A good friend asked for my thoughts today about this Gawker report (about a USA Today article about a meta-study and a University of Oxford study) which claims that organic food is no better (and in some cases worse) than non-organic food.
I get variations on this theme all the time, so this time I have actually written my answer down for posterity and for future reference - I will also tell you definitively whether I believe that Gawker is correct in its conclusion of "Science Suggests That Organic Food Is Largely a Sham".
First though, I will frame my response to this specific article with
three four observations:
- (Edit) I believe that most studies, meta-studies, and popular discussion on the topic of "organic vs. conventional" miss the point entirely (including, disappointingly this recent TreeHugger article)
- As someone who aspires to live sustainably, I don't give a shit about "organic food". I only care about "sustainable food".
- As someone who aspires to live rationally, I trust scientists to report results correctly and factually, within the parameters of their study.
- For the same reason as 3) I do not trust USA Today to report scientists' results impartially.
- A lot of organic food is sold in supermarkets.
- Whether it is labeled "organic" or not, very little food (or anything else) sold in supermarkets is sustainable.
- Sustainable food derives from sustainable farming practices.
- Sustainable farming practices almost invariably result in organic food.
- Although sustainably farmed food is almost certainly organic, food that is labeled "organic" is rarely sustainably farmed. This is because the label was put on the food to allow it to be sold in a supermarket, and because supermarkets are driven by economic rationalism.
- Supermarket food demands economically rational farming practices. The most economically rational farming practice is industrial farming.
- Industrial farming is not sustainable because it degrades soil productivity, destroys biodiversity, pollutes waterways, and is highly dependent on fossil fuels.
- Industrial farming is also unsustainable because it requires very high inputs of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
- Some time ago, to counter the Orwellian "conventional" label given to industrial farming, well-meaning but naïve people came up with the idea of an "organic farming" label.
- Supermarkets quickly co-opted this idea to create an "organic" brand that they could market as a prestige product with alleged health and environmental benefits.
- In their drive for economies of scale, supermarkets have aggressively undermined the standards behind the "organic" label - to the point where today, supermarket food can be labeled "organic" just because it was produced on an industrial farm that applied a few restrictions on the types of chemical fertilizers and pesticides used.
- Marketing-blinded consumers have thus allowed the "organic" label to be corrupted to the point where it is now used, for example, to sell perfectly preserved, individually wrapped, "organic" apples from New Zealand in the middle of the Northern summer.
- This is despite the fact that "organic" industrial farming with less chemicals and fertilizers is more wasteful, less economically rational, and no more sustainable than "conventional" industrial farming.
- Sustainable farming on the other hand, involves smaller, better-managed farms that use natural practices and employ more people. Such farms deliver fresh food to local consumers that is naturally higher quality, better taste, higher nutrition, and lower waste than food grown on a factory farm on the other side of the world (whether that farm happens to use "organic" or "conventional" practices.)
Now, finally, I will give my specific thoughts on whether I believe that "science" is correct to "suggest that organic food is largely a sham"
It is not a sham if you buy organic food fresh from a small local producer who produces the food naturally. In general though, since very few people shop that way these days, I'm afraid that I must agree with the general findings of these reports. Organic food bought in a supermarket is, almost without exception, "largely a sham" :-(
I object violently, however, to any implication that "conventional" food is somehow the answer.
The answer is sustainable food. Unfortunately, you will not find sustainable food in a supermarket anywhere on the planet.
Nor will you find it discussed in USA Today.