Savvy Shopper: What is organic and what does that mean for shoppers?

·5 min read

With mankind’s long history of advances, you might think that most people make their decisions based on reason. If so, you would be completely wrong! Despite our illusions about our how logical we are, the reality is we make up our minds before any facts come into the picture. Once we make a decision, we selectively gather points to rationalize our conclusions.

As one exhibit in the case against human reason, I submit organic food. While I think that deemphasizing pesticides, rotating crops, and minimizing monocultures are excellent ideas, the gap between the theory and reality of organic products can be less than encouraging:

Fields, Sean
Fields, Sean

• What is organic?: Although organic products have been around for a long time, it wasn’t until 2002 that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) developed standards for organic farming. On a general level, an organic producer must comply with specific practices, avoid genetically modified crops (GMOs), and use natural, as opposed to synthetic, chemicals. To legally make any claims that food is organic, a farmer or rancher must be certified as organic by a USDA authorized organization.

• Why buy organic?: Common inducements to go organic revolve around better taste, higher nutrition, and environmental sustainability. From an ecological standpoint, organic production encourages the wise stewardship of resources and eliminates the use of synthetic chemicals that hang around the environment longer than naturally derived products. As an added incentive, many buy organic to support the small farmer competing against corporate monoliths.

• Nutrition: Some believe that organic farming produces more nutritious food. However, despite 50 years of scientific studies, no consistent evidence has been produced that substantiates any nutritional gap between organic and conventionally grown foods. By contrast, the existing body of work overwhelmingly shows there is no difference between the two. On this point, even the most enthusiastic proponents of organic products concede that the “jury is still out.” In my mind, if exhaustive studies over a half century can’t find a difference, there probably isn’t one.

• Health: Concerns over chemical residue cause many to avoid conventionally grown food. Although you may not realize it, pesticides and herbicides are used in organic farming. The difference from conventional cultivation is that a poison used in organic production must have natural ingredients. If they are synthetic in origin, then the affected crop cannot be classified as organic. Either way, poisons are hazardous. At the same time, all produce is required to be washed and monitored for residue no matter how it’s grown. In theory, all foods should end up residue free. Put another way, residual poisons are equally unlikely whether or not the food is organic. In addition, thoroughly washing produce before consumption provides an extra measure of safety and should eliminate this as a concern.

• Taste: Like nutrition, there is no scientific evidence for organic products having a taste advantage. In fact, the few tests that exist mostly indicate that consumers can’t tell a difference. Since this is a subjective issue, I will cast the hard evidence aside. However, when you consider the variety of unknowns (like producers, regions, plant varieties, and storage conditions), can an average person really determine whether organic (or conventional) taste better? Unless one kind is overwhelmingly superior, I don’t see how. Since no side claims a night-and-day advantage, it is probably fair to consider the two tied on flavor.

• Helping the Little Guy?: While most root for the Davids fighting the Goliaths, organic farming is just as subject to consolidating forces as conventional agriculture. Consequently, like almost everything else, the playing field is tilted in the big guy’s favor. The prominent organic brands Cascadian Farms, Back to Nature, Boca Burger, and Morningstar Farms are owned by Fortune 500 companies. In addition, a substantial portion of organic production is controlled by the same behemoths. Whichever way you buy, there is a high likelihood that a large corporation is profiting from it.

• How can I be sure?: From increased biodiversity to pesticides that linger less, organic farming has environmental edges. At the same time, how do we know that USDA guidelines are actually being followed? The assurances we have are annual audits of farming operations, required recordkeeping of chemical purchases, and occasional product testing for residue. Based on my experience with similar “safeguards”, I wouldn’t stake my life on faithful compliance. Like the mice that play when the cat’s away, a lot of mischief is possible with a year between inspections.

In addition, farmers directly hire and pay for the assessors who evaluate their farms. In other words, there is a built-in conflict of interest. As a practical matter, an auditor who gets too demanding probably won’t have business for long. While it is entirely possible that most operations follow USDA guidelines, it would be in spite of, rather than due to, present enforcement mechanisms.

If organic products work well for you, please stay the course! However, from my standpoint, paying more for the same taste and health benefits just doesn’t add up. Although I am open to spending more if I can decrease my negative impacts, I think that betting any money on the present system represents a losing wager. When something changes to shift the balance significantly, I will be the first to reconsider my stance. Until then, I will stick with a less costly path.

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SEAN FIELDS is the A-J’s Savvy Shopper. Read his columns Sundays and Wednesdays. Email him at SavvyShopperLubbock@gmail.com, like his Facebook page at Facebook.com/LubbockSavvyShopper, or see previous columns and deals at lubbockonline.com/savvy-shopper.

This article originally appeared on Lubbock Avalanche-Journal: Savvy Shopper: What is organic and what does that mean for shoppers?