Organic foods are no more nutritious than those grown convention-ally — that’s according to the recently released results of a study by the U.K.’s Food Standards Agency, based on collected research from the last 50 years.
Organic food advocates quickly objected to the report. The Organic Consumers Association described it as flawed, citing in part its failure to consider antioxidants. By way of example, they pointed to an earlier study revealing that organic ketchup offered more of the antioxidant lycopene than non-organic ketchup. Critics also put forth a 2008 study from the Organic Center, the conclusions of which were summarized in the title, “New Evidence Confirms the Nutritional Superiority of Plant-Based Organic Foods.”
Advocates added that there are also reasons besides nutrition to buy organic, such as environmental benefits that may result from eschewing biotech crops and synthetic herbicides and fertilizers. But these claims are also vigorously debated. Some researchers, such as Alan McHughen, botany professor at the University of California, contend there is no evidence that organic foods are more environmentally friendly, since organic production allows natural pesticides, which can be toxic, and organic fertilizers can contain harmful bacteria. And while it’s widely believed that greater yields come from conventional farming methods, even that depends on whom you ask; a 2007 study from the University of Michigan showed the opposite.
So the debate between organics and conventional food grinds on, and each side can present favorable experts, statistics and studies. But does it matter?
The more important conversation is about achieving increased production with decreased environmental impacts — in other words, sustainability. While some argue that organic methods are synonymous with sustainable methods, it’s too simplistic to say that’s true everywhere, in every case. What if organic fungicide doesn’t last as long as synthetic fungicide, so it has to be applied more often, requiring extra miles on the tractor? What if biotech crops can reduce the need for pesticides of any kind? What if synthetic fertilizer grows more food on less land, allowing nearby forests to remain intact? Agriculture is complicated and takes place in many different circumstances; there’s not likely to be a one-size-fits-all solution.
Critics of conventional agriculture can sometimes romanticize the issues, pitting the little guy —the local, small organic farmer — against the big, faceless corporation. When behemoths such as Wal-Mart get into the organic pool, organic advocates bemoan it, wishing organic could stay small.
In one sense, organic is small; though it’s a growing market, it still only accounts for 2.5 percent of the food sold in this country. But agriculture as a whole must be big; we can’t hope for a return of small, local farms to feed billions of people. Small farms will continue to exist, as long as there’s a market for them, but we also will always need large operations to produce commodities like wheat and corn efficiently.
Whether big, small, organic or conventional, agriculture needs to feed the world, and with the population expected to increase 50 percent over the next several decades, it is essential to figure out how to best use limited land, water and energy to do that. It won’t be easy, and both sides, organic and conventional, may have to meet somewhere in between to face those challenges.