Sunday, September 9, 2012

"Organic, Schmorganic"

Last Monday the Times posted an article about the findings of a new meta-analysis comparing 237 different studies of organic and conventional foods. The analysis found that there is no significant nutritional variance between the two groups. Basically, a tomato is a tomato no matter how you grow it.  The article goes on to say that there are some nutritional benefits -- organic milk contains more Omega-3s, for example. Unfortunately, it seems, people stopped reading at the headline.

Among them is the Times' own Roger Cohen, a British-born journalist whose specialty is economics and international politics. I mention his background to emphasize the fact that his opinion on questions of nutrition is as valid as the homeless man I saw urinate on a croissant two years ago. Yet the Times saw fit to publish his opinion for millions to read: "organic, schmorganic."

His arguments are fraught with inaccuracies so laughable that one has to wonder if he actually read any of the information available, even an article written by his own peer. For one, he states:

"To feed a planet of 9 billion people, we are going to need high yields and not low yields; we are going to need genetically modified crops; we are going to need pesticides and fertilizers and other elements of the industrialized food processes that have led mankind to be better fed and live longer than at any time in history."

Where to start? Yes, we would need higher yields to feed a global population of 9 billion. That's why we need more organic farms than industrial. In a 2011 speech delivered by food activist and farmer HRH The Prince of Wales, Prince Charles states, "Yield increases for staple food crops are declining. They have dropped from 3% in the 1960s to 1% today." One percent, mind you, is less than the annual increase in population. What we're doing right now with industrial farms is not going to sustain us in the long run. For shame, Mr. Cohen, contradicting your own prince.

Then there's the oversight of stating that mankind is "better fed and [will] live longer". Twenty percent of the global adult population is obese. Fourteen percent is starving. Obesity is the fifth leading cause of death in the world and almost 5% of the entire world has diabetes. Bringing these numbers home, 64% of adults in the US are obese, but the incidence of diabetes in the UK is increasing at a faster rate than in the US. Your generation will live longer, Mr. Cohen. Mine will not.

Speaking of elitist, marginalizing a movement of people concerned with eating better as being "pseudoscientific" or indulgent seems myopic given the state of our waistlines. And if you think that wanting to limit the amount of pesticides pumped into your body is romantic then I feel sorry for your wife.

The fact is, if you had read the Times article written by Kenneth Chang-- or even Stanford's interview with Dena Bervata (the senior author of the meta-analysis) -- you'd know that there are various reasons people pick organic. Not merely for nutritional value, but for a reduction of chemical intake (which the study corroborates), better treatment of animals, as well as environmental factors. Given the choice between higher yields and environmental benefits or underproduction paired with the depletion of our environment, I can't see someone struggling with this question.

You do make one valid point, though your citation of Whole Foods as a go-to for organic foods is the equivalent of someone shopping for a cheap Mother's Day present at Cartier: organic food tends to be more expensive than its conventionally grown counterpart. But, as in my example of Cartier, there are cheaper places to shop: a farmer's market, a CSA, or your local food store. Buying fruits and vegetables in season is paramount in the search for a deal and any broke Organic knows that conventionally grown is okay as long as it's not part of the Dirty Dozen.

Behold the vanity of man, who holds an apple, grown by Nature, and says, "I can make this better."

Sources: World Health Organization