Organic: I Don’t Buy It. Should You?
An ‘Organic’ label is pretty much useless in helping me make food choices, though. ‘Organic’ tells us nothing about a long list of issues that are becoming increasingly important to those of us wanting to make smart food choices. Yes, Organic might tell us that certain types of pesticides haven’t been used, but it tells us nothing about sustainability, nutritional content or the social impact of our food choices. The ‘Organic’ label has become a food industry marketing gimmick, and that really frustrates me. Consumers’ desire to feel like they are doing the right thing, but not really wanting to understand what that actually means, has resulted in a food-marketers’ jackpot. I’ve seen ‘Organic’ produce command a 100% premium relative to non-organic produce at supermarkets here in New York.
What Does Organic Mean?
Much has been written amongst foodie circles recently about ‘Organic’. It’s become a hot topic because the USDA is currently looking at whether or not hydroponic food, grown without soil, should be certifiable as Organic.
For those wanting to dive into the details the USDA website contains a ton of information about what their Organic certification means, but from a consumers’ perspective the important parts are:
- When packaged products indicate they are “made with organic ….”, this means they contain at least 70% organically produced ingredients. Yep, it’s not 100%.
- At the core of organic farming is the principal of soil maintenance via crop rotation and composting. Rotating crops provides the soil with an opportunity to self-replenish its nutrients. The alternative is industrial monoculture farming (which represents >90% of US farm production), where often the same crops are planted year after year. Without crop rotation, the same plants extract the same nutrients from the soil year after year, and therefore replenishment has to come in the form of synthetic fertilizers. Where do synthetic fertilizers come from? The Oil & Gas industry.
- No prohibited substances have been applied for at least 3 years. Prohibited substances include most (but not all) synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
What Organic Does NOT mean
Although ‘Organic’ tells us something about the use of pesticides and fertilizers, there are many other factors important to our food choices which it tells us absolutely nothing about. This was a point well made by the Association for Vertical Farming and Columbia University in a 2016 report which contained the following summary of various certification schemes and what they do/don’t cover.
Sure, like most of us I would like to eat food that’s free from pesticides and chemicals — but there are plenty of other issues that are equally (if not more) important to me. What about the sustainability of my food source? The nutritional content? The social impact? ‘Organic’ is silent on all of these topics. The remainder of this article provides examples of where choosing ‘Organic’ is the inferior choice.
I spoke to a sprout farmer recently at Union Square who is not organic because he treats his produce with chlorine before sprouting it. Why? Because there is an e. coli risk on raw sprouts. He could sell you ‘Organic’ sprouts if that’s what you really wanted, but he’s doing you a favor by not.
Less than 5% of the produce sold at NYC’s Union Square market is in fact certified organic. Many of the farmers I’ve spoken to there have indicated that getting the organic certification would mean inferior product quality — for example, more blotches and bumps on their apples — and consumers are generally unwilling to buy ‘ugly’ produce. If you say you want organic, but then refuse to buy his ugly apples, you’re contradicting yourself.
Should You Be Eating Organic?
Organic food buyers come in many shapes and forms. Some people buy Organic for health reasons, others for environmental reasons. Others simply want to feel like they’re doing the right thing without dedicating any time or effort to figuring out what it really means.
The health conscious will care about the nutritional content of their food. Nutrients are the least stable part of our food. The moment we harvest a fruit or vegetable it starts to decompose and lose its nutritional value. Of course, cold storage and treating food with ethylene helps slow this process, but research has shown that produce stored in a refrigerated environment for just one week loses between 15% (green peas) and 77% (green beans) of its Vitamin C content. Much of the other nutritional content is similarly compromised. This loss of nutritional content is a problem once you start to appreciate the seasonality of food. Particularly during the winter, much of the ‘fresh’ produce we eat here in the North East is shipped in from California or Mexico. A tomato harvested today in California will spend at least 4–5 days in the back of a truck on its way to New York. It will then spend perhaps 2–3 days on the supermarket shelf before you buy it. The bestcase scenario is that ‘fresh’ produce from a supermarket is a week old during winter but in some cases its been in storage for up to a year.
Even if we put the transport and nutritional degradation aside, there is still plenty of evidence to suggest that Organic food contains no more minerals or nutrients than non-organic food, as summarized in this 2012 study.
So if health and nutrition are important to us should we be buying an Organic apple from Whole Foods that’s been imported from New Zealand (yes, it happens), or a fresh non-Organic apple from NY state with the bulk of its nutritional value still intact?
It would seem hard to dispute that the avoidance of pesticides and chemicals is a positive, but the environmental impact of our food production does not end here. Let’s consider a soil-based organic farm in California and a local vertical hydroponic farm, as the potential alternatives for supply of food during winter here in New York.
- Both farms will likely be pesticide free. The ‘Organic’ label tells us nothing.
- One farm (the soil based) can require up to 10x more land to produce my food. That’s land that had to be cleared and would have otherwise had natural vegetation. Does buying organic mean I am supporting land clearing?
- One supply of lettuce involves over 3,000 miles of trucking. I might be able to ride my bicycle over to pick up the other one. Does buying organic mean I am supporting fossil fuel consumption?
It’s not clear to me whether buying Organic is actually better or worse for the environment on a net basis, but I suspect the answer probably changes based on the time of the year, local availability, and the type of produce in question.
The True Believers
The True Believers are prime victims for ‘Organic’ propaganda. The fact that ‘Organic’ is being used as a marketing tool on products such as the canned tomato and pumpkin below show the extent to which naive consumers are being exploited.
Canning exposes fruits and vegetables to high temperatures, which degrade nutrients and can cause leaching into the canning medium. Research has shown that Vitamin C decreased by 10–90% during the canning of various vegetables. Don’t even get me started about the environmental impact of the can, packaging, processing, storage, distribution or the fact that it was shipped to NY all the way from Oregon.
All else being equal, I buy Organic when I can. The problem is that all else is rarely equal, and an 'Organic' label tells me only about 10-15% of what I want to know in order to make a well informed food decision. When and if the USDA comes out with a label that tells me which foods are environmentally sustainable, are healthy, nutritionally dense and have been ethically produced then sure — I’ll be happy to pay a premium for them. For the time being, however, I’ll continue to ignore ‘Organic’ labels and will continue to keep the bigger picture in mind. Organic isn't always better.