The Organics Debate

***disclaimer: My camera is having technical difficulties! Sorry for the lack of pictures…I will continue to try to upload!***

Summer is over in Alaska and the winter is quickly approaching. We have seen frosts four of the last five nights–even row cover isn’t saving some of the very “precious” (as Farmer Amanda calls them) plants! The termination dust is creeping down the mountains. Termination dust is the first glimpse of snow on a mountain, signifying the termination of summer. Alas, summer in Alaska is fast and furious and now we’re heading, prematurely, into the long haul of winter. I see my friends and family in the lower 48 are still out enjoying boat rides and morning tea on the porch.

Even if winter is coming on fast–I LOVE the fall! The air is crisp, the too thick foliage (in some places) is dying back and cleaning itself out, and our brains are ready to learn. What is it about the fall that encourages us to learn, discuss and debate? Perhaps it has been conditioned in us from years of going back to school every fall. Perhaps this is some research to be explored in those forementioned long months of winter!

Well, school is back in session, harvest season is winding down, and the internet has been abuzz with debates about the costs and benefits of organic food consumption and production. What is all the fuss about?

I am one to follow my gut in many instances. I took an environmental ethics class during my undergraduate years, and really tried to defend my “just because”philosophy using philosophical structure and jargon…my philosophy professor wasn’t impressed, to say the least. It just seemed silly to have to defend something with philosphic rhetoric that appeared to be so obviously true, to me.

Now, that I am a wee little bit older, I can see that, as humans, we often need the truth laid out for us…but my old ways of thinking are still present. We should defend organic production (of food, textiles, household cleaners, etc.) “just because” it seems much, much less destructive to ourselves and the environment than the alternative. But, we need facts and figures and pros and cons and opponents and proponents and compromise. Compromise–the word with great intentions that gets played all too often.

Last week, NPR released an article titled “Why Organic Food May Not Be Healthier For You.” The article discusses a recent Stanford study that sheds light on the fact that organic food isn’t necessarily more nutritious than conventionally grown produce. I must admit that I have touted this argument before: “Organic food is more vitamin rich than conventionally grown food!” And I will accept defeat, here–even if some studies show that organic produce has higher levels of vitamins and trace minerals per calorie. The truth is that the nutrients in any food are dependent on the soil it was grown in and the weather during the season it was grown. Healthy, nutrient packed soil with ideal weather conditions means nutrient packed produce! My argument here is that, in the long run, organically managed soils are more nutrient dense and complete than conventionally managed soils. We have destroyed a lot of soil through conventional practices, and returning it to organic production takes at least three years (for certification), and probably longer for the soil to be as healthy, or healthier than it was before synthetic fertilizer and pesticide application. Sure, randomly picked foods in the grocery store might show little difference in nutrient value, but there will be a difference between produce from poorly managed soils versus properly managed soils.

Furthermore–our health is dependent on so much more than what we eat! The article says that the chemicals and antibiotic resistant bacterias found in conventionally grown food is not harmful to our bodies. This is according to the EPA and USDA. How can any endocrine disruptors and other chemicals that are meant to kill life be okay to ingest? Some argue that even our water contains low levels of arsenic and other poisons. Well, if we can’t control that, why not control what we can and cut down on our exposure to the chemicals and poisons we can protect ourselves from? The standards for the EPA and USDA are based on the bodies of adult males. I am, and never will be, an adult male. I doubt I or a child can withstand the same kind of chemical load that an adult male can. Plus, I don’t want the adult males in my life to be exposed to unnecessary chemicals!

But, are they necessary? This is where that whole “Compromise” words comes into play. One of my friends says this: “The world needs safe, affordable food. If growing it organically means you get only half (or less) the yield you would have using modern methods and you skip traditional microbe killing tools like irradiating crops and treating them with bleach, you’re going to have a lot of sick, hungry people on your hands….Whether that progress indicates total organic is the best way forward, traditional, modern farming is best, or, as I suspect, the ideal solution is some kind of hybrid of the two, I just hope those involved will take the hard science and the numbers into consideration, and not be unduly influenced by the fear of the unknown or the potential profits.”

I understand and respect her views, to a point. At least she is open to conversation. However, I do see this as another “What can nature do for us?” kind of debate question. I also see it as stifling any kind of progress the organic movement has had. What is true? I really don’t know.  Many studies are funded by interests from both sides of the debate and many of the studies are too dense for me to navigate and wholly understand.  I can just follow what makes sense to me–synthetic chemicals and antibiotics shouldn’t be eaten by us every day.

The Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources released a fairly thorough rebuttal to the Stanford study here. I encourage you to read it!

Perhaps Monsanto is freaked out by the ever increasing rise in organic food demand and had to fund some research to make people takea step back?

Finally, the personal economic costs of purchasing organic food continues to be a debate. Many of the comments on articles about organic food read something like this: “Organic food is for rich people who don’t have to worry about money. It is a luxury.” However, as one of my readers called me out on in the past, this is often not the case any more!  In many instances, locally grown, organically produced foods are cheaper and more readily available than the conventional foods at the grocery store. These differences are most apparent at some farmer’s markets and farmstands, but the gap seems to be closing at the grocery store too. I don’t want to go too far into this, now. But I do believe the costs of purchasing organic food vs. conventional food can and will level out.

Finally, I must admit that I am not totally organic…I have weaknesses like taste buds and a limited budget. Oreos are delicious. I will often purchase conventionally grown food when the price difference is far below the organic option. And sometimes there isn’t an organic option–it’s better to have conventionally grown food than none at all!

What do you think, Farmgirls?

  1. Lisa Heinzmann says:

    Just as a farmgirl can be a condition of the heart, choosing to live as close to an organic lifestyle as possible can be as well. Unless we choose to live in a plastic sphere or bubble, we can not completely stay away from chemicals. I think finding the place that fits our lives is all we can do. I think conventional foods can be nutritious, depending on the ingredients, but continuous exposure to toxins, genetically modified, pesticide-filled so-called food can’t be good. It’s a personal choice and I personally participate in Bountiful Baskets Cooperative and raise livestock. But not everyone is able to do that; hence, we all do what we can.

  2. Nella Spencer says:

    I’m with you, Alexandra. It seems like this debate is getting hotter as there becomes more organic food available. Had a conversation with someone the other day who said that there was only a slight difference, a few more pesticides! Well, isn’t that enough? Who wants to injest ANY pesticides, and maybe this is all happening because people are getting smarter about their food and companies like Mansanto feel the need to brainwash the public.

  3. Laura says:

    I am with you all the way here, farmgirl. I don’t need studies and debates to know what feels good and right for our bodies, our health, our earth.
    enjoy your early fall!

  4. cynthia says:

    I think the organic stuff tastes way better. I grew organic Sugar Snap peas the year they first came on the market. My neighbor, a crusty old farmer who sprayed everything but Napalm on his veg bed, raved about them when I gave him some to try. The next year he demanded to know why his weren’t sweet like mine…I gave him a carrot to try…the following year he went organic.

  5. Adrienne says:

    I have a dear friend suffering from pesticide poisoning and her story had me examining my own lifestyle. Now I am a kosher lacto-ovo vegetarian locavore (someone who eats local) and organic as much as possible. I’m lucky to live in northern California so I have access to fruits and veggies year round, most of them transported less than 100 miles. There are farmers markets nearly every day of the week and once you know the farmers, it’s easy to support them as well as compliment their hard work in growing and bringing their wholesome products to you. My eggs come from chickens that are free range (not just cage free). My dairy products come from a dairy that has their cows in the fields nine months of the year. They have individual stalls and are milked three times a day to avoid stress. Their "deposits" are used to power the electricity at the dairy and it’s cleaner than my apartment.
    I saw the Stanford study and it’s one study. Remember when coffee was good for you, then bad, then good? I treat this study the same way. Like the old song "Big Yellow Taxi": "…give me spots on my apples but leave me the birds and the bees." Go organic!

  6. Cindy says:

    By now I guess most people know the true story about the Stanford study which was pretty much bought and paid for by Big Ag. if not, however, here are a couple of links that outline how that study came together and how the statistics were manipulated so the press could present its outrageous headlines saying ‘organics are no better for you than chemical-laden crops.’ Please read:

  7. Nicole says:

    Hi Alexandra! Saw that article too…and had a few negative Nellys call me with "I told you so". I am not swayed. I continue to eat organic. Here on the East coast, the difference in price between organic and non is not that much, and sometimes I’ve found organics to be cheaper. Eating organic also means we are skipping GMO’s, preservatives, and chemicals. Several years ago, my family and I went organic, thanks to MaryJane, and have not been sick hardly at all since. We used to be a family that was on antibiotics all the time! Even my pediatrician had thought we switched doctors (because she never saw us anymore), and said she wished more of her patients ate organic. That personal proof keeps me from ever going back. By the way, have you tried the "Late July" brand version of "Oreos"? They have green tea in them, and are a very tasty organic substitution. 😉 Hugs from your bloggin’ farmgirl sis, Nicole (Suburban Farmgirl)

  8. Alex,

    As someone who worked for 20 years as a scientist and engineer, I find the Stanford study to be of poor quality. They basically set up a strawman hypothesis that "organic food is healthier because it has more nutrients" which is not the key benefit of organics. The key benefit is that we are not ingesting pesticides, genetically modified substances and other unnastural chemicals into our bodies. The strawman was easy to knock down with their data, because as you state, nutrient levels are dependent on what is done to prepare the soil.

    By the way, I cooked up some Spring Creek new potatoes and leeks with some elk/cheese/jalapeno sausage for dinner tonight. Yum!

    "Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people…" Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781.

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