A recent study by Stanford researchers raised controversy and debate about the comparative health benefits of organic versus conventionally grown food. Bottom line, according to researchers: organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs are comparable in their nutrient content.
Other studies have come to different conclusions. For example, a 2010 study by scientists at Washington State University compared (among other things) strawberries, and found that the organically grown fruit contained more vitamin C and antioxidants than their conventionally grown counterpart. Nonetheless, industrial agriculturalists pounced on the Stanford findings to suggest that we don’t need to eat (or pay more for) organic foods. Worth noting, the Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute, whose scientists published this meta-study, receives significant financial support from agribusiness and chemical companies, including Cargill and Monsanto. Also worth noting, not all organic farms are the same. The US Department of Agriculture regulations do not distinguish between a small-scale, agroecological farm and an industrial-scale organic farm. Those large “organic” farming operations might not use GMO seeds or pesticides, but they hardly reach the holistic principles of organic agriculture. Namely, to be certified organic, companies are not required to respect farmworker rights. Nor are they required to value the land itself more than the profit it might bring. Conversely, agriculture based on organic principles (vs. the letter of the law) is built around a mutual, respectful relationship with land. It seeks to use less energy. In the corporate “organic” model, carrots produced in Northern Mexico without agrochemicals are shipped thousands of miles away to Canada to be included into “organic” TV dinners. However, in small-scale organic agriculture, farmers participate in the local market, and consumers know and can ask farmers questions directly. We have many other good reasons to stick with the organic diet. Here are five of them. First, organic agriculture feeds the earth, not just the consumer. While not all organic farms are the same, by and large they replace key elements to the soil naturally. Industrial farming, on the other hand, saps nutrients from the soil, thus requiring increasing amounts of fertilizers or other additives to maintain yield year after year. And year after year, the soil erodes. This “rinse and repeat” cycle leaves us with infertile soil, heaps of chemicals and mounting pollution. Second, do we really want hormones with our calcium? Or antibiotics in our chicken thighs? As Food Inc. so graphically showed us, 80 percent of antibiotics used in the US today are used by the meat and poultry industries to accelerate animal growth and avoid diseases in crowded environments. Organic agriculture eschews such additives in favor of alternative conditions in raising animals. Third, since we are not pests (at least genetically), why do we need to ingest pesticides? Pesticides used in industrial agriculture may fall below the EPA standard, but those standards are also set by corporate lobbyists on behalf of big agribusiness. Concerns about pesticides range from increased allergies and illnesses, to the rise of “super bugs.” In fact, the same Stanford study that raised such a ruckus about nutritional values also concluded that, “Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.” Fourth, farmers and their crops are connected to the planet. Runoff from Iowa’s pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides flows down the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico. There, they produce algae blooms, which take oxygen out of the water. Such activity results in aptly named “dead zones” where fish and other aquatic life cannot survive. Fifth, organic agriculture is healthier for the farmer. Farmworkers engaged in industrial fields, spraying chemicals or harvesting pesticide-laced vegetables suffer certain cancers and other diseases at far higher levels than average. Whether or not consumers ingest these pesticides at levels high enough to cause harm, the fact that workers face serious maladies to produce our food raises alarm. Many other reasons for organic farming exist, to be sure. Perhaps the best reason of all is summed up in the adage “you are what you eat” — which seems downright scary when considering the bonus ingredients in industrially produced non-organic food. Extend that adage to our planet — that the earth is what we feed it — and we can add a feeling of outrage to our nausea. By consuming organic — and especially agroecologically grown — foods, we support healthy farmers, healthy consumers and a healthier planet.