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Questioning the Organic Movement

Recently, while walking in midtown Manhattan, I passed by a small restaurant with sidewalk tables and a sign that read "Don't panic, we're organic!".  Curious, I wandered over and looked at the menu posted on the window.  Even for New York City, the prices made my head spin. Yet the place was packed.  Admit it, you prefer organic. You may not always buy it, but given a choice and all other things being equal, you will opt for organic every time.  This is because the advantages of organic are indisputable and overwhelming, right? It is healthier, better for the environment, tastes better, and is simply safer.  So the fact that it is far more expensive is something we live with, is a fair trade considering all we get in return for that organic label.  But is that really true?  In this tough economy, it is worth questioning this established "fact" that has transformed not only the food products companies produce and the way restaurants market themselves, but our way of thinking, eating and spending.   

It might seem like it is relatively new, but organic farming, surprisingly, has been around for about a hundred years. But it is only in the last few decades that it has become part of our daily lives. Like many movements, the shift toward organic, started with good intentions. As organic sections started to grow in grocery stores and books and articles began to appear explaining the often serious issues with conventional farming methods and how organic farming avoids those issues, our awareness and involvement in the food market increased. No longer just for health nuts, organic became the choice of many, and started to appear on labels and in restaurants around the country. With so many selling points and so much attention in the media, just about everyone came to understand the issues, the difference organic offers, and the value in going organic. Coupled with our growing public concern about the dangers of the western diet in terms of obesity and with the environmental movement, organic products were positioned well to explode on the market. And they did.

Questioning the value of organic food.

The rise of organic food is great, right? Well, maybe, but there is the matter of the price. No matter how compelling the argument, it is hard to overlook the fact that organic foods are often far more expensive than their non-organic counterparts. One would think that, as organic becomes more and more mainstream and in demand, supply would adapt to meet the need and prices would come down. Sadly this is not so. Rather, one could argue that organic has become a label to justify increased price. But that's ok, isn't it, if we are getting a much better product? But therein the problem lies. Are we really doing something good for our health and for the environment, or have we merely empowered food producers and restaurants to dip deeper into our pockets?

We need to have a look at the truth behind the hype to really answer the question of what should be our views on organic food. In recent years we have begun to question the virtue of the organic label. Much to the dismay of those who have altered their lives and their budgets and embraced the organic food movement wholeheartedly, the fact is that there is more to some of those accepted facts. The undisputed, universal value of organic products is now in dispute. Let's look at just a few to see the nature of the conundrum:

Fact or myth: Organic food is regulated and the label organic guarantees certain standards.

Not entirely. For example, you may think that organic food means no pesticide, no growth hormones, no antibiotics, right? Though it probably means much less of those things, there is no guarantee that there are zero chemicals or impurities. In the US, the 100% organic label means none of those components were intentionally used in the farming process, but it doesn't mean that the water used was free from contaminants or chemicals, or that the ground didn't contain impurities, or even that GMO crops may have infiltrated the organic farm.

Also, the inspection process for certification is very often superficial, not standardized and only applies to larger operations. Small farms producing less than $5,000 worth of goods are exempt from inspection requirements. Additionally, for processed food products, that label may mean very little since only 95% of the ingredients are required to be organic. That means that 5% of the product can be anything at all.

There can be no certainty with foreign imports. Although such foods are supposed to adhere to US organic standards, certifiers rarely make overseas visits and instead contract with third parties over whom they have little or no control and supervision is nearly impossible. There have been instances too in which paperwork has been doctored in order to pass conventional food as organic when exported to the US.

Fact or myth: Organic food is better for you:

This one is a hot topic, and a subject of much controversy. Though there have been some studies that showed particular organically grown produce may have more nutrients than their ordinary counterparts, there have been studies that demonstrated little or no material difference. Often with produce, the food has its highest nutritional value when first harvested. The longer it sits, the fewer the vitamins (not to mention the fact that old produce is never as tasty as freshly harvested). But often people will purchase the organic option, even though it may be older, maybe having traveled long from a far away farm. The fresh option is almost certain to be better for you, organic or not. Yet since the organic label is the deciding factor for many, conventionally grown and fresher (therefore more nutritious) counterparts may be dismissed. In such cases, that organic label has actually translated to purchasing a less healthy option.

Though it may be true that organic farming doesn't use the pesticides found in other farming methods, again, there haven't been any conclusive studies that point to a health benefit from organic vs. inorganic regarding pesticide. Though its never a bad idea to avoid ingesting unnecessary chemicals, herbicides and pesticides in farming are regulated and not considered to be dangerous to humans and the majority is washed away prior to eating the food. So though it isn't a bad precaution, is it really such a huge difference and does it have any proven health benefit? Though there are strong feelings about this subject and many have developed a real fear of the chemicals used in conventional farming, there really is no study, no concrete, indisputable scientific evidence to point to a health advantage. Further, the argument that organic foods are better because they contain no pesticides can lead to some dangerous behavior, such as the tendency to skip thoroughly washing fruits and vegetables. Regardless of farming techniques, bacteria such as e.coli or salmonella can exist, and often does, on all produce. Often though, people see the organic label and toss vegetables straight into a salad, or bite right in to a piece of fruit, possibly ingesting some serious germs that would have been scrubbed away had they purchased non-organic food.

Fact or myth: Organic food is better for the environment:

It's true that because it doesn't use synthetic chemicals and pesticides, organic farming will not contaminate the earth or water with such chemicals. However, there are some very surprising downsides to organic farming which have a troubling impact on the environment and which conventional farming avoids. Because it is less productive, organic farming requires much more land to produce the same amount of food. On a large scale, if the whole world went organic, this would mean the need to cut down significantly more trees to clear more land, thus reducing habitat for wildlife, and altering ecosystems in a manner that would have dramatic detrimental environmental consequences. Also, imagine the impact that a switch to organic could have on countries struggling to keep the population fed. 

Further, the idea that there are no pesticides used in organic farming simply isn't true. Many organic farmers use "natural" pesticides, some of which are no less harmful, and in some cases more so, than synthetic pesticides. Just because something occurs naturally, and is not manufactured or created by man, doesn't mean it is necessarily safe - many deadly poisons and toxins occur in nature with no help from mankind.

As the demand for organic foods rise, so do imports from very distant countries offering organic options to meet the new demands of this Western trend. That means burning more and more fossil fuels (enemy number one in terms of environmental impact) to transport these items. Therefore, as we opt for imported organic food over conventionally grown but local food, we are actually harming the environment.

Fact or myth: Organic food tastes better.

Does it? There have been many studies and books written about how our expectations or extraneous perceptions impact our sense of taste. For example, there have been several blind taste tests in which people were asked to sample a food or a drink and, when told the price of the items, were more likely to react positively to the more expensive samples, claiming they tasted better, even when the product was identical to the supposed lower priced food or drink they sampled. So when you eat organic food, is it really so much tastier or is it just that your expectation, and the fact you paid much more, is influencing your judgment. Considering that there are almost no taste tests that prove that organic tastes better, though many have been conducted, it is important to question this notion if it is the main reason for choosing organic and very likely paying much more.

So have we been fooled by the organic label?

With all this in mind, and considering those sky-high prices, maybe the sign in that restaurant should read, "time to panic, we're organic". But an expensive midtown restaurant, to me, isn't the big concern. I am more disturbed by the idea of the single mother, barely getting by on a low income, being made to feel she is not doing the right thing for her children when she skips the organic fruit for the far more affordable conventionally grown produce. Or worse, when she doesn't skip it. It is very disturbing to think that some people who are already struggling may actually experience a harder life, and more financial pressure to meet the most basic need, day-to-day nutrition, because of the hype surrounding organic food. Yes, they have a choice, but to be forever on the outskirts of cultural trends, especially one that is touted as the far more healthful and perhaps even more moral choice, is yet another way in which the poor are cut off from the options we take for granted and another painful reality and perceived deprivation they must then face.

So does this mean organic is bad?

Is the label of organic useless? Is it all a scam? Of course not. Nor should the organic food trend in and of itself be vilified. Rather, I would argue that the problem is the blind and unquestioning acceptance of the word organic. The problem lies when we go to an extreme such that all we need is that magic word and all other considerations, such as freshness, where the food came from, the reasonableness or lack thereof regarding price, etc, fall by the wayside and as consumers we suspend judgment and thought. But the flipside, claiming organic food is a useless scam, is just going to another blind extreme, and not a useful way to approach these questions.

Like our diets, it is important that we are balanced in our thinking. So let's give credit where it's due. The organic movement has done a great deal of good. It brought the importance of humane farming to the forefront of public thinking. It started a public discourse around nutrition on a level we'd never explored before, a level that went beyond the famous food pyramid and factored in such concerns as chemicals and farming methods, how we eat and the environment, and what truly constitutes safe and healthy food. It brought attention to the serious issue of antibiotic resistant bacteria and how, surprisingly, that problem can be exacerbated by the meat industry. It made us question what we put in our bodies on a level we never had before, examining our healthy assumptions that had never really been scrutinized or questioned by the public. A movement that brought about such awareness cannot be written off as something regrettable. What is regrettable is that the discussion seems to have stopped and the word organic has taken on a magical quality, leading perhaps to a new set of problems we must examine and consider.

So what is the answer?

Perhaps the answer is that there is no one-size-fits-all, easy answer. Rather we need to question and to think about our food choices and we need to maintain an ongoing and real awareness of the issues. In many cases, the organic option may make a lot of sense. When it comes to issues like hormones and antibiotics in meat, or cruel farming practices used in the meat, dairy or egg industry, that label may make a real difference. But we should question the label and in all cases should understand what it means. There is nothing wrong with asking at the supermarket who the supplier is and checking out that supplier's practices. In the produce department, before you grab that bunch of organic carrots or that package of organic spinach at twice the price, find out where it came from. If it was hundreds of miles away and involved days of transport, the more nutritionally beneficial and environmentally conscious choice may well be the conventionally grown produce that came from the farm a few miles down the road.

Bringing back what made the organic movement so special.

It is up to each individual to take responsibility for his or her nutrition and health. To do so effectively involves an active process, and means avoiding fads and avoiding easy answers. It means questioning what we are presented with when it comes to the foods we buy. The organic movement did a wonderful job of getting us to think this way. It is ironic that the subsequent organic fad and the blind acceptance of the organic label is what ended the wonderful engagement we had embraced. Organic food has its place, but only when we understand it and the issues around it. Blind faith and fads can lead to thinking that has an adverse effect on our well-being, that dictates rules that cause real harm to some and can even achieve the opposite of what we hoped to accomplish.

It was the rise of our questioning, involvement and understanding that made the organic food movement special. We need to bring back the very best part of the organic movement, which I would argue was not the new availability of organic food choices. Rather, we need to bring back our demand and desire for knowledge, transparency and standards. We need to once again embrace our involvement and our ongoing, active quest for real understanding and meaningful choices.


By Louise at Grace

Comments

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By: Alex
On: 08/24/2014 12:29:32
Great article! My wife is one of those die hard organic people who is genuinely afraid of the chemicals used in ordinary farming. Therefore, we have had a lot of articles, books and discussion on the matter in our house. I agree with a lot of the article, but I do think that there is a lot to be said for knowing for sure that there is no pesticide on my produce. However, it is true that if you really scrub it carefully, the amounts are so trace and small that it's unlikely to have any effect on health. That said, I think those with compromised immune systems or poor health are better off with organic. But I think it should be considered with each purchase, like the article says and that even that "organic" label may not really mean anything if the farmer is totally unregulated or there are other contaminants making their way in.

I think the point the article makes that is so important though isn't really whether organic is good or bad, but that the cult of organic is pretty silly, and kind of dangerous in terms of the message it sends out to our society and the latitude it then gives to those employing that label to rip off consumers. And I don't care what anyone says (including my brilliant and beloved wife) $3.99 a pound for carrots is a rip off. In the end the important thing is to think before you act and stay informed. If we do that, and if we are active then maybe conventional farms will modify their practices, use the least amount of chemicals needed and use only the safest. But in any case, I think people have to realize that organic really is a luxury. In our heavily populated world, it just could not work for everyone, and must remain a special thing for the wealthy. So yes, it is troubling when the message becomes that by not buying organic you are doing something bad - since it really is a luxury and many can't afford it.
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By: John
On: 08/24/2014 12:51:08
This is a very well-argued piece! Though I think there are some real advantages to opting for organic regarding some products ( I always get organic lettuce and leaf vegetables because cleaning them of pesticides is so labor intensive) I think it is really important not to fall into that way of thinking the article warns against, and to keep an active mind about farming and food practices. That is the most important thing. It always annoys me when people I know proclaim in an almost holier than thou tone that "I am organic" and go on to argue how they are so much more environmentally conscious and so much healthier. But these same people will never investigate where their organic choices are coming from and if perhaps in some cases it isn't the environmentally sound choice. They have just drunk the kool-aid so to speak of the organic is good brainwash. But these same hard core environmentalist friends I have, who support preserving trees (a VERY worthy thing to support) don't ever think about the fact that if they had their way, and the whole world went organic, well in that case bye-bye rainforest! The amount of land needed would be excessive given the planets population. It is important to be reasonable. Organic farming would make sense in a small community, but globally, it isn't practical. Really I think the thing I like best about this article though is that it is countering that thinking - that mindless sort of blind acceptance and organic dogma that people buy into unquestioningly and then have no awareness of anything and never engage in discussion, are not open to other ideas. That is never a good thing. When organic started to become popular ( I remember how it started to make its way in to daily life) that was the great thing - people were questioning things, wanting to explore ideas around food and what we eat. Those same people it seems are now often religious about their organic food and that isn't good - that is what really makes the problems... Great article!
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By: Anna
On: 08/24/2014 13:02:08
I totally agree! You know I have to confess, I do buy organic when it comes to meat and eggs. I can't imagine not doing so for the reasons the article cites. And as an animal lover, I think the greatest thing about the organic food movement was how it made people question farming regarding animals. But that said, when it comes to produce I buy the freshest. Very often the food in the organic section looks awful to me. It is wilted and old looking. No thanks! I wash all the produce I buy very carefully and I do not believe that I am in any sort of health risk by not buying the wilted, awful looking produce at twice the price. Now to be fair, this is just in my local supermarket, but it is always the case. I hate that zombie like thinking too that the article is pointing out. The sort of blind organic is good no matter what and that is all we need to know kind of thinking. I always want to tell those people to grow up. And it is completely true too that it has become a mindset that is drilled into people as though conventional food is something awful. How many times have ai come accross recipes that list the ingredients as 2 pounds small ripe organic tomatoes, 2 small white organic onions. I hate that and hate the message it sends. It is kind of thoughtless when you consider that for many people organic is just too expensive! Making it the standard - the thing that "good people" buy for health and environmental reasons, is just wrong...

Thanks for the article!

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By: Steven G.
On: 08/24/2014 13:31:05
I have to politely disagree. Organic is better hands down. I always buy organic and only organic because I want to send a message to the big corporatopns. I won't buy poison. They have to stop using poison. To quote Joni Mitchell "give me spots on apples, but leave me the birds and the bees".
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By: John
On: 08/24/2014 13:50:32
What? With all due respect Steve, did you read the article? It isn't arguing for poison. And that Joni Mitchel song was written in 1970 when DDT was still being used, when the book SIlent Spring was changing the thinking and raising awareness - at the START of the organic movement. DDT is not banned and modern farming techniques take into account the "birds and the bees" and all other wildlife and there are many standards that are applied now before pesticides and herbicides can even be tested on farms, let alone put into use. The battle has been fought and won in that way and the corporations you talk about have definitely got the message. In a world where even those who would not call themselves environmentalists are accutely aware of such issues as those you refer to, no corporation would dare risk its reputation. Your thinking is perplexing in our modern world. I respect your feelings, and your right to hold them, but I think you kind of have missed the point of the article, which is really more about the way we think and the way we examine these issues than claiming organic is bad and pesticide is good
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By: Catherine Jenkins
On: 08/24/2014 14:03:53
The best place to get organic produce and avoid all the problems the article points out is a farmers market. I never buy the grocery store stuff because who knows where it comes from and it is so scary expensive. But farmers markets are always local, and the produce is super fresh and they usually have really nice farming practices. It is the one organic market available where I don't feel like I am having the wool pulled over my eyes. Because I agree with this article that organic has become kind of a marketing buzzword rather than a meaningful thing and has lead to a lot of problems and a kind of dumbing down when it comes to food purchasing.

I think there really are people who think that word is all you need and they never ask, never think about what they are really buying. What hadn't occurred to me, and a point the article makes, is the message this trend is sending, and how it really can be kind of cruel in some ways to those who are very poor. As one of the other comments mentioned, it is almost like a brainwash, with recipes stating you must use organic , as a given, in the ingredients list and restaurants that put up signs like that as though we should all panic and be upset and alarmed at the mere idea that everything isn't organic.

Nor did I realize the issue about how organic farming on a large scale may actually translate to harming the environment. Scary. But I suppose that makes a lot of sense actually, considering there are billions of people in the world now and that it is in fact true that organic farming takes a lot more land. Yet how many people who buy organic because they care about the environment and if you gave them a wish in this regard it would be for the whole world to go organic have considered this. It is interesting. And I think there is some truth to the idea that organic has become a trendy thing for the rich in the world - whereas it used to be a movement to get people thinking... Really interesting article, very thoughtful. Thank you.
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By: Clara Loves Her Dog
On: 08/24/2014 14:26:19
Wow great article. The thing I like best about it is how it points out ( though the article is very diplomatic and doesn't really go there, but we can draw the conclusions ourselves) about how hypocritical some of the "organic" fans have become. It is sometimes almost an elitist thing, at least from my experience. I have very wealthy acquaintances who have adopted the trend and feel all righteous about it and will say " I only buy organic" in the same tone they would say " I only buy designer brands", and yet claim they care about the environment too. They just pay lip service to it and it is just a wealthy person's way to easily assuage his conscience.

I just read a book called "The Sixth Extinction" by Elizabeth Kolbert. It is a book about the environment and how there is an ongoing extinction happening right now as species are dying off every year. The book is pretty sad, and gloomy. But it ends on a positive note as it cites all the clear examples of how much we care - how much we really do. It talks about how so many nonprofits to help the environment now exist and how people give so much time and money to support them. How corporations now are working with such nonprofits too. It talks about laws that have changed and countries that have come together to address the problems and how the scientific community has risen to the challenge. That is the action and awareness that matters - the real environmentalism. This " I only buy organic" attitude of those who have no clue, that is NOT an answer to the problem. And the organic "movement" was part of this environmentalism once. Sad it no longer is. I agree with Louise -we need to bring it back! Bring back our involvement and our thinking about these issues and never hide behind the magic "organic" label as though that alone is some kind of answer.
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By: Steven G
On: 08/24/2014 14:40:47
You think you are right John but you are not right. I know about this. I read a lot about this. Im telling you that orgnic food is better becuase there is lots of poison in the other food of the corporations. Trust me on this one. But I respect your opinon to and thank you for respecting mine.
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By: Jenny
On: 08/24/2014 15:50:37
You make a great point Catherine! The best way to buy organic is a farmers market. You get great, fresh products and support small, local farms, and none of the silly, scammy nonsense that can come with the organic label. For me, as soon as it becomes pretentious, it has defeated the point. I love the fact that organic food gained popularity and made us think, and I think that embracing what it really means to be environmentally conscious means buying local and a lot of farmers markets, in addition to being orgnanic much of the time, are local.
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By: Soccer Tom
On: 08/25/2014 18:36:29
Nice post. I would buy organic sometimes but I never do because I can't afford it. I'm a student and sometimes live on ramen noodles and water. This story makes me feel less bad about it at least so thanks.
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By: C. Cuddington
On: 08/25/2014 21:47:40
Thanks for the article. I am a recovering extreme organic fanatic. I still prefer organic, and I think that some of the issues it addresses are really important (keeping our earth and water free from poison as much as we can, treating animals humanely and with compassion, living in balance with the earth) are really important. But I also see how it has become kind of a snobby trend and often meaningless. I also understand, sad though it may be, that in a world of billions, the ideal way to do things may not always be the way that will actually work. But I take from the movement the pieces that meant something, while avoiding the hype and I try to think in all things I do - I appreciate the fair tone of this article in illunimating the need to do that and not just launching an attack on those folks who have bought in to the coolness and trendiness of organic and yet are unaware. Such attacks never get anywhere. And I like that though some of the problems and questions are raised, I get a feeling that the value of organic is recognized. I enjoyed reading it - very balanced. Thanks.
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By: Sammy
On: 08/26/2014 10:15:35
I am surprised you were able to criticize organic and not get lots of anger. It seems to me that a lot of people are really touchy and passionate about this and will defend any criticism. I guess maybe its cause its a fair article and talks about both good and bad and is not saying organic's bad. It's always refreshing to see that ideas can be put out there and not met with nothing but a livid debate. So this is pretty good I thnk. I just don't think I like anything that seems radical and that is what started to bother me about some organic people and sometimes vegetarians can be like that too that they are all radical. But this story talks about it in a normal way and makes it seem like you can be into organic in a good way and not just be preechy and argue a lot. Good.
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By: Sam K.
On: 09/07/2014 11:32:51
This makes some great points, and I understand that the purpose is not to push for organic over non-organic, and its about how we think of these things. But I want to caution about something, and I think it is in keeping with the spirit of the article. I heard a podcast recently called Freakonomics and it discussed how the push to eat local (they called it locavorism) is a kind of food snobbery and in our world of billions simply won't work to feed all the people in the world. That makes sense too as cities begin to overtake rural areas in terms of where the population of the world is most centered. So I think it is true that its important we don't buy into that fad either - which is a movement out of the organic movement I think.
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By: Louise
On: 09/07/2014 12:47:26
These comments raise some wonderful points and discussion. I wanted to throw out an idea, which may be perfect for some of the readers, though not everyone. A great way to get wonderful tasting food along with exercise, fresh air, sunshine and also to have some great family bonding activity if you include the kids, is to grow a little vegetable garden in your yard. Of course you have to have some land to do so, but if you have that, it really is a wonderful way to get delicious, fresh produce and really control what is in it. Obviously, you won't be able to give up the grocery store,and this advice is not meant to solve any global food problems, but it is a lovely supplement and a lot of fun.
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By: J.J. Jeff
On: 09/11/2014 19:07:06
Too many sheeple and not enough people! LOL. Nice blog post, good read. Thx!
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By: Jackie in NJ
On: 01/20/2015 20:20:56
FINALLY! glad someone is saying it! the thing about the poor single moms is a point we don't hear enough!
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By: essay
On: 12/21/2016 20:08:01
Seems you are doing everything in a very systematic way. It is really very good actually.

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