Foodie Underground: Should We Care About Organic?

ColumnWhy we have to get past thinking about the Big O.

“I now feel completely vindicated for NOT buying organic foods.”

Well, great.

The internet was abuzz with the recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine that found little evidence that organic foods are more nutritious than conventional grown food, and I found myself getting severely agitated by comments like the above posted in social media circles. Granted, I spend a lot of time thinking about food, but simple statements like the aforementioned prove to me that we are entirely removed from the food process and what we are eating. We are oversimplifying a complex issue.

We love it when studies prove to us that our decisions are right. Want to justify a habit? You can probably find a study that does just that. Coffee is good for you, no bad for you, no good for you.

In an information based society, there is no surprise that we’re drawn in by headlines. But if we are going to base our eating values on a headline and the first paragraph of an article, we should question the importance we are putting on our well-being and that of the planet.

Here’s the issue with a meta-study: it only focuses on one element. When it comes to organic food, this specific study, as with many others, doesn’t paint a full picture.

“This study disputes how significant the differences in antioxidant and nutrient levels are between organic and conventional food. But that’s not central to the discussion of why organic is important, which has a lot more to do with how the soil is managed and the exposure to pesticides, not just in the eater’s diet but to the farmworker,” said author Michael Pollan in an interview with KQED.

We have to take a step back and take a look at the bigger picture. The study did find that conventional produce has a 30% higher chance of pesticide contamination compared to organic foods, and as the Guardian pointed out, “it should be noted that there are currently no long-term studies of the health outcomes for people consuming organic versus conventionally produced food.”

Beyond that, as Pollan emphasizes, there is an environmental cost to everything that we put in our bodies. Food cannot be reduced to single elements. It’s not just about antioxidants or carbohydrates or omega 3s. Food is a process, a compilation of nutrition, environment and experience.

“Organic” has certainly become a buzz word. Slap the big O on anything and you’re sure to attract a certain demographic. In a controversial op-ed, The New York Times writer Roger Cohen called the organic ideology “an elitist, pseudoscientific indulgence shot through with hype.”

He is partly right.

There is a challenge to feeding the planet, and it’s not going to be solved by $4 organic asparagus from Whole Foods; that’s about the same as the average amount as a food stamp recipient is allotted per day. However, if we are talking about building sustainable food systems that solve hunger, we have to think about the whole approach. And if we’re in the socio-economic group that has the money and time to think about what we’re eating, we have no excuse not to be doing so.

In the modern age, if you are able to comfortably put food on the table, it is inexcusable to not think about what you are eating. This issue isn’t about organic vs. conventional, it is about building a food system that is focused on good food. A food system that puts a value on local small-scale businesses and not just agribusiness. A food system that normalizes appreciating good food instead of making it pretentious.

“Is it organic?” is only one of many questions that we should all be asking when we’re standing with a grocery basket in our hands. “Where does it come from?” “What pesticides were used?” “How are the people that produce it treated?” “What synthetic chemicals are part of this meal?” The list goes on.

There is not one simple solution to eating better. If you think that filling your basket with foods just because they have a specific label on them means you’re doing the right thing, think again. Take a holistic approach – one that thinks about food in a new way. How it affects you. How it affects your community. How it affects the planet.

If we are going to move the food system forward, in a progressive and sustainable manner, we have to be asking the hard questions, and that takes more than just reading a headline.

Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’s weekly column at EcoSalon, Foodie Underground, discovering what’s new and different in the underground food movement, from supper clubs to mini markets to the culinary avant garde.

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.