A familiar dilemma: to grab the allegedly wholesome, overpriced carton of berries under the halogen bulbs of the organic section, or to trudge back to the corporate produce aisle and pick up a batch of the less beautiful regular ones in a bag for half the price?
Organic activists say the outrageous cost is worth it. According to them, organic food is more nutritious, better for public health, environmentally friendlier, and even tastier than conventional food.
Science, on the other hand, has something entirely different to say: Go for the cheap stuff. It’s just as good as organic food.
Let’s examine each of the claims routinely made by organic supporters. How do they measure up scientifically?
Claim #1: Organic food is more nutritious.
A peer-reviewed research study published Tuesday in Annals of Internal Medicine, one of the top medical journals in the world, addressed this claim. The study found that organic foods are not more nutritious than conventional food. Organic food has more phosphorous, but the regular stuff already contains enough to satisfy our dietary requirement.
“Bias!” we hear the organic activists shouting. But this study received no outside funding. They can’t blame Monsanto for this one.
In defiance of this study, Brian Fung writing in The Atlantic defended organic food, anyway. Contrary to highly visible marketing campaigns, he says that organic food was never about being more nutritious. Instead, it is about better public health and friendly environmental practices. Is he right?
Claim #2: Organic food is better for public health.
This is both true and false. First, the true part.
On one (and only one) claim, organic supporters are correct. Organic food is produced without using antibiotics in livestock feed, and this is good for public health. Because inappropriate use of antibiotics contributes to the increasing problem of antibiotic resistance, microbiologists endorse not using them in animal feed. Indeed, the above study concluded that conventional foods were much likelier to contain bacteria with resistance to multiple antibiotics.
Now, the false part. Activists claim that organic food is also better for public health because it has less pesticide residue. While organic foods indeed contain less residue, there is no reason to believe that this is a problem in the first place. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Toxicology concluded that “exposures to the most commonly detected pesticides...pose negligible risks to consumers.”
Claim #3: Organic food is better for the environment.
Not necessarily true, concludes a brand new meta-analysis published in the Journal of Environmental Management. The study found:
...that organic farming practices generally have positive impacts on the environment per unit of area, but not necessarily per product unit. Organic farms tend to have higher soil organic matter content and lower nutrient losses (nitrogen leaching, nitrous oxide emissions and ammonia emissions) per unit of field area. However, ammonia emissions, nitrogen leaching and nitrous oxide emissions per product unit were higher from organic systems. Organic systems had lower energy requirements, but higher land use, eutrophication potential and acidification potential per product unit.
Organic farms are inefficient and have crop yields substantially lower than those of conventional farms. They cannot produce food efficiently enough and at a price that most people in the world can afford to pay. That is why Nature News reported earlier this year that the planet’s population could not be fed on organic food alone.
Claim #4: Organic food is tastier.
There is not a lot of data on this issue, but at least one taste test conducted by a consumer watch group concluded that organic food was not tastier. Ever heard a friend rave about how much better non-irradiated blueberries are? Remember that taste is highly subjective and not immune to marketing.
On the whole, science has soured on the promises of organic food. While it is good practice not to use antibiotics in livestock feed, the rest of the claims made by the “natural food movement” simply don’t hold up to scientific scrutiny. Organic farmers and ranchers are not saving the world, one apple and one pasture at a time. So, don’t buy into the scare tactics or the bromides.
Instead, it is time to face up to reality: If you’re a regular organic shopper, you’ve been duped.