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Pundit’s Mailbag — Too Much Hype Over ‘Organic’?

We ran a piece entitled Is Organic Produce Healthier? — and it brought numerous responses including a letter from a salad dressing manufacturer who responded as aconsumer. We ran that piece under the title Pundit’s Mailbag — A Different Definition Of Organic Health. Today we run a letter that points out some realities about agriculture:

It was interesting to note that there might be some nutritional benefit to organic production of potatoes. I expect that the potatoes have no ethereal preference for being grown organically and the difference lies in either fertilizer application, soil conditions, or location, i.e., terroir.

Personally, I question any positive nutritional value added to consumable plants because they might be farmed organically. Plants cannot ‘get up and move’ if attacked by pests or antigens. In nature, most naturally occurring plants have evolved to protect themselves by developing poisonous attributes which kill or discourage their consumption by other life forms (life threatening allergies for many to nuts come to mind).

Most of the commercial fruits and vegetables we eat today are edible because humans protect them during their life cycle. Throwing a few seeds on the ground does not guarantee dinner.

That said there are other significant advantages to organic and other low-impact environmental methods of production of fruits and vegetables.

The obvious one is expense, especially when considering the use of pesticides and fungicides. Many growers are finding new ways to meet consumer demands for tasty, cosmetically attractive fruits and vegetables while using fewer artificially made chemicals which may have a harmful impact on the environment.

Better scientific tools to measure a plant’s true growth and optimal production requirements in many cases is leading to better use of expensive production resources to grow healthy food — with less environmental impact.

I believe there is far too much hype over what constitutes ‘organic’. When I took chemistry in college, organic simply referred to any compound that contained the element Carbon.

I congratulate anyone who has found a way to produce fruits and vegetables organically, or even transitionally. Indeed, today we are finding that ‘less really is more’ and the real test should be to have the least impact on our environment possible, while producing healthy and nutritious fruits and vegetables. Maybe there is no added nutritional value to organic and low impact farmed produce, but we all are better off if we can “get more, with less”.

— Richard A. Eastes
Rixx Intl. Marketing Co.Inc.
Visalia, California

Rick makes several key points:

1) That this claim of extra vitamin C in potatoes grown organically is questionable.

We are also waiting to actually see the research on the notion that organically grown produce may be higher in Vitamin C than conventionally grown produce. In the past, as Rick references, differentials that seem to suggest something intrinsic about a growing method may, in fact, be due to something else. Comparing organic to conventional is especially difficult because, by definition, you can’t grow them in the same field.

Indeed if growing organically is more difficult, farmers may use their best land to grow when they use that method. This can give completely incorrect indications as to what would be the outcome if the whole crop — both that grown on prime and sub-prime land — was converted to organic.

Time can also distort these things. If the organic product is local and the conventional product from across country or if the organic product is new crop and the conventional from storage — well, you may, as they say, be comparing apples to oranges.

Besides, a small difference in a vitamin claim is not much of a health claim anyway. Are our diets deficient in vitamin C? Will we have fewer deaths from scurvy if we have vitamin C-rich potatoes? What is the real advantage?

2) There are other advantages to organics, notably avoiding the expense of chemicals.

Yes, avoiding the expense of chemicals would be great — if we didn’t have to use other things in their place. Whether we have to use organic substances or keep the field fallow more or buy beneficial insects or accept reduced yields — all signs point to organic production being more expensive than conventional — not less expensive.

3) That too much emphasis is placed on the term “organic” and that the world would be better off if we looked to use science to reduce unnecessary inputs into agriculture by all producers instead.

Rick has a crucial insight here. Anyone who knows chemistry knows that the organic industry has taken a trivial difference — the absence of a synthetic substance — and built a massive marketing effort around it.

Because the base is so much larger, virtually any interest one might have in expanding organic production — reducing exposure to synthetic pesticides in people or the environment — would be more easily obtained by obtaining changes in conventional agricultural practices than by promoting organics. In other words, getting a 10% decrease in pesticide use by conventional agriculture will achieve a reduction in synthetic pesticide use far exceeding what even a 100% increase in organic production would accomplish.

The problem, of course, is that we have created a ‘winner take all’ game. Reduce synthetic pesticide use by 99% and one sells at the same price as all other conventional produce. Do that extra 1% and one gets the organic premium.

One caveat we would add is that knowing how something will ultimately affect the environment is very tricky.

Crucially, it depends on knowing what yields will be. If it turns out that organic yields 30% less than conventional, then the enormity of increasing acreage sufficiently to compensate for that decline in production is likely to do so much harm to the environment that it seems unlikely that any organic benefit could compensate.

Many thanks to Rick for his thought-provoking letter.

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