Feb 162009
Authors: Ian Bezek

The organic foods movement has rode a wave of popularity to become an important part of our food supply. No longer the domain of merely a few hippies, organic farming has gone mainstream, with stores like Whole Foods and even traditional grocery stores getting on board.

But does organic farming really provide the sorts of benefits that its boosters claim? By and large, the results of the organic movement fail to meet the lofty rhetoric its supporters use.

The most important claim of all, of course, is healthiness. I’d guess that the majority of people that extensively purchase organic food assume that it is far healthier than conventionally produced food.

However, studies that tried to support that claim came back mixed. One study found that organic foods contained higher vitamin content than conventionally grown products. But a large number of studies and experts have come out taking the opposite position.

Take John Krebs, former head of Britain’s Food Standards Agency. In a speech, after explaining why people often chose to purchase organic foods, he said, “Now for the question ‘Is organic food better for you?’ In our view, the current scientific evidence does not show that organic food is any safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food.”

He went on to state that Britain is not alone in this finding and that both France and Sweden’s food safety agencies found no difference in organic food.

Later in his speech, he talked about pesticides, chemicals that are frequently criticized, often in hysterical tones, by those who are suspicious of conventional food.

Of pesticides, Krebs said, “It is also possible to produce conventionally grown fruit and vegetables with minimal residues. In fact, residues are not detected in about 70 percent of produce sampled by the Pesticides Residue Committee. And remember that the committee tends to focus on problem crops.”

At least as far is produce is concerned, if the idea of pesticides bothers you, simply washing the produce before eating it will get rid of most all the residue. This idea isn’t exactly revolutionary; produce can have bacteria such as E-coli on them, so washing your produce is always a good idea.

Based on the body of scientific evidence, claiming that organic food is much safer or more nutritious than traditionally grown food is a stretch.

Besides potentially being a waste of money, buying organic may actually cause environmental problems. In particular, the yield-per-acre of cropland grown organically versus acreage grown conventionally is much lower, perhaps as low as one half the yield of conventionally grown crops.

Thus, a lot more land must be used to grow the food supply organically. This, in turn, drives up the price of food, greatly harming poor people – in particular, the third world nations that rely on cheap American food to feed their people.

Another harm comes from the increased land usage. Land is scarce, and so to expand organic farming requires the conversion of wild land into domesticated farmland which harms biodiversity and endangers ecosystems.

The world requires so much food as it is, the idea of having to greatly increase the amount of land farmed around the world to grow things organically instead of using efficient conventional techniques should scare both environmentalists and nature enthusiasts such as hunters and fishermen.

I don’t know whether organic foods are tastier, that is by definition subjective. However, the nutritional and safety benefits just don’t add up versus the environmental and human costs of organic farming.

I fear the organic food trend is little more than a way for rich people to buy groceries that make them feel good about themselves, just like they do with any other sort of luxury item.

Ian Bezek is a junior economics major. His column appears Tuesdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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