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April 19, 2014
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editorial

Confused about organic food?


Early last month, researchers from Stanford University published a study that concluded organic fruits and vegetables have no significant nutritional advantage over conventionally grown food. News headlines ranged from USA Today’s “Study sees no nutritional edge in organic food” all the way to one online blogger’s “Study: Organic Food is Just a Crock” from the Daily Caller. Right away, people took sides, rejecting or applauding the study’s conclusion.

So where does this study leave the 76 percent of organic eaters who say they buy organic because they believe it’s healthier? Will they give up eating organic food? Not likely and here’s why. While an organic label does not promise fresher food and perhaps not even more nutritious food (something people will continue to argue about), it does promise organic eaters reduced traces of chemicals in their food and fewer toxins to end up in their bodies.

Very simply, organic is a certification process that allows farmers, who follow specific agricultural practices, to label and sell their products as organic. Established by the USDA and regulated by accrediting agencies, these standards are all about avoiding chemical fertilizers and pesticides, antibiotics and genetically modified organisms (GMO). Basically, an organic label is a seal-of-approval consumers rely on.

By eschewing poisons that kill both unwanted pests and beneficial organisms alike—from microscopic creatures to earthworms—the organic farmer depends on compost and other natural materials to enrich the soil and feed his or her crops. Organic practices build and help conserve soil that’s alive and full of nutrients for growing healthy and nutritious plants in a process that’s friendlier to both people and the environment. (It is worth noting that there are many farmers—particularly those operating small-scale, family farms—who grow their produce following organic principles but for various reasons do not take the extra step of seeking organic certification.)

But back to the flap about the Stanford study. People who actually read it discovered a second, significant conclusion absent from the hyped headlines. The data the researchers used, which was gleaned from 240 studies conducted between 1966 and 2011, showed that only seven percent of organic produce had traces of pesticides, compared to 37% in conventional produce (although in fairness, the levels of pesticide residue detected is deemed safe for human consumption by the government). So for the 51% who say they buy organic to avoid pesticides and other toxins, the study confirms their view that they are eating healthier—if you define not eating residue of poison as healthier.

One thing the Stanford study didn’t even look at is the difference between small-scale organic vs. large-scale organic, or the difference between local vs. produce from far away farms shipped half way across the country or from around the world. The average carrot grown in the U.S. travels more than 1,000 miles to get to market and eventually your dinner table, while a carrot picked this morning by your local farmer and eaten tonight is both fresher and largely retains its full complement of nutrients. This is why some people believe that eating locally is more important than eating organic, unless avoiding chemicals is your primary concern.

In the end, it’s the informed consumer’s choice and he or she is driving two trends—the growth of the local food movement and of the organics industry. Organics is now a $29 billion a year industry and growing, while the numbers of local farmers selling directly to consumers continues to flourish. Witness the USDA’s own statistics. Eighteen years ago, the agency began counting and keeping records of farmers’ markets. In 1994, they counted 1,755. Now there are 7,864 local farmers markets, up nine percent from last year alone.

These markets are important drivers of local economies, something to consider as they continue to proliferate in our own the Upper Delaware region. From the two oldest markets in Liberty and in Honesdale, there are now more than a dozen markets between Sullivan and Wayne counties, with talk of more to come. The newest market launched in late summer 2012 in Monticello.

Bottom line: an organic label doesn’t promise fresher produce, while buying local does. Buying local doesn’t promise chemical free food unless you buy local and organic. For good nutrition eat real food, the fresher the better. And listen to your mother who surely told you, “eat your vegetables”—the more the better.