The organic vs. conventional debate is getting us nowhere.

News and commentary about environmental issues.
Aug. 5 2009 3:46 PM

Are Organic Veggies Better for You?

Maybe, or maybe not. Either way, it's a useless debate.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Last week the United Kingdom's Food Standards Agency published an extensive report on organic food that concluded with this bombshell: "There is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs." The finding—based on a review of 55 relevant studies conducted over the past 50 years—now threatens an organic food industry that has been growing at an annual rate of 20 percent for the past couple of decades and is now worth something like $23 billion in global sales. The overwhelming success of the organics market has a lot to do with the pervasive belief that eschewing synthetic pesticides and fertilizers makes food more nutritious. Now we know that belief may be unfounded.

Many health professionals took the news in stride. Connie Diekman, a nutritionist at Washington University in St. Louis and former head of the American Dietary Association, said "it is good to see that a systematic review of the literature supports what has long been believed … if [consumers] choose conventionally grown foods or organic foods they will be meeting their nutritional needs." Laura Telford, national director of the Canadian Organic Growers, said, "We don't dispute what they found," before highlighting some non-nutritional benefits of eating organic.

Others, of course, were dismayed. "I'm angry and perplexed," explained Peter Melchett, policy director of the U.K.-based Soil Association, "We genuinely expected the FSA to report the facts. … I think it's outrageous." In more measured tones, Charles Benbrook, chief scientist at the Organic Center, charged the FSA with "downplay[ing] positive findings in favor of organic food," using data from "very old studies" and omitting measures of "some important nutrients."

This is a debate that tends to the extremes. If the past is any indication, here's how it will eventually play out: Boosters of the study will highlight a dozen supporting conclusions reached over the past two decades and stress that the FSA report was the most comprehensive examination of organic heath claims ever undertaken; detractors will highlight a dozen contrasting conclusions reached over the past two decades and note that the FSA report failed to measure for antioxidants and pesticide residues. Both sides have a leg to stand on with these critiques. What's lost in all the mudslinging and nitpicking, however, is a point that cuts to the core of the debate: Any comparison between such general categories as "organic" and "conventional"—no matter which side comes out ahead—is of very limited value. One might even say it's useless.

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First, the demographic profile of organic consumers makes this debate one that's hardly worth having. There's no broad public health issue at stake here. Organic food costs 60 percent more than conventional and comprises a mere 2.5 percent of the food eaten in the United States. Advocates of organic agriculture often argue that there's no such thing as a "typical" consumer of organic food. It's true that organic consumers are rapidly diversifying, but the fact remains that consistent buyers of organic goods tend to be female, college-educated, and at least somewhat well-off. All these demographic factors happen to correlate with better access to health care and basic nutritional awareness. Why should we worry whether an already healthy, wealthy, and well-informed cohort absorbs minimally more nutrition from an organic apple? It's far more important that we get more fresh food—organic or not—to those wide swaths of the country that sociologists now call "food deserts."

Another factor undermining the FSA study is the fact that the terms "organic" and "conventional" encompass a wide spectrum of practices. It's so wide, in fact, that accurately comparing the categories is virtually impossible. For example, it's well-known that large, industrial farms overuse pesticides and fertilizers, but many conventional family farms practice integrated pest management, selectively employ advanced fertilizers to reduce runoff, spray very selectively, and establish grazing systems for livestock that rely on environmentally sound rotational schedules. Likewise, the environmental virtues of organic agriculture are conspicuously (and deservedly) touted, but the glowing reports rarely note that most organic food comes from large corporate operations, that some organic farmers rely heavily on natural pesticides that are toxic in high doses, that organic compost can contain more contaminants than conventional fertilizer, and that soil erosion can be as bad or worse on organic farms. There is no standard "organic" or "conventional" farm, so any broad comparison is little more than speculative.

That's part of the reason why these organic vs. conventional studies have yielded such maddeningly mixed results—which, in turn, allow consumers to cherry-pick whatever data support their preconceived notions. Proponents of organic agriculture can cite, if they want, a 2007 report from Newcastle University showing that organic produce has 40 percent more antioxidants than conventional produce. Whereas the naysayers might refer to a 2000 study that found no effect on the levels of healthful phenols in organic strawberries and blueberries. Or perhaps they'd choose a report that found higher rates of naturally occurring toxins in organic foods on account of their being grown without the benefit of synthetic fungicides. All are sound science, but what do they tell the health-conscious consumer who's trying to decide whether to go organic?

To choose one study and declare a position on the debate, as so many advocates do, is not only intellectually dishonest; it ignores the underlying complexity of agriculture itself—a complexity that includes variables that transcend the organic/conventional divide, including plant genetics, cultivars, soil type, farmer skill, harvest methods, timing of harvest, place, and climate. To pick one example, the use of seeds with high yields (by both organic and conventional farmers) may have much more to do with the decline in the nutritional content of produce since World War II than any other factor in agricultural production.

Perhaps most important, our obsession with proving one system better than the other obscures a more critical public health issue. As a nation, we eat far too much meat (273 pounds per year each on average, as of 1999) and not nearly enough fruits and vegetables. According to B.J. Friedman, a nutritionist at Texas State University-San Marcos, only one-quarter of Americans eat the recommended five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day. "We should be concentrating on encouraging people to eat more fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables," she says. "I'm all for eating organically and locally to protect our environment, but this way of eating is economically and geographically out of reach for most Americans." Her point is getting lost in the debate over last week's FSA report. Let's first focus on what we eat before we start fighting over the details of how, exactly, it's grown.

James E. McWilliams is the author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly and a professor of history at Texas State University.

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