Is Organic All It’s Cracked Up to Be?

Several months back, a major study comparing the nutritional value of organic food to conventional food made the rounds. Organic food, it found, was “no healthier” than ordinary food. There were no significant “differences in nutrient content,” and the study’s authors found “no evidence to support the selection of organic over conventionally produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority.” Hmm, so there were “differences,” but they were “unlikely to be of any public health relevance.” Okay – even if I accept that the differences were unimportant, there was a major, glaring qualifier: “nutritional superiority.” Going organic, then, doesn’t suddenly change the essential composition of a plant. A grape remains a grape (small differences aside), whether you use artificial pesticides or “natural” pesticides. I buy that, and I don’t think many people who support organic are arguing that industrial organic farms produce purer, more “appley” apples than conventional farms. They’re simply wary of ingesting the artificial chemical cocktails applied to conventional crops.

If you’re interested in just how many pesticides you may be ingesting, the PAN Pesticides Database deserves a look. It’s limited to California data, but you can obtain full listings of what pesticides were used on which crops. Go to “Tomatoes for Processing,” (soups, sauces, etc) for example, and you’ll see that over 10 million gross pounds of chemicals were applied to tomatoes intended for processing. The data is raw and admittedly incomplete (and perhaps even under-reported), but it gives you a general idea of the scale. And that’s just a single crop, in a single state, using only “reported tomato acreage.” There are hundreds more, and each one is – apparently – drenched in chemicals. Organic, then, is about much more than small micronutrient differences. It’s about avoiding the flood of artificial chemicals, which the study did not address.

The real issue is the industrialization of farming. You see, the organic label has become a big money maker. Sales of organics increase annually, and most major producers have at least one organic division. Up until the last decade or so, organic produce inhabited a tiny niche in the market. If you wanted organic, you’d probably have to grow it yourself or visit a farmers’ market that featured small, local organic family farm produce. Now, certified organic farms exist on massive scales rivaling the biggest conventional growing operations. Places like Costco carry organic produce: enormous tubs of lettuce, ten-pound bags of carrots, and drums of onions. You can’t expect Costco to get their organic produce from small, local hobby farmers who get intimate with their crops and fine tune the soil composition, take chances and try new methods; they have to rely on the enormous industrial organic farms, operations that use proven organic methods on a huge scale. These guys aren’t necessarily concerned with growing the perfect, richest, best tasting peach. They want something that satisfies the organic certification requirements, can be produced on a major scale, and can travel long distances without damage or spoilage. They aren’t handing out samples and beaming proudly like a parent.

The larger the scale, the more impersonal the relationship between farmer and food, regardless of organic status. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – it’s unavoidable with the increasing consumer demand for organics – but it does mean the organic apple you get from Costco will differ qualitatively from the apple you get from Joe down at the farmer’s market. And yes, I’d even bet there would be nutritional differences between Joe’s produce and the organic produce at Costco. The study’s authors certainly weren’t looking at farmers’ market stuff, because most organic produce is purchased in grocery stores, not farmers’ markets. For most people, “organic” means the slightly more expensive lettuce next to the cheaper, conventional lettuce in the grocery store, so that’s what they examined. Only a small subset of the population shops locally.

Despite all that, the Primal stance is generally pro-organic, the reasoning being that a plant, fruit, or animal grown without the administration of artificial pesticides, herbicides, or insecticides, chemical fertilizers, antibiotics or growth hormones (in the case of animal products), most closely replicates wild or untampered-with growing conditions. If we’re trying to eat like our ancestors, going organic might be our best shot at approximating their dietary environment. An organic, locally grown blackberry might not be identical to the berries Grok stumbled upon, but at least its producers tried to replicate the “wild” growing environment by minimizing or even eliminating the manmade chemical load.

I think we have to consider the role of organics as existing on a continuum. This is not a binary, black-and-white situation. Ideally, we’d all have access to time-traveling, foraging food merchants making weekly trips back to the Paleolithic for berries, roots, tubers, and other vegetation (and maybe the occasional auroch, or mammoth, cargo space permitting), but in reality we have to make do with the best we’ve got.

Homegrown reigns supreme, of course. You ever eat a big, plump juicy tomato that’s been showered with love and daily attention as it’s allowed to ripen on the vine by a home gardener? There is simply no comparison. It practically becomes a different organism altogether. But few people have the time or the space to produce enough vegetables and fruit to sustain a Primal diet.

Local farmers’ market fare is next. Big cities pretty much always have them, and they’re beginning to pop up in smaller markets, too. If it’s environmental impact you’re worried about, local apples trounce those organic Fujis from Chile. If it’s better taste you want, you’re better off buying spinach from the farmer who lives with her crops and takes personal pride in their quality. She earns her living based on a small, committed cadre of customers who intensely care about taste. They could hit up Whole Foods for bagged spinach, but they go to the small, local farmers’ markets for the experience and the superior quality. The farmers, then, have an obligation and a powerful financial motivation to improve the taste of their products. Take the local Santa Monica Wednseday farmers’ market, for example – all the local chefs stock up there. You’ll see their carts piled high with fruits, veggies, and local meats. These guys’ primary (perhaps only) concern is quality, but you don’t see them prowling Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. They know quality and where to find it, sort of like when you’re stuck in the wilderness and follow an animal trail to a watering hole. Wild animals know the wilderness, and chefs know food quality.

After homegrown and local, regular store-bought organic is best. They may not have any appreciable advantage when it comes to vitamins or phytonutrients, but they will be cleaner, and organic produce generally tastes better than conventional produce.

Organic meat, eggs, and dairy (if you eat it) should absolutely take precedence, if that even needs to be said. We already know the qualitative differences between pastured and grain-fed beef, and between pastured chickens and “cage free” chickens (let alone chickens in battery cages). We also know that dairy and animal fat can concentrate environmental chemicals, just as it can be a source of fat-soluble vitamins. When it comes to animal products, organic (and pastured, free-range in an ideal world) is absolutely essential.

All that said, people have to eat. And if we can’t eat organic, local, or pastured, going with conventional produce is our only option. If you’re in that position, you can mitigate your chemical load by avoiding certain choices and going with others. Grain-fed, antibiotic-pumped meat can be trimmed of visible fat (boring, I know, but probably worth it).

So, is organic worth it? Yeah, it’s worth the trouble, but buying locally is best – often for your wallet, for the environment, and for your taste buds. Just don’t beat yourself up over the question of organic versus conventional. Your ability to put food on the table and pay the rent takes ultimate precedence over the amount of pesticides in said food. It’s sad and unfortunate that we often have to make that choice, but that’s the world we live in. And, like Grok did before us, we’ve gotta make the best with what we’ve got.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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