livestock. Organic, small-scale farmers who grow non-commodity crops like fruits and vegetables, get little of the federal subsidies, leaving their products more expensive. So, this is less an issue of elitism, than of political wrongdoing. (Read more)

Further, there are many movements in the U.S. to help get healthy, organic food into the hands of people with lower incomes than the typical Whole Foods shopper. There's the large urban agriculture movement with amazing programs like Growing Power in Milwaukee, there's the USDA's move to accept food stamps at farmers' markets, and many other community-driven solutions.

Instead of simply calling organic food expensive and elitist, Roger, why not try to find ways to reduce its cost and make it more accessible, either through political or community change?

 2. Organic food is somehow threatening to poor people because it provides lower yields, and we need more food in order to feed more people

As has been shown time and time again, world hunger is a problem of poverty, distribution, and power. Not a problem of too little food produced in the world. (See these facts from the World Hunger Education Service). The Food and Agriculture Organization shows that world agriculture produces enough food to  provide everyone in the world with at least 2,720 kilocalories (kcal) per person per day.

Hunger is also exacerbated in some areas by climatic conditions like drought and flooding, which are becoming increasingly common with climate change. The production of petroleum-based chemical inputs that conventional agriculture relies on leads to higher rates of greenhouse gases and thus, further contributes to climate change.

What's more, the introduction of industrialized agriculture into developing nations has led to what's known as the "debt trap," in which farmers grow increasingly dependent on inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, but are unable to make enough money to pay for these expensive chemicals. When the market for their product is low, they can't sell enough of it to cover their costs, and because they are often growing commodity crops like corn and wheat that are intended for animal feed, they are also left with nothing to eat. This problem was behind the tragic case of the Indian farmer suicides in the 1990s.

What is actually threatening to poor people is this debt trap and the loss of autonomy that comes from industrialized agriculture. What developing nations need is not high-yielding export crops, but food security--the ability to grow fresh food for their own communities, using sustainable agricultural practices.

If Cohen is so concerned about the underclass, he should also take into account the havoc that industrial agriculture and its attendant chemicals wreaks on the health of farmworkers. From the National Center for Farmworker Health: "Pesticide exposure is the cause of a variety of occupational illnesses, including eye injuries, cancer, respiratory illnesses, and dermatitis. Between 1982 and 1993, California averaged 1500 reports of pesticide exposure each year. 41% of these exposures occurred in agricultural workers. EPA estimates between 10,000 and 20,000 incidents of pesticide illness per year from farm work...based on severe underreporting of illnesses."

3. The "overall impact [of buying organic] on society is debatable"

Impact on society is a tough thing to quantify, but there are so many benefits to organics, many of which Cohen himself points out in the article. Somehow, although he admits the organic movement has all kinds of benefits--supporting high-quality, small-scale local farming; being better for the environment because of reduced chemical contamination; being strictly regulated to "promote ecological balance"--he just dismisses all of this without engaging with these impacts at all! He just follows up this list by writing, "Still, the organic ideology is an elitist, pseudoscientific indulgence shot through with hype." That doesn't seem like much of a logical conclusion to me.

4. We need genetically modified crops, pesticides, and fertilizers to feed the world 

Many recent studies have undermined this claim, showing that organic agriculture (or, at the very least, a mix of conventional and organic) can produce comparable yields. A 2008 United Nations  study (PDF) of farming in 24 African countries found that organic or nearly-organic practices increased yield by more than 100 percent. Another U.N. study (PDF), from 2010, showed that not only could sustainable agriculture feed the world, but that it must do so; that changes in agricultural practices were needed to sustain a growing population. See a great compilation of even more studies that reach basically the same conclusions, from this excellent Barry Estabrook piece in the Atlantic.

5. The industrialized food process has led mankind to "live longer than at any other time in history" 

While Cohen may be right that the twentieth century has seen both (1) a general decrease in morbidity and mortality, and (2) the rise of industrialized food, the causal link between the two is not at all clear. In fact, research from the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that today's children may be the first generation to have a decreased life expectancy relative to their parents. Why might this be, you ask? Because of higher rates of obesity due to...[wait for it]...the industrial food system! The NEJM article links obesity to "heart attack, stroke, kidney failures, amputations, blindness, and ultimately death at younger ages." And obesity in America today can be linked directly back to a higher intake of calories because of cheaper food, to fast food, to processed food made from cheap corn, and to other central elements of the industrialized food system.

Although you can make crap food that is also organic, and although, of course, lots of non-organic food (the fruit and vegetable and whole grain kind) is healthy, it's precisely this kind of cheap, highly-processed, empty-calorie food that the larger organic movement fights against.

Beyond all this, Cohen's whole piece is shot through with this snarky, whiny, uncharitable tone that takes jabs at the "pampered parts of the planet" and makes fun of those who shop at Whole Foods, without trying to portray organic-food-buyers fairly or to understand the range of folks who care deeply about organic food, myself included.

It seems to me that the "fable" here is not the value of the organic food movement, but Cohen's belief that he has any sound arguments against it.

Some Links: 
***Special thanks to my husband and most-dedicated blog reader, JH, for encouraging me to write this piece by sending me the Cohen article with the email subject, "Paging D&O"


  1. To counteract the myth that industrial agriculture and only industrial agriculture will support a burgeoning world, the writings and talks of Vandana Shiva (among many others) are poignant, broadly relevant insights to how industrial agriculture is destructive for social justice, environmental justice, and healthy living (nutritionally, mentally, etc.), not just in India or places in 'development,' but in our home lands, too. There are many voices like hers, too, speaking out against this over-ripe modernist agricultural idealism, and the likes of Cohen haven't bothered to listen.

    Here's a more visceral compatriot of yours:

    -fellow CHEer

    1. Thanks for your comment, Chelsea! (and hooray for CHE) Yes, I was lucky enough to see Shiva when she was here on campus 2.5 years ago, and continue to find her inspiring. I think that's what's so frustrating about Cohen's piece--that he simply chooses to ignore all the articulate, cogent, persuasive voices out there talking about the need for a different form of agriculture. Why isn't he listening?

  2. Hi Anna,

    Thanks for this well argued and very well-documented post. This kerfuffle has been fascinating to watch unfold this week, and I've thought, "gee a historian of food and agriculture could really do a lot to clear the air here..."

    One thing that I've felt has been missing, as always, is a broader view on the context from which the concept of "organic," emerged in the mid-twentieth century. Whether or not we choose to remember it, the original meaning of organic had to with the amount of organic matter used to fertilize soils rather than synthetic fertilizers. Organic in this sense literally meant biological matter – hence the term "bio" which is still common in much of Europe.

    Early advocates of organic agriculture claimed that food produced using synthetic fertilizers were nutritionally inferior, and would produce degenerative diseases (particularly the bogeyman of the "western diet," cancer). Lacking evidence – and access to scientific circles which could research such questions – organic advocates went about making their own. In both backyard experiments and in evidence from "primitive" groups such as the Hunzakut of northern India, enthusiasts produced evidence of what they intuitively believed – that organic food was healthier than non-organic food.

    The earliest tests of organic food were done starting in 1947 at the what was called the Soil and Health Foundation (now called the Rodale Institute). These tests were conducted on mice and meant to prove whether or not mice fed an organic diet had a reduced risk of cancer. The tests, of course, confirmed what enthusiasts intuitively believed, that organic food was healthier. (An important aside is that these tests were conducted by Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, an acolyte of bio-dynamic founder Rudolph Steiner).

    With the widespread adoption of synthetic pesticides after 1945, organic enthusiasts increasingly sought evidence to show that such pesticides reduced the amount nutrients in foods. Pesticides, like artificial fertilizers, stripped both soils and foods of nutrients in the minds of many organic enthusiasts of the 1950s and 1960s. Many buyers of vitamins and food supplements did so in order to restore to their bodies what pesticides stripped away from their foods. The proof to back up this claim was in firsthand experience, rather than laboratory evidence.

  3. PART II

    As organic agriculture increasingly became associated with environmental values in the 1970s and 1980s, enthusiasts found broader arguments to make. The effects of pesticides and fertilizers were not just evidenced in the individual body but in the broader landscape itself. Whether in the bodies of agricultural workers or the dead zones at the mouths of rivers, many felt that organic methods could improve health at any number of scales.

    Again, evidence for such a claim was often firsthand. Organic gardeners couldn't prove that pesticides improved the number of birds in their gardens, but they saw it for themselves and treated it as evidence. Before organic was a matter of federal policy (and billions of dollars) enthusiasts didn't need a group of scientists to prove what they understood.

    As an aside, we also need to consider that one reason organic has grown as not just a segment of the agricultural economy but also as cultural category is its seemingly-endless flexibility. While we often think we have standards to define what organic is and what it not, the values heaped onto it have changed over time. At various times, organic enthusiasts have claimed that organic could restore topsoils, reduce exposure to pesticides, save small farms, sequester greenhouse gases, and indeed, improve the health of both individuals and populations. That flexibility has leant itself to an endless amount permutations in the consumer marketplace. Organic, like many other categories, becomes whatever we want it to be.

    Taking off my historian hat, I think what we're seeing (in the kerfuffle more than the study itself) is the fact that organic can no longer contain all various meanings that have been imported into it. When matters of compost become matters of class warfare, I think we've changed the subject entirely.

    Again, thanks for the post...



    1. Andrew!

      I couldn't have imagined a better historian of food and agriculture for the job! This is your forum, exactly, and I'm so glad you put on your historian hat and took up the challenge. I am really interested in this change you document, and want to know more about this idea that "Before organic was a matter of federal policy (and billions of dollars) enthusiasts didn't need a group of scientists to prove what they understood." Do you think that enthusiasts now *do* need that group? Do you think that the emphasis on scientific expertise has changed these cultural meanings of organic food? Or, are you saying that many consumers don't care one way or another whether scientists back up the claims of organic's superiority, that they'll keep buying it as long as it makes them feel good?

      There was an interesting piece on NPR about this very topic, and it referenced the work of Renee Hughner, who has apparently studied the values that consumers bring to their purchase of organic food. She argues that many consumers, while claiming they buy organic because they care about nutrition or the environment, actually buy it because they want to show explicit support for values like altruism, benevolence, and spirituality.

      In a larger way, I'd also be interested in talking with you more about what it is this history of organic food/agriculture might be able to tell us about this shift from compost to class warfare. What can we learn from it, specifically, about things like this kerfuffle (word of the day) and about other current political/social disagreements about food values?

      So glad to be conversing with you.

  4. Certain GMO foods - wheat in the U.S. (and maybe elsewhere) and I have been told rice in China appear to be significantly connected to food intolerances. We have direct experience with this in our family, which is what raised my awareness of this issue. It is also true that the highly processed "stuff" that fills most of the grocery store aisles includes lots of substances/ fillers made from the heavily subsidized crops. For example, High Fructose Corn Syrup.

    1. Hi Claire, That's very interesting! Do you have any references for or studies about the link between GMOs and food intolerances? I'd be interested to read more. Thanks!

  5. Hi Anna!
    Nice post. I have been particularly annoyed by articles that have used the word "healthy" instead of nutritious in reporting that organic food isn't healthier when, of course, reduced exposure to pesticides or antibiotics would contribute to one's health even if not nutritional intake. One question re your first point - how do subsidies for commodity crops, which are mostly not fruits and veggies, explain the sometimes large discrepancies between conventional and organic fruits and vegetables? I am always frustrated by the high costs of organic produce. If yields are, or can be, equivalent, why are the costs so much higher? Is it simply that people are willing to pay more, or is it higher labor requirements for organic production? And if its about the labor, and labor is costly, can organic production have the same net output as conventional?

    1. Hmm, not sure why my identity was posted as unknown. Its Rachel, writing and missing you from Hawaii!

    2. Hi Rachel!

      Well, I do think that organic production simply costs more than conventional. It takes more time and labor to weed by hand than to use herbicides. Compost/manure is heavier and thus more expensive to transport than chemical fertilizers. And even with the rise of large-scale organic farming, organic farms still tend to be smaller, meaning fewer economies of scale. I guess organic certification is also somewhat expensive. And, I think, for now, there's greater demand than supply, so those market forces also keep costs up.

      I'm about to re-post a conversation I had with a friend on facebook about the output of organic vs. conventional. But you're right, most of the studies that have suggested organic produce can have the same net output as conventional have focused more on the question of land than on the question of labor. So that's one worth thinking more about...

      (Missing you, too! Can't wait to have you back, though I hope that Hawaii is lovely.)

  6. Jordan Boyd-Graber YingSeptember 8, 2012 at 4:11 PM

    [a comment string reposted from Facebook]
    Point 2: Organic food is somehow threatening to poor people because it provides lower yields, and we need more food in order to feed more people

    (All that follows assumes consumption, production, and land use patterns are ceteris paribus--I find it unlikely that that would change significantly.)

    This has always been problematic for me. If farmers or consumers accepted organic farming as a categorical imperative, this would lead to a much larger area of land under cultivation, which would in turn result in massive deforestation, the easiest way to bring additional land into production.

    You obliquely cite the Seufert et al Nature study, but they do not claim an equivalence for organic and conventional methods. For staples (the largest source of calories in a diet), they find the largest discrepancy between yields. So while fruits and legumes can be organically farmed without a substantial sacrifice to yields, the majority of yields would decline substantially.

    1. Hi Jordan! You're absolutely right that accepting organic farming as imperative while continuing our current grain-dominated diet may well lead to a decrease in yield, or the need for more farmland under production. And I by no means intended to perpetuate this black-and-white distinction between “industrial” and “organic” food, but Cohen's pure celebration of the former category and pure dismissal of the latter may have swayed me towards using the distinction myself. I mostly agree with one of the Nature study authors: “Instead of asking if food is organically grown, maybe we should be asking if it's sustainably grown.” Sustainable agriculture may well embrace some middle ground, but this middle ground does not necessitate the unfettered celebration of GMOs, pesticides, and fertilizers for all crops.

      Given that organic production makes up such a tiny fraction of food production in the U.S., we're still very much erring on the industrial side of this hoped-for middle ground.

      Finally, I do think it's worth thinking about how consumption and production patterns might shift away from staple crops and toward more regionally-appropriate and diverse crops that can be efficiently farmed organically and on the small-scale. One of my favorite bloggers, Sharon Astyk, takes up that case in this piece .

  7. Nice work! I was disappointed to see that Cohen ignores any issues related to animal welfare and organic meat. Actually, I'm having some trouble finding out how well organic meat standards indicate genuinely humane(r) practices. Any suggestions?

    1. [another comment string reposted from Facebook:]

      Hayley, Here's what I could find on livestock living conditions in the organic standards Basically, some access to the outdoors, fresh air, and direct sunlight; daily grazing throughout the grazing season; preventive healthcare; and of course no antibiotics. So, organic meat standards do some good work, but certainly don't necessitate humane practices. But, humane(r), yes.

  8. Hi Anna! I thoroughly enjoyed your response to Cohen's piece. I wish I had more time to follow the "kerfluffle" (ha!) in the media and blogosphere over the Stanford study, but we're doing the bulk of our cool-season planting right now so I'm unfortunately too wiped and brain-dead at the end of the day to do so. I did read a brief article about the Stanford organics study last week but haven't been too flustered about it. Frankly, their findings didn't surprise me. Based on what I've read in the scientific literature from the past several decades, factors other than what types of fertilizers and pesticides (organic versus conventional) are used on crops have a much greater impact on their nutrient content--the breed/variety of plant used, soil mineral content, time of harvest, time in storage, amount of water applied, etc. In the case of animal products, the composition of the ration, rather than whether the ration itself is conventional or organic, has a much greater influence on nutrient content. I'm tempted to go into more detail on all this, but any discussion that borders too close to the subject of my dissertation still sends me into cold shivers.

    1. Hi Marty! Ha! I love your last sentence. [My dissertation isn't yet giving me cold shivers, but I can imagine...] But yes, my knowledge of how plants actually develop nutrients coincides much more closely with your comments than with this general idea that synthetic/natural chemicals determine nutrient level. What's going in the ground for the cool-season?! I'd love to see some photos of the farm if you ever get the chance to take some and share them. Your life example still offers me all kinds of inspiration on a regular basis.

  9. Anna,

    Finally got around to reading this, and I am so much the smarter and wiser for it! What an articulate rebuttal this is. I am so proud of you for taking this on, and for applying your historian's chops to help all of us understand the debate. Will be sharing this post with my friends.


  10. Thanks, my friend! It means a lot to me to get your positive feedback...


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