NUTRITION : The Pros and Cons of "Organic" Food Revisited

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.]

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6 Responses to NUTRITION : The Pros and Cons of "Organic" Food Revisited

  1. Roger says he has not been able to locate any “scientific reports”
    comparing organic foods favorably with conventional foods.

    Here is a link that will provide some studies. Now whether they meet
    his criteria of “real” science I do not know at this time so I will
    eagerly await a response.:

    Here are a few benefits of organic foods that I have compiled from my memory:

    In an organically certified food there should be:

    no pesticides residues

    no fungicide residues

    no irradiation

    no gmos

    no Monsanto seeds

    no bovine growth hormone

    Also, in true organic practices, the soil fertility should be
    increasing year after year instead of decreasing as with the application
    of chemical fertilizers.

    Also, it is important for organic farmers and ranchers to raise
    healthy plants through rich soil building and adequate nutrition for
    animals as this lessens the chances of pests and diseases.

    To my knowledge at this time there is no other way to be reasonably
    confident of avoiding irradiated and gmo foods.

    Now I know that there are firms that are cheating which is exactly why
    certifying organizations are necessary.

    As to nosrums that have no scientific basis, certainly there are some with no basis just as a number of pharmaceuticals have been put on the market on the basis of very flawed random controlled tests.

    Mariann Vizard suggested the American Botanical database but
    unfortunately it costs money to access that so I offer:

    from the University of Maryland click the herb or supplement link
    then click a specific herb or supplement, there are referenced
    studies at the bottom of the page.

    That is it for now but Roger’s post has made me realize that I need to
    gather my sources and point of information together in a readily
    accessible database.

    The “Organic” label by itself is not the answer to all of the enviornmental and social problems associated with food production but has been and is a useful step in that direction.



  2. My, you’ve sparked quite an interest and near-debate haven’t you….

    I think I’ll just ‘read the remarks and comments’; we old folk who’ve done quite well living to a nice ‘age’ after learning how to grow, cultivate, and harvest quality food and livestock products, will simply sit back and listen to all this ‘new postulation’ and contrived explanation/genius, when we realize that it comes down to nothing more than the way the capitalists have tried to re-define a myriad of new ‘technologies’ and ‘discoveries’ that do nothing but afford them a way to increase income/profit by bamboozling the consumer with some new concept/new term/new drug/new discovery all of which is pure nonsense.

    One has to remember the history of ‘man’ – try selling all of this ‘new stuff’ to the Neanderthal and see what Cro Magnon man has to say – ask him if it was because he ate non-organic ‘maters’ or if it was because some huge ‘creature’ ate him first.

    There are those who would never eat the ‘flesh’ of any living thing, and they are alive still.

    There are those who (like Sarah Palin) shoot and eat moose; meat-eating humans – they are also alive.

    There are those who live on a bowl of rice a day; near starvation, but still standing.

    There are those who live on beans; rice – water….

    Make me a pretzel and I’ll probably live as long as 50% of the American people.

    Feed me cabbage soup; a bit of rice, and I’ll hang in there.

    This obsession with organic or non-organic is like sawing saw-dust; cast it to the wind, and grab yourself a burger and a beer for goodness sake!

    I have 2 friends from Viet Nam; they like dog – and I wouldn’t consider the thought…

    My dear friend (Nina) is from France; she loves rabbit – I (again) would not consider eating it…

    Others I know love veal – I lost my pet calf to this – no way in hell am I eating veal.

    The human is quite an adaptable ‘eating machine’ – it lives on a variety of foods and from what I see, the Social Security Administration might feel that in America, the human being lives ‘too long’.

    Some of us old farts who are healthy, find it tiresome to ‘link up’ to read more of the nonsense about the ‘good and the bad’ – even the ugly; shit, why don’t we just eat fried ants like they do in many countries. Why don’t we all tune into the television show that features a guy who eats the most unusual foods; see the nations and cultures he visits where these foods are sustaining hundreds of people, and give the dehydrated maggot a try – just make sure I’ve got a bottle of Hershey’s chocolate syrup be me to use as a ‘chaser’…… /ds

  3. sorry – BY ME TO USE AS A CHASER…not ‘be me’/ds

  4. A post script, these statistics illustrate just how FEW are eating the ‘organic’ food, so given the world population count; the count in the United States, and the life expectancy of the average American, I’d say they’re not doing too terribly bad eating the ‘food-stuffs’ that are available; organic or not.

    United States


    While organic food accounts for 1–2% of total food sales worldwide, the organic food market is growing rapidly, far ahead of the rest of the food industry, in both developed and developing nations.

    * World organic food sales jumped from US $23 billion in 2002[63] to $40 billion in 2006.[64]
    * The world organic market has been growing by 20% a year since the early 1990s, with future growth estimates ranging from 10%-50% annually depending on the country.

    [edit] North America

    United States:

    * Organic food is the fastest growing sector of the American food marketplace[65] .
    * Organic food sales have grown by 17 to 20 percent a year for the past few years[66] while sales of conventional food have grown at only about 2 to 3 percent a year.[67]

    * In 2003 organic products were available in nearly 20,000 natural food stores and 73% of conventional grocery stores.[68]
    * Organic products account for 2.6% of total food sales in the year 2005.[69]

    * Two thirds of organic milk and cream and half of organic cheese and yogurt are sold through conventional supermarkets.[70

    I personally shop at Trader Joe’s and a couple of farmer’s markets (the markets are actually on the FARMS of those who are growing certain foods). I can find quality foods and reasonable prices at TJ’s; not so much with the local farmer who is trying to ‘rip me off’ because he’s heard about the trend toward the organic food industry.

    I already posted about the capability of the human to live on very unusual and strange forms of food and ‘nutrition’ – if you want to join the organic food crowd; pay higher prices, and feel that you’re going to somehow live longer or with a greater quality of health, then I think it is your choice. Those who are selling this concept are banking the profit dollars that you’ll buy this idea; the rest have done their research and home-work and will continue to offer up a selection of viable food choices to the masses. /ds

  5. Kate Braun says:

    There is a finite amount of breathable air, potable water, and arable earth on the planet. Farming practices should improve/enrich the land, water, and air. This is just common sense: take care of Mother Earth and she will take care of you; disrespect her and life will be not so nice. Organic farming shows more respect for the planet than non-organic farming. Eating locally grown produce and locally raised meat, poultry, eggs, etc. saves money because of reduced shipping/delivery costs and a shorter time between harvest and sale. Eating locally grown/raised food helps support the local farmer/rancher/grower, not the mega-corporations. Support your local farmers’ markets, your local food coops (which will buy from local farmers/growers), eat lower on the food chain, eat more seasonally grown items, grow your own. This conscious defiance of Con-Agra and other mega corporations that care more about profits than anything else will not only enrich the body but also the soul. It’s easy to be a sheep, buying what’s in the Big Supermarket and never questioning the source or contents of what’s being purchased. I urge you to shed the sheepskin and let the goat within emerge: read labels, don’t buy a package of chemicals, put your money into real food. Then you are more likely to live long and prosper in a variety of ways.

  6. A few words from MEDICAL NEWS:

    The Food Standards Agency responded to the Soil Association’s report “Organic farming, food quality and human health’ (2001) by stating that:

    On the basis of current evidence, the Agency’s assessment is that organic food is not significantly different in terms of food safety and nutrition from food produced conventionally. 1

    The Government has taken a more open-minded view. At a meeting between members of the Government’s Organic Action Plan and the FSA, the then Organic Farming Minister, Elliot Morley, suggested to the FSA that:

    “�.while the FSA is clear that all conventionally produced food is safe, the FSA could also recognise that some consumers want less pesticide residues, less use of veterinary medicines, no routine use of antibiotics, and no use of GM ingredients, and that in all these areas organic food delivers what the consumers want.”

    WITH THAT SAID, NOTICE IT’S WHAT THE CONSUMER WANTS – thus, a market is ‘born’ and profits are made.

    Consumers DICTATE; be it good, bad, or indifferent, if a pet rock sells, PET ROCKS WILL BE MADE AVAILABLE FOR SALE – just that simple.

    From a very old and healthy fart…me. /ds

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