Is the organic label worth the cost?

The big organic debate has been reignited by a meta analysis by the Food Standards Agency (a British food safety agency).

Analysis of 162 studies shows that there is no nutritional difference between organic and conventional produce, i.e. there isn’t more beta carotene in organic carrots, or more vitamin C in organic strawberries. Analysis of 11 studies found no difference in health effects of organic and conventional produce. Surely, some people will debate these findings, but the analyses seem to be very well done (report 1, report 2).

The nutritional qualities, flavor, and safety of foods can be altered by a huge number of factors. From the variety of seed that was used to how the food is prepared and everything in-between. This diagram, produced by the Food Standards Agency for the report, shows these factors and how they interact. Some can be controlled, and some cannot. Conceptual framework outlining factors affecting nutrient variability. From the Food Standards Agency’s “Comparison of composition (nutrients and other substances) of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs: a systematic review of the available literature”.

Despite the lack of benefit for nutrition, human health, and taste, there are undeniable benefits of certain farming methods, some of which are what people think of when they think organic. Does the reality of organic meet the ideals, though? The standards are clear enough, but they leave a lot out. What people think of when they think non-organic leaves a lot out as well.

From ‘Organic’ label doesn’t guarantee quality or taste, by Russ Parsons in the LA Times on 1 July 2009.

Some of these ideas were brought up in an editorial in the LA Times: ‘Organic’ label doesn’t guarantee quality or taste. The author argues that buying produce from someone you know is far more important than a relatively arbitrary label.

Agriculture is complicated. No two fields are alike, no two years are alike. Each variety of plant has it’s own susceptibility and resistances. Our food system tries to take all of this variability and put it into one box of macaroni and cheese. The box doesn’t tell you how big the wheat farm is, or if the farmer takes good care of watersheds. If the box says “organic” then you do know the pesticides used on the wheat aren’t synthetic. It doesn’t tell you if the farmer used the pesticides inappropriately. And this is important.

Even the most benign pesticides can be dangerous. For example, neem oil is a non-synthetic pesticide that is derived from the seeds of the neem tree. It’s used to control a variety of insect pests. It’s used as birth control because it causes abortion of fetuses in mammals. It causes deformities in sperm. It’s also moderately toxic to fish. Is neem safer than other pesticides because it’s non-synthetic? No. Is it safe when used properly? Yes (so say safety evaluations). So are many synthetic pesticides (which have also undergone safety evaluations). I wouldn’t want to eat any food that had pesticides misapplied, but there is no label for that.

Instead of looking for that label, talk to the person directly:

Walking through the Santa Monica farmers market the other day, I again heard it repeatedly: Customers asking farmers “Are you organic?” as if it were some kind of litmus test for quality or safety. I saw somebody walk away from the absolutely heavenly Snow Queen white nectarines at Art Lange’s Honey Crisp stand because he doesn’t embrace the organic label.

This has happened so many times to Fitz Kelly, another terrific stone fruit grower at the Santa Monica market, that he has even printed up a fact sheet he routinely hands out explaining why he isn’t organic. Basically, it comes down to an orchard rooted in sandy, nutrient-poor soil that requires help from fertilizers; a preference for occasional, minimal sprayings of chemical pesticides rather than what he believes would be more frequent use of weaker, organically approved pesticides; not being willing to spend the time or the money that it takes to go through organic certification; and, truth be told, probably a good chunk of innate Irish stubbornness.

Hat tip to Pamela Ronald for posting the LA Times article on FB and to Luigi on Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog for posting about the meta analysis.


  1. Thanks for this post. I always saw "organic" as a marketing ploy especially when Wal-Mart started carrying organic produce. Not to mention who is inspecting the "organic" fields of other countries where some of the vegetables and fruits are imported from. I will pass this onto Jamie who doesn’t understand the whole concept of organic.

  2. I too worry about organic produce from other countries. We’ve already seen what sorts of extremely dangerous things can get by inspectors, like lead in toys, melamine in pet food, and prohibited drugs in fish. It’s downright foolish to expect that the organic label would be any better. There are benefits to organic – but I think it’s a lot less black and white than people think. Overall, people who eat more veggies are healthier than people who eat less veggies – whether they are organic or not.

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