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So, Is Organic a Scam?

Over the past several weeks, I’ve laid out a considerable amount of evidence showing that there indeed are substantive differences between organic produce and conventional produce. Organic is often more nutritious [8], with a greater concentration of phytonutrients (contrary to what the popular media has been saying). Conventional produce shows up in your kitchen with far more pesticide residues, and these residues appear to be especially harmful to youngsters [9], babies, and fetuses (feti?). Antibiotic resistance, which is on the rise, is partially attributable to the widespread usage of antibiotics in conventional agriculture; organic agriculture forbids their usage. Many studies have also shown organic farming to be better for the environment [10], the local ecosystem, the renewability of the farm, and the health of its workers. Organic food is usually more expensive, but the research tends to suggest that you’re getting something extra out of it.

That’s all well and good, but should you buy organic? This is the real question that needs answering.

I don’t think there’s a single answer. It’s contextual (as it always is). So let’s look at a few different contexts.

Who should probably spring for organic?

People who are pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant. Fetuses are particularly susceptible to the effects of pesticides and reliant upon the nutrients from high-quality plants.

People who are going to be feeding small kids. Humans develop slowly, especially when compared to other animals, and the first five years are especially crucial to the health and long term development of children.

People who eat a lot of a particular type of produce. If you’re making kale chips [11] by the pound on a daily basis, get the organic kale [12]. Spread the potential damage around.

People who eat from “The Dirty Dozen.” Check out the list of the twelve most pesticide-ridden examples of produce of 2012 [13] (plus the 15 cleanest counterparts that don’t necessarily need to be organic). I have to say, though – doesn’t it seem like they’re shortchanging us for a cutesy rhyme? I find it hard to believe that there are only 12 “dirty” and 15 “clean.” What about number 13? Number 16? At any rate, the lists are helpful tools.

People who have the money. Organic can be more expensive than conventional. You don’t want to be the guy eating organic golden beets down by the river, but if you can afford organic food, I’d suggest doing so.

Other motivations may not involve your immediate personal health, but they’re also good reasons for going organic:

To support the health of agricultural workers. It can be easy to forget about them, but they’re people who deserve the ability to make a living without constant exposure to dangerous chemicals.

To support improved sequestration of carbon into the soil. If we’re all about paying homage to our Primal roots [14], we should acknowledge that the earth used to sequester a whole lot more carbon into its soil before we began altering its surface through agriculture. Its Primal roots are lots and lots of carbon sequestered in its soil!

To support the maintenance of healthy soil and biodiversity. Healthy soil means healthier, more nutritious plants. A biodiverse farm uses fewer pesticides and requires less labor to repel invaders.

To prevent the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. I’ve explained how antibiotic resistance [15] impacts our health before.

However, when it comes down to it…

Just eat plants – whatever type you can obtain and afford.

Don’t let the spectre of organic paralyze you. Don’t let it keep you from availing yourself of the wonderful bounty of the plant kingdom. Don’t avoid that Asian market full of interesting and mysterious vegetation just because nothing’s labeled “organic.” Don’t go full-on carnivore [16]. Keep in mind that all those studies that find links between fruit and vegetable intake and improved longevity [17], lowered risk for disease [18], and better birth outcomes [19] aren’t referring to organic produce. The vast majority of produce consumed in this and other countries is conventional, with just 0.9% of global agricultural land being devoted to organic farming (PDF [20]), and it’s still consistently linked with health benefits. When a study talks about “fruit and vegetable intake” being associated with health benefits, you can assume they’re talking about conventional produce unless specified otherwise. 

Besides, organic is changing. Big Agra, seeing dollar signs, is getting involved, and the authorities have been more than willing to alter their original conception of organic to make things a little easier, a little simpler (at least for the big guys with droves of lawyers ready, willing, and paid to navigate the legal landscape). Prime example: back in 2002 [21], 77 non-organic items were allowed to be used in organic food production without ruining the name. This is known as the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. Today, that list has ballooned to include over 250 non-organic items that can be used in organic food (crops, livestock, processed food production). What does “organic” mean, then? Is organic spinach from Walmart just as good, just as fresh, and just as nutritious as organic spinach from the farmers market?

But still, I think as a general rule, “organic” food is more likely to contain fewer pesticides, be grown under more environmentally friendly conditions, be safer for your children (both born and unborn), have more polyphenols, negatively impact the health of fewer agricultural workers and fewer bees, and spawn less antibiotic-resistant bacteria than “conventional” food. The evidence is pretty clear.

Buy local.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: local trumps all. When you buy from a farmers market, you can see the person who produced your food. You can ask them what, if any, pesticides were used, and, if any were, go home and research their effects. You can bounce from one stand to the next, trying samples of all the various offerings, until you find the best one. You can be assured that this bunch of kale or that flat of berries was picked that day and immediately brought to market, rather than several weeks ago and allowed to sit around in cold storage. But – and I almost think this is the most important factor of all – you truly know that your food was sown, grown, and harvested by real people with faces, names, personalities, and real stakes in the game. Sure, we all “know” that people are responsible for the food we eat, but we don’t ever meet them. We never get the felt presence of immediate experience that’s so crucial to really understanding and experiencing life if we get our produce from packages from distant lands. The vitamins and minerals might be the same, but the experience is not, and that matters. Food’s not just sustenance and polyphenols and calories.

I hope I made things a little more clear today. My intent was not to scare people away from conventional produce. Rather, I wanted to give you a fair summation of the evidence and clear up some popular misconceptions made even more popular as of late. Take the information presented, see how it applies to your life situation, and go from there. But whatever you do, eat your plants and your animals [22]. Live your life, enjoy it. Be with loved ones [23], talk with friends [24]. Play [25] as much as possible, get sun [26] when it’s available. Feel the ground on your bare feet [27], walk every day [28], and lift some heavy stuff [29] now and then. Ruminate on the awesomeness that is life, and try to find peace with where and what you are. Laugh [30]. If some measly pesticides manage to do you harm despite all that other stuff, at least you’ll have lived a good life.

Thanks for reading, folks. Take care and be sure to leave a comment on what you’ve taken from this series.