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:
- Organic food is elitist, and only the oblivious upper middle-class can afford it
- Organic food is somehow threatening to poor people because it provides lower yields, and we need more food in order to feed more people
- The "overall impact [of buying organic] on society is debatable"
- We need genetically modified crops, pesticides, and fertilizers to feed the world
- The industrialized food process had led mankind to "live longer than at any other time in history"
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.
- The original study out of Stanford
- Several responses, with varying degrees of usefulness:
- Consumer Reports. Don't give up on organic food, our experts urge
- New York Times. Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce
- NPR. Why Organic Food May Not Be Healthier For You
- Chuck Benbrook at Washington State University. The Devil in the Details
- Mother Jones (Tom Philpott). 5 Ways the Stanford Study Sells Organics Short
- The Atlantic. Organic Food Isn't More Nutritious, but That Isn't the Point
- Washington Post. HEALTHBEAT: Is organic healthier? Study says not so much, but it’s key reason consumers buy