Organic foods

I kept hearing reference to a Stanford study claiming that there was no evidence that organic foods were more nutritious than conventionally grown food. When I finally read more about it, I was disgusted for so many reasons. Mark Bittman summed up most of the study’s flaws his succinct and reference-filled style.

Among the most flagrant flaws is the narrow definition of nutritious as simply “containing more vitamins.” “By which standard you can claim that, based on nutrients, Frosted Flakes are a better choice than an apple.” Bittman goes on to point out errors in the study, and mentions that Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute, which supported the research, received major financing from Cargill. There are two companies I can think of that would benefit the most from these findings. The other is Monsanto.

However, the organic label lost some of its luster for me as big business co-opted it. I prefer my foods grown or raised without pesticides, because I believe that they affect our health, and on a bigger scale, the health of our planet—in many ways we already know, but others I think we are only beginning to suspect. Besides health reasons, “organic” implied a humane benefit. Organic dairy cows, for example, were able to graze in open pastures. When demand surged for organic milk, some of the biggest food companies, and retailers, took notice. Kristin Wartman, in a Huffington Post blog wrote a great piece: “Organic Agriculture: Fifty (Plus) Shades of Gray.” . She talks about the differences between small to mid-scale farmers who go well beyond the USDA’s standards for organic, and “industrial organics.” “At one end of this scale are companies like Horizon Organic, which sells USDA-certified organic milk. Horizon is owned by Dean Foods, the sixth largest food company in North America. Large food corporations of this scale wield immense power to influence organic standards. Walmart, which sells the Horizon brand and is the largest retailer of organic milk in the country, has been involved in multiple lawsuits over the use of the word organic on various product labels and in the case of Horizon’s organic milk, whistleblowers found it was actually being produced in large-scale factory farms without adhering to organic standards, like access to pasture.”

Many of the farmers I buy from aren’t certified organic. For some, the cost of obtaining certification is prohibitive. However, they adhere to or exceed organic farming standards and, perhaps even more importantly, they are open and happy to share their practices with their customers. Pat’s Pastured, from whom I buy chicken, pork, and beef, uses rotational farming methods that enrich and preserve the soil. His animals have access to open space and graze or forage as they were meant to, and their end is brought about with as little stress on them as possible (although I realize that many believe that raising any animal for consumption is simply wrong).

The Stanford study seems at best willfully ignorant (and the subsequent media coverage was irresponsible, giving it far more attention than it warranted). Yet I don’t think consumers should accept an organic label on blind faith. The best way to learn about where your food comes from is to talk directly to the producer. If you can’t, then there should be complete transparency in how your food was raised, grown or prepared. And any company not willing to provide that transparency does not get my business.

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