I don’t know about you guys, but I was pretty interested in reading the Associated Press article on the front page of today’s Roanoke Times, “Study: Organic foods offer few health benefits.”
My initial reaction to the headline was not one of surprise. Although I don’t make many purchasing decisions based on whether a food is “organic” or not, I was still disappointed that my suspicious were basically confirmed by this Stanford University research.
In all my years of reporting about food, I’ve talked to many local farmers who are not certified organic. They explain that it costs money and takes time to fill out paperwork to be certified organic, and the only difference it would make in the way they grow or raise their products is in the eyes of the consumer. Not that the consumer’s perspective is not important, but most of these local farmers’ customers have talked to the farmer and know they follow organic principals (not using synthetic pesticides; not giving their animals hormones and antibiotics; giving animals room to roam and forage) even if they have not jumped through the hoops in order to earn that label.
At the grocery store, however, it is not possible to talk to the growers. So we walk into the produce department or the meat department and know nothing more than that a product is “organic” according to government standards. And that makes a lot of people feel better, which is probably why, according to the AP article, organic food sales went from $3.6 billion in 1997 to $31.4 billion last year.
Generally speaking, organic food is more expensive than the non-organic alternatives. The consolation should be that the food is healthier for us. But the Stanford University study described in the AP story found that “when it comes to individual health, there isn’t much difference.” The study showed that pesticide levels from non-organic produce were “very small” and the story reports that “organic or not, the chances of bacterial contamination of food are the same.”
Here’s the however:
* Eating organic produce can lower exposure to pesticides (it has a 30 percent lower risk of containing detectable levels). Even though conventionally grown produce tested out to have “very small” amounts of pesticides, some believe that even tiny amounts can be harmful to children.
* “When bacteria did lurk in chicken or pork, germs in the non-organic meats had a 33 percent higher risk of being resistant to multiple antibiotics.” Some farmers routinely give their livestock antibiotics to keep them healthy and, according to the AP story, because “it’s necessary to meet the demand for cheap meat.”
In my opinion, that last item (along with the use of hormones in livestock) is the most compelling reason to consider buying organic. And it makes me want to devote any special budget I’ve created for food splurges on local or organic meats as opposed to organic produce. As it is, local meat can be quite expensive, in large part because of how much it costs small farmers to have their animals slaughtered and processed in a federally inspected facility. Small farmers need to be able to find less expensive ways to get their animals to market, and they’re going to need infrastructure and support in order to do it. Maybe then those costs will come down.
Finally, this study doesn’t dwell on some of the other reasons consumers choose organic products: because they may be grown or raised in an environmentally sustainable manner, because it may be more humane for the animals, and/or because the products taste better.
I’m interested to know whether you look for the organic label when making food-buying decisions. Are you more interested in buying local? Or does your budget dictate that you simply buy what is the least expensive option? And please, if you are a farmer, chime in. I’d love to hear your perspective.