What’s So Great About Organic Food?

National_Organic_ProgramOrganic food comes with real health benefits and significant costs. TIME looks at both sides of the debate:

Looking for a quick way to feel lousy about yourself? Then forget the idea of a healthy diet and just eat what your body wants you to eat. Your body wants meat; your body wants fat; your body wants salt and sugar. Your body will put up with fruits and vegetables if it must, but only after all the meat, fat, salt and sugar are gone. And as for the question of where your food comes from — whether it’s locally grown, sustainably raised, grass-fed, free range or pesticide-free? Your body doesn’t give a hoot.

But you and your body aren’t the only ones with a stake in this game. Your doctor has opinions about what you should eat. So does your family. And so too do the food purists who lately seem to be everywhere, insisting that everything that crosses your lips be raised and harvested and brought to market in just the right way. If you find this tiresome — even intrusive — you’re not alone. “It’s food, man. It’s identity,” says James McWilliams, a professor of environmental history at Texas State University. “We encourage people to eat sensibly and virtuously, and then we set this incredibly high bar for how they do it.”

The ideal — as we’re reminded and reminded and reminded — is to go organic, to trade processed foods for fresh foods and the supermarket for the farmers’ market. Organic foods of all kinds currently represent only about 3% of the total American market, according to the most recent numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), but it’s a sector we all should be supporting more.

That sounds like a great idea, but we’ll pay a price for it. Organic fruits and vegetables cost 13¢ to 36¢ per lb. more than ordinary produce, though prices fluctuate depending on the particular food and region of the country. Milk certified as hormone- and antibiotic-free costs $6 per gal. on average, compared with $3.50 for ordinary grocery-store milk.

What’s more, while grass-fed beef is lower in fat, and milk without chemicals is clearly a good idea, it’s less obvious that organic fruits and vegetables have a nutritional edge to speak of. A 2009 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition led to a firestorm in the food world. It found no difference between organic and conventional produce with regard to all but three of the vitamins and other food components studied, and conventional produce actually squeaked past organic for one of those three…

[continues in TIME]


Majestic is gadfly emeritus.

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33 Comments on "What’s So Great About Organic Food?"

  1. sqezyplus | Aug 26, 2010 at 6:28 pm |

    The thing people do not get about organic food is that its not eaten it for the health benefits, it is the wildlife that benefits, tasty veg is just a side effect.

    • Organic farming requires about twice the land use, which means cutting down forests and cultivating natural areas.

      • …unless its done on a small scale by everybody. but living off your home garden is hard work, i dont have the time myself. but i support local farmers 100% i only eat organic produce. petrol based fertilizers aren't worth the long term cost as they reclaim the strip land, its almost more about that than pesticides

      • Raising meat requires much more land than vegetables.

      • Dracondesign | Aug 26, 2010 at 9:39 pm |

        wonder where you learned that, haystack? Seems like one of those “hard data” that people pull out their asses to make “a point”. Usually someone will quote ” new research shows blahblahblah” or “scientists found that blahblahblah” better check your source….

        • My source is Gabriel et al., 'Scale matters: the impact of organic farming on biodiversity at different spatial scales', Ecology Letters, May 2010.

  2. I'm glad to see some skepticism of this, though Time could have gone deeper. The health claims of organic foods haven't been borne out by research. On the contrary, organic food is also more prone to carry bacteria such as E. coli because of the fertilizer used (cow manure). As the article touches on, the economics are also an issue. Producing less food with more land drives up the price of produce, driving people with shallow pockets toward nasty processed foods.

    People who skeptical of big business telling them that food treated with chemicals is safe can be remarkably naive when a different sort of big business asks them to pay extra for something they say is “all natural,” and therefore better. The tendency is to look on skepticism of “natural” products as industry propaganda intended to suppress competition; in fact, its more profitable to co-opt a movement than it is to suppress it–to sell your products at a premium by advertising that they are “organic,” “free range,” or “all natural,” implying health benefits that do not exist.

    If people want to buy organic foods, that is certainly their choice, but in my experience most who do are making that decision based on trust, rather than on information.

    • Sadly I agree. Organic has become a label. For me organic veges are grown without chemical pesticides/fungicides or chemical fertilisers. For produce not to require pesticides the soil needs to be extremely rich in minerals which is hard to accomplish year after year.
      I don't think that 'organic' can be acheived on the scale of our current agri-business model. Can you imagine these companies practicing tything ? Not when NPK is so cheap.

    • maybe people who think that it is OK to eat chemicals that kill insects and weeds since we are neither are the naive ones who fill up the cancer wards later in life. The e-coli cases don't seem to appear from consumption of organic products. It's commercial chicken farms who recall eggs, it's fastfood burgerchains who make us sick…..

      • A study of workers who handled pesticides on a daily basis showed that they actually had lower cancer rates than the general population.

        It may seem counterintuitive that consuming a product that is treated with a chemical is that kills insects safe, but the same can be said of a food product grown in cow shit. You have to do an experiment to find out what where reality is.

        • Dracondesign | Aug 29, 2010 at 10:00 am |

          here we go again … “a study of workers” blahblahblahblah… Haystack loves Monsanto! Probably a plant.

          • I have no love for Monsanto, but I do believe in testing things to find out whether or not they are actually true. I apologize, as I didn't realize that organic farming was a a tenet of religious faith for you.

            Incidentally, are you connecting to the internet with organic CAT-5 cables? I'm selling some CAT-5 cables that are encased in hemp tubing, and are guaranteed not to cause cancer, leprosy, or alien hand syndrome. I have been unable to market these effectively because big IT has been suppressing them. They are $50 each. How many can I put you down for?

    • Earbudcontender | Aug 27, 2010 at 10:18 am |

      You make a point. I think we need to eat food from company that are looking out for our health. Regardless if its completely organic or not. It needs to be in laymans terms a smart operation and not done for extreme profits but for the pride of agriculture. The money will always be there for food, it might not come in as fast as some executives want because they are compulsive about numbers but it will be there. Now if they can just start researching food for what it is and not be so compulsive about profits then things will be good and a compromise can be reached. Now if you defend greedy executives from both sides then we have a problem.

  3. Gemmarama | Aug 27, 2010 at 6:12 am |

    this is just rubbish… our bodies really haven't evolved much since we were cave-people, and i don't think we ate much in the way of salt, sugar and processed foods then. yes of course we need salt, sugar, fat and protein, but from fruit, veg, pulses and decent cuts of meat (from animals that didn't spend their short, miserable lives in cages, knee-deep in their own shit), not from microwave meals full of hydrogenated oils, refined carbohydrates and additives. it's just common fucking sense. if your granny wouldn't recognise it as food, don't eat it!

    wonder which processed-food producer “funded” the writing of this article?

    • Gemmarama | Aug 27, 2010 at 7:08 am |

      had time to read the whole article now which to be fair raises some reasonable issues, but is still say his opening paragraphs are misleading and biased…

  4. Zander151 | Aug 27, 2010 at 10:53 am |

    This guys first paragraphs is just garbage… Just like the garbage produced by commercial / factory farms that claim their products and produce are “Food” I wonder who payed for the study's this guys talking about. He seems to be in favor of toxic, chemically laced, genetically altered food. Which he makes false claims about organic and doesn't mention the countless benefits of organic. This guy probably eats organic anyway he just doesn't want all you uneducated people to eat all his good and healthy food he enjoys. I love everyone going on about how expensive organic is… Just for one example yes its a bit more pricey but you will be saving money on your medical bills because you wont be sick because your not pumped full of toxic and disruptive chemicals/hormones. Instead of whining about the price this guy should have investigated why the prices of organic is more. Hmmm let me see… What about Monsanto contaminating all those organic farms and then suing them for having there farms contaminated with there patented lethal toxic seeds. And all that other BS they do to small farmers, organic farmers, family farms,etc. What about government agencies and other agencies raiding small farms and taking all there stuff and trying to shut them down. Which is happening and increasing all over North America. Hmm what about subsidizing bad food aka( tax payer dollars going towards making corn cheap). Which corn is almost in everything and is fed all those animals in factory farms. We could be subsidizing organic food and organic farming. The truth is the people at Time and countless other corporate controlled media agency's dont want you to eat organic, they want you eating the same toxic chemically poisoned food.

    • That's the beauty of the natural/organic business model. Because they appeal to people's sense of social responsibility, questioning their claims makes you a shill for evil corporations. It's exactly the same reasoning as “Why are you questioning the war? It must be because you HATE AMERICA.”

  5. justagirl | Aug 27, 2010 at 11:39 am |

    the other day, i went to the organic foods grocery store on the corner by my work to get some “emergency” tampons. i paid $25 for a box of “all natural, biodegradable, safe for the environment” tampons; it didn't say how many were in there, but, i didn't care, as it were, an emergency. i got it back to the office and opened the box. it was filled with pure, fresh cotton – including tiny, ridged twigs and sharp seed casings and one dried out bamboo stick… i'm keeping it though. i think i read somewhere that cotton can be turned into gin.

  6. connie dobbs | Aug 27, 2010 at 1:55 pm |

    They're forgetting the #1 benefit of organic food – being able to be smug about eating organic. I talk about my small organic garden constantly, with the DAMN FINE hot peppers. Seriously, eating a raw jalepeno is good for your body, your senses, and your underdeveloped ego!

  7. It is much more important for me to shop at local farms than to buy 'organic' in a supermarket.

    • I'm growing food in my back yard. At least until the Codex Alimentarius Cops knock on my door.

    • Agree! It’s cheaper and fresh. Plus you can scrutinize as to how they produce these goods to be labeled as safe. Though I would prefer to plant vegies on my backyard.

  8. I eat whatever the hell I want…but I shop local food co-ops and farmers markets, get produce and eggs locally from organic farms and basically try to stay as fresh and preservative free as I can. I also freely admit that I'm lucky I live in Michigan, where there are plenty of small farms and local produce can be gotten at low cost. That bundle of veggies that someone else broke the bank on by shopping chic instead of smart hit my table for pennies on the dollar.

    Its fairly good advice and pretty in step with what I tell people all the time: a steak and some potatoes aren't going to kill you or sicken you half as fast as the half ton of chemistry some twat in a lab coat used to hose off and saturate your chow. If it has 19 syllables…don't fucking eat it. I apply one generic term to all food additives: fuxyatodethizone.

    • Look at all the chemicals you put in your hair when you wash every morning, though. The fact of something being a chemical alone doesn't equate to it being unsafe at the levels you consume it, especially after washing with water. It turns out that workers who handle pesticides actually have a lower cancer rate than the general population. It's good to buy from small farms–my problem with organic is that it cuts food output in half at a time when demand is projected to double in the next forty years, and that has social and environmental implications.

      • True…to a degree. Actually some the chemicals in hair products are riskier than was initially thought….not to mention the Bisphenol A in the packaging adding to all the other daily exposures.

        Part of our problem is that, thanks to grandfathering thousands of chemicals into testing exempt status, we still don't understand how many of them interact badly or at what levels…and we haven't even the FAINTEST idea what decades of mild exposure might cause.

        The only things we do know are with regard to recently created chemicals…and certain worst case scenario substances where people become ills so quickly and in such large numbers that there is no means by which to pas it off as coincidence.

        Studying these things is time consuming and expensive…but not as expensive as cancer and countless other ailments over the long haul.

      • Maybe try Chemlawn for shampoo and use Roundup for soap and you will live longer….. it's just that easy!

        • You know, just because jimsonweed is organic doesn't mean it's a good idea to smoke it all the time.

  9. It doesn't matter if organic is more expensive for as long as you are getting the nutrients and you know that what you are eating is healthy. I feel sad that most of what we have in the market are commercialized, meaning they go for the size and appearance which is kinda deceiving if you're not aware at all.

  10. You know, just because jimsonweed is organic doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to smoke it all the time.

  11. Anonymous | Sep 8, 2010 at 6:59 am |

    Don’t have much of a clue as to what this guy is talking about in the article and I doubt if he does. The reality is the extra money spent on organic food will be saved in having better health. Which means thousands will be saved in medical bills. Remember health care cost more in the United States than anywhere else in the world and the care isn’t anything to brag about either.
    Whats also important is what is not in natural and organic foods. The growth hormones fed to cattle of all kinds goes straight into humans who consume those meat products. Also the antibiotics and unsafe growing conditions the animals are trapped in is a source for all types of diseases and bacteria which are passed along to the public.
    I had a friend who ate a egg salad sandwich and was sick for a week. A day later we saw the egg recall on the news. Do we also have to mention mad cow disease. Intelligent people like myself eat as much organic foods as I can for the reasons mentioned above. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure especially if you live in the United States.
    Did I forget to mention the taste of food in the United States is horrible. Don’t believe me grow your own vegetables for just one year and compare it to a store bought vegetable of the same kind. You can really see and taste the difference in tomatoes. By a grass fed steak a regular steak you will notice a big difference.. The taste will shock you.
    If you think the rich CEO’s who produce that crap for our consumption is eating anything but grass fed and organic your fooling yourself. They know what’s in that beef and those vegetables and aren’t going to allow their families to eat that unless they’re stupid!

  12. Agree! It’s cheaper and fresh. Plus you can scrutinize as to how they produce these goods to be labeled as safe. Though I would prefer to plant vegies on my backyard.

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