Yesterday The Rag Blog posted an article by Roger Baker in which he contended that the types of food you eat can be more important than eating food labeled “organic.” [NUTRITION: Are Organic Foods Just a Marketing Trend? by Roger Baker / The Rag Blog / September 29, 2008.]
In the article below, Roger expands on this argument.
It is obviously important to distinguish between what is trendy and what is genuinely better nutrition, and this question strikes a vein of contention with many of those committed to health and sustainability.
The Rag Blog urges it’s readers to join in this discussion. Please post your opinions by clicking on “comments” below.
Thorne Dreyer / The Rag Blog / September 30, 2008
There’s ‘organic’ and then there’s what passes as ‘organic’
By Roger Baker / The Rag Blog / September 30, 2008
When you call something “organic” you may have to make a distinction whether you are referring to what passes for organic under the official USDA certification process under the Bush administration or something else entirely:
ALERT – USDA Announcement: Foods Carrying the USDA ‘95% Organic’ Seal Are Now Allowed to Contain Factory Farmed Intestines, PCBs, and Mercury / Organic Consumers Association.
The organic foods industry has become a hugely profitable concentrated business in the last decade. Go to this link and look to the right column “Who owns what” to show how a few giants now dominate the industry.
All About Organics – OCA’s Organic Resource Center / Organic Consumers Association.
Then go below to read how organic does not mean sustainable but may often be less sustainable due to energy inputs like transportation. As energy costs rise, farming will have to become more local and labor intensive, which are probably good trends, and will discourage meat consumption, but that has little to do with organic labeling.
The intelligent focus, I think, should probably be more on the KINDS of foods and their health implications and the sustainability of production and energy inputs rather than what can get organic certification nowadays under weakened federal standards. There is not much science involved these days to allow consumers to evaluate alternatives, so it ends up like arguing religion:
Organic food ‘no benefit to health’ / Guardian, U.K.
Also the term organic does not really mean the use of no pesticides, but primarily seems to imply a lack of chemical fertilizers:
History of the National Organic Program / Rainbow Grocery.
. . .What originally started as a system of farming, whereby the soil and the ecosystem around the plants cultivate a healthy environment, now big business farmers can purchase the organisms and other organic inputs that allow them to qualify as USDA Organic without developing a sustainable ecosystem. Rick and Kristie Knoll don’t need to purchase healthy organisms for their soil, or bugs that will eat the pests on their plants because the land they’ve developed already hosts a natural organic ecosystem. They also don’t chlorinate their salad greens or use sodium nitrate, practices that are acceptable by the new USDA standards.
And there are other issues beyond pests and soil conditions. “Most of the original organic farmers are out of business. Nobody is thinking about what cheap prices means to the farmers,” said Knoll. Paying workers a livable wage and offering affordable healthcare is often unheard of in agribusiness, but is another important goal of sustainable farmers. Food miles or how far a product travels before it reaches the retailer and eventually the consumer is another major concern. . .
Here is the conclusion from one recent review:
The findings of this study have revealed that the trend in the level of significance with respect to vitamin C, calcium and potassium in organically and follow a regular and consistent pattern. It was observed in this study that there were no significant differences in vitamin C content between organically and conventionally grown cabbage, Cos lettuce and carrots while significant differences were observed in organically and conventionally grown Valencia oranges with the organic Valencia oranges showing a higher values.
From the results as well as other previous findings, it is very evident that there is still controversy on nutritional superiority of organic and conventional produce because there are numerous confounding factors that make it difficult to establish a standardized environment in which to produce the two food sources. It is therefore highly recommended that future studies on organically and conventionally grown produce should attempt to address confounding factors such as climate, soil type, crop type, fertilizer application, post harvest handling and others before valid conclusions can be made.
Research Paper / African Journal of Biotechnology
I think the jury is still out on nutrients due to the many factors involved in soil types, etc.
Meanwhile it is clear, to me at least, that eating healthy kinds of foods like lots of grains, vegetables, and fruits is more important health-wise than the typical choice between organic and inorganic foods. The “organic” choice is largely cultural — and very controversial and heated as I have learned. I think things are going to have to move in that direction, but driven less by corporate influence and more by energy economics.
As the energy crisis worsens in the next decade, food will become more expensive, the number of farmers will have to increase, human labor and carbon rich soils will have to be substituted for fuel and nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides, and agriculture will have to become more local. More foods will be eaten in season, and the big organic food corporations will have to decline in influence after expanding hugely in recent years.
The number of farmers will have to increase because farmers are now aging and the average age of farmers is now over 55 and only about 6% are under 35 so farming knowledge is itelf disappearing. We have only 3-4 million farmers for a population of 300 million, or slightly over 1%. Meanwhile, water supplies are shrinking and the planet is warming.
But mainly world oil production is peaking. So is natural gas, meaning that nitrogen fertilizer made from gas will decrease agri productivity. And the mechanized farm equipment and shipping ability will decrease and thus require more human labor and more local production.
All this is spelled out in detail in Richard Heinberg’s latest book “Peak Everything”, Chapter 2, titled “Fifty Million Farmers”. Heinberg thinks the only alternative that will possibly feed the nation is for local gardening everywhere like we had in the USA during the world wars. Maybe suburban lawns will have to be farmed.
Already rising energy prices are raising the cost of food. From 20% of our national income in 1950 to a recent low of 10%, which is probably as low as it can go.
In 1900, 40% of the USA population farmed, but now with cheap mechanized energy to operate equipment it is close to 1%. After the Soviet Union cut off the oil to Cuba, the farming population in Cuba had to rise to 15-25%. If we extrapolate to the USA, this means about 50 million farmers, which is where Heinberg gets his estimate.
Of course meat production is a wasteful use of corn and soybeans compared to direct human consumption, so the nature of our diet will have to change too. Trucking food to distant processing facilities will have to be largely eliminated too. When the price of oil rises to $200 a barrel and higher, it will change the economy. There are probably good analysis pieces about this on The oil Drum and Energy Bulletin.
As well as references in Paul Robert’s book “The End of Food” (he is hip to peak oil; see page 222-225) and Heinberg’s chapter 2 references.
“The End of Food” is a good source on many of the current trends (largely unhealthy and unsustainable) within what has become an increasingly corporate-dominated food industry that kills many by promoting poor food choices, the organic issue aside.
[Also read Roger’s earliter article, NUTRITION: Are Organic Foods Just a Marketing Trend? by Roger Baker / The Rag Blog / September 29, 2008.]