by Marion Nestle
Sep 17 2012

The New York Times’ online debate about organics

I participated last week in a New York Times blog debate on this question:

Is organic food worth the expense?

A recent study by scientists at Stanford University found that fruits and vegetable labeled organic are, on average, no healthier than less expensive conventional produce, although they have lower levels of pesticide residue.

Are there other benefits that outweigh the cost of organic food? Is there a place for organic farming in a world with severe food shortages and rising food prices?

My answer: Buying organic is a personal choice.

Marion Nestle

Marion Nestle, the Paulette Goddard professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, is the author of “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics.” She blogs at FoodPolitics.com and is on Twitter.

Questions about organic food raise three issues: productivity, benefits and costs. Productivity is easy. Since the early 1980s, careful productivity studies conclude that organic yields are only slightly lower than conventional yields, and organic production leaves soils in much better shape — boding well for future productivity. The yield difference is too small to have much of an effect on world food supplies.

Next, benefits. If crops are grown without pesticides, they won’t contaminate soil and water, foods will contain fewer pesticides, and people who eat organic foods will have lower levels in their bodies. The Stanford study and others confirm all this. Critics of organics say: “So what. Pesticides are safe.” They point out that nobody has ever died from eating industrially produced broccoli. Although science does not presently demonstrate long-term harm from eating pesticide-treated vegetables, pesticides are demonstrably harmful to farm workers and to “nontarget” wildlife, and they accumulate in soils for ages. If pesticides were all that benign, the government wouldn’t need to regulate them, but it does.

The Stanford study made a big deal about nutrients, but nutrients are not the point. The point of organic production is its effects on the health of people and the planet. The investigators did not examine the overall health impact of organics, no doubt because such studies are difficult to conduct and interpret. For one thing, people who buy organics tend to be better educated and wealthier — characteristics that track with good health anyway.

That leaves the cost question. Organics cost more because they require greater amounts of hand labor. Are they worth it? Personally, I prefer not to be a guinea pig in a long-term pesticide experiment. I’m also fortunate to have the choice.

We should be doing all we can to give everyone else the same choice.

Here are the other debaters

  • Foodie

    Was it all about nutrients or was it about macronutirents/vitamins? What about pytonutrient quantities?

  • FarmerJane

    The term “organic” has become a “farmer litmus test” that I face when I, as a dairy farmer speak with food movement people. The media seems to invariably end up portraying the virtuous “organic” farmers against the “big, bad, evil conventional farmers”. I am tired of being called an industrial farmer who ruins the soil and pumps my cows full of antibiotics. I milk 60 cows who graze a few hundred acres, we treat a cow only if really needed, we don’t use growth hormones and our grasslands shelter threatened bird species. Yet…I first face a wall and raised urban eyebrows if I tell a consumer I am a “Conventional dairy farmer”. I’ve had people lecture me how they read Mark Bittman’s column and they “KNOW” how badly I treat my cows because I am not certified organic. I was attacked at a party in Los Angeles where show biz people circled around me and told me how they only drink “organic” and that the rest of the milk is full of pesticides and antibiotics.
    Isn’t there some way that the national dialog on farming can move forward to enhance urban consumers’ knowledge of the multitude of farming models that we have in this country? Urban media was transfixed by the Stanford study while other important happenings in the ag world last week went unreported and unnoticed because they impact the dreaded “conventional” farmers. The strange thing is that the urban food movements typically say they want to keep the family farms. Yet, they have little or no qualms in implying that the work of our hands is inferior if not certified organic. Which is it?

  • Allen

    Hay, FarmerJane, if you feed your herd by grazing, then you’re wasting a lot of profit by not getting certified organic!

    However, if you use corn, soy and alfalfa to supplement, then you’re loading them with GMOs.

  • http://bressanini-lescienze.blogautore.espresso.repubblica.it/ Dario Bressanini

    First of all IT IS NOT TRUE that organic ag does no use pesticides. They do, but they are “natural”. Of course that does not mean that they are safer. Rotenone for example is quite a dangerous substance. Organic ag. use Copper for example, with is toxic and accumulate in soil. And what about mineral oil? There are many other examples, but many people ideologically in favor of organic ag still continue to propagate the myth that there are no pesticides. There are LESS (maybe) but not zero.

    Second, one must also take into account the possible NEGATIVE health issues regarding organic: here in Europe last year more than 50 people died eating organic sprouts. Dioxine and other toxic substances are also an issue in organic and free-range eggs, for example.

  • http://un-thought.blogspot.com/ Floccina

    Buying organic is a personal choice.

    I agree but it is also a more dangerous choice because of possible bacterial infection so do you support other choices that are dangerous to health?

    PS: to those who talk about some foods having less macronutirents/vitamins, you not only need to prove that organics have more macronutirents/vitamins but that we need more macronutirents/vitamins in our diets.

  • http://bressanini-lescienze.blogautore.espresso.repubblica.it/ Dario Bressanini

    Floccina: and also that any difference is not only statistically significant, but also nutritionally and biologically relevant

  • FarmerJane

    Hi, Allen. I wish there were some easy answers. Organic dairy farmers tell us that the cost of transitioning is about $50,000 to $100,000 to accomplish. We graze as much as the cows want. We feed hay, grass silage and some purchased feed. The feed is undoubtedly GMO, or has some GMO grain in it.
    Like most dairy farmers, we lost a lot of money in 2009 with the Great Milk Price Crash. The average dairy farm lost $1,000 per cow in 2009. So, you could safely say we lost about $60,000 in 2009. We have been able to get out from all but $24,000 of this debt in 2010 and 2011. With Drought 2012, our grain prices have shot up. We will be lucky to pay the feed bill for any kind of grain, let alone non-GMO grain. Even our organic neighbor is telling us he doesn’t know how he will survive the grain prices. We are preparing for a hard financial winter ahead on the farm. We are doing all that we can to prepare: we are cutting trees in the woods and selling logs to make money (dangerous work), one of us took on an extra job off the farm. We work till we are exhausted and try to help our neighbors live. So, I can’t see where money would come from to cover any transition cost.
    I’m fine with most aspects of organic, but the one I can’t live with is that you have to get rid of any animal that has been treated. (I have heard the rule is different in Europe). If a cow is treated even one time at my neighbor’s farm, she is then put in the auction ring for sale and usually winds up slaughtered. I can’t do that, we keep our cows as long as possible, and have actually euthanized plenty when they became too feeble to live well so they never have to go through the industrial meat system.
    Some of the conventional dairy farmers, good people who are farming to the best of their financial ability say they are financially discouraged and weary of being bashed. The way things are going in dairy, ANY farm will be better for the environment than more abandoned farms. I would just like urban consumers to talk with us, the regular farmers, before they reject us, saying only organics are any good. Walk in our boots for a week or so, and you would probably see what I mean.

  • http://burningbird.net Shelley

    I don’t agree with a couple of the posted opinions from the debate (Ms. Nestle not among those I disagree with), but I am impressed with the generally high caliber of comments to all of the opinions at the Times.

  • Greg

    “cost more because…” whoa, whoa, hold it right there, Dr. Nestle. I’m not going to argue for or against organics or that either “costs” more or less as you work your way up the profit chain.

    My point is only that that is a fundamentally flawed statement. You can’t really say why it costs most just like that; organics fetch a premium on the market. Even if they cost less to produce, they would still sell for more. And be highly profitable. Nevertheless, it is true; what is charged in the store does not necessarily relate closely to costs of production.

    Sellers price products according to what maximizes revenues. Then subtract their costs, and the difference is profit; more or less depending on costs of production. Of course theoretically (with a rather optimistic and simplistic theory) market dynamics should allow others to enter the market and get the cost down, whittling away at the profit margin.. But yeah right. Anticompetitive behaviour, collusion, criminal conspiracies within the investor class… this isn’t a free market world at all.

    Premium products always fetch premium prices. Organic is desirable, with no discernable downsides. Manufacturer’s of electronics products, it is widely known, deliberately cripple their products to force people along the upgrade path… and this is not prevented by the theoretical out-competition a firm that deliberately made crappy products should suffer, but instead seen on an industry-wide basis. Bought a cheap phone? You will be denied basic functionality that does not cost a dime to add, or suffer intentional downsides inserted.

    Buy cheap food? Get pesticides in it. Want to upgrade? Why, we have this great product right here that lets you avoid being a guinea pig (with the experimental results benefiting mainly people much wealthier than you). It’s just a small, little tiny bit extra each month! What a deal. Isn’t that “worth it”?

  • Greg

    Actually, FarmerJane, your situation sounds like a good example of what I’m talking about. “Organic” farming has been institutionalized extensively, being put under control of the same wealthy people and governments that it was originally a rebellion against the actions and attitude of – net result, you have to pay the government $100,000 to get “certified” as organic – in order to get the higher prices such products fetch. It’s an extort-a-standard. Much like a franchise.

    All these things increase the cost of production for smaller organic farmers, of course. And they don’t slow down for a second the billion dollar scale organic production juggernauts The system gets rigged over time to favor the large producers (which are controlled by and whose profits benefit the wealthy).

    The ecology that an approach like organic farming exists within cannot be ignored when looking at why it costs more than conventional; you cannot so easily separate the accumulated results of anticompetitive behaviour from conventional farmers, the entry barriers inserted in terms of compliance costs many of which are not necessary or in the spirit of organic ag, etc.

    They cost more, but you can’t just dash off a quickie from the hip to say why, and doing so ignores the politics which is so crucial to the long term big picture. We don’t want to do that, esp as it leads people to think it is about hard realities like the difficulty of production instead of politics, which is malleable and responsive to political action.

  • https://twitter.com/mattVDiLeo Matt

    In recent years, the number one pesticide for farmworker injuries in California was sulfur, a natural, non-synthetic and very dangerous chemical allowed under organic production.

    If you want to actually understand the origins, hopes and twisted current state of “organic” agriculture, I highly recommend the unbiased academic account in “Agrarian Dreams
    The Paradox of Organic Farming in California”

    http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520240957

  • Shaw

    Once again the question of the welfare of animals on organic farms has been completely ignored.

    Imagine being denied access to modern health care. That’s kind of what life is like for a sick animal on an organic farm.

  • http://burningbird.net Shelley

    …unlike comments we find elsewhere.

  • http://www.anamariaquispe.com Ana Maria

    Well there are no easy answers and yes it is a personal choice :
    Rather have fewer pesticides than more pesticides organic or not. EWG.org has a nice list to avoid the ones with fewer pesticides so you don’t have to buy all organic if money is a constraint. I believe they also have a list of the less costly vegetables and fruits that at the same time are higher in nutrients.
    If money is a problem then we can choose NOT to buy foods that are not really foods. Coffee is avoided in my home since I took a course in college about drugs and I still keep my textbook….. If anyone watches Dr. Lustig lecture videos in the you tube you could choose never to buy sugar again. Honey or maple syrup could be expensive so we make our own juices with the ripest fruits.
    A very small garden in my home, about 2.5 sq. meters that my healthy 87 year old father maintains sometimes yields so much food to eat that we have to share with friends and neighbors. Still we buy from local farmer in season, organic or not, but some beans, grains and nuts sometimes are bought organic and in bulk.
    We prefer to be vegetarians most of the time. It is easy to make milk from grains and nuts; all you have to do is soak them overnight. 100 grams will yield a quart of milk. With all respect for dairy business I can only imagine how many people we could be feeding in the grasslands instead of raising cows. BTW I learn they were brought to America in about 1600s (then other animals) and for example they destroyed some of the rich soil destined to other native crops.
    Spreads can be made with boiled beans (e.g. hummus) or nuts (use food processor or blender)
    Sprouts organic or not can be dangerous for sure, Dr, Nestle has a post on that. Still are higher in nutrients. It is a bit time consuming to make our own sprouts but not impossible.
    We almost never buy processed foods, even breads are sometimes carefully chosen, and other times my father makes them.
    There is not cooking when it comes to salads and we love to mix veggies with juicy fruits instead of buying salad dressings. Add a bake or boiled potato, yam, corn or squash, sprinkle nuts and/or cooked beans and herbs and you have a meal to take in your lunch box.
    We never call junk food a treat; we never provide candy during Halloween, watch the PBS report on dental crisis in America…
    Well we choose overall to spend less money buying organic non processed produce, a little more time in food growing and prep, to eat daily exciting foods, to be much healthier and overall much happier!

  • Mike

    Why leverage your eminence to bolster the myth that organic is pesticide free, rather than celebrating it for what it actually is?

    Please teach us about the action mechanisms, human toxicity, relative application rates, and ecological implications of organic pesticides. Isn’t it our consumer right to know?

  • http://www.blog.greenconsciousness.org Greenconsciousness

    Pesticides DO kill the people who work in the fields and they simply do not have enough info about pesticide effect on the rest of us — those who live near the factory (killed quite a few people in India) people who have to drink the water near the fields — I say there are plenty of dead and sick people just swept under the rug

  • http://www.blog.greenconsciousness.org Greenconsciousness

    I must warn the people I send here that the Big Ag industry loads these comments with disinformation by people who refer to them self as “family” farmers. Every industry and corporation is run by a family — many of these families run factory farms of the worse kind — re: socializing with Hollywood celebrities?? How many families you know are wealthy enough to do that? Check everything you read here with other sources.

  • https://twitter.com/#!/fredkzk Fred

    Eating organic is a personal choice. Organics taste better on average. And for a vegetarian like me who eats fruits and veggies 3 times a day, 365 days a year, pesticide-free produce is a big deal.

  • Michael Bulger

    I’m impressed by the persistence of Ms. Wilcox’s organic pesticide argument in the face of the facts. For one thing, rotezone is only approved by the National Organic Program to deal with “invasive fish species.” Further, there are no rotezone products that are approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute. Put plainly, there’s no rotezone on the market that certifiers are going to approve for use in organic farming. That Wilcox is just flat out wrong, as she is on several other claims made in the Times and elsewhere, doesn’t really seem to matter to her or the folks who argue against organic agriculture.

  • Mike

    It’s rotenone, and you’re correct.

    I think Dr Nestle made the more egregious move by implying that organic is pesticide free. Rotenone was used in Organic for many years (similar “natural” pesticides still are), but USDA Organic never implied pesticide free.

    Where’s the agronomist? Where’s the farmer who doesn’t write for Mother Jones? The toxicologist? Are their opinions not sexy enough for our infotainment?

  • Michael Bulger

    *rotenone

    Certified Organic agriculture is required to document that it has employed mechanical, biological, and cultural practices to solve a pest problem before a certifier is to permit the use of pesticides.

    (http://ecfr.gpoaccess.gov/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=ecfr&sid=eb7e9bb915d04d6dbd6bd78371dfcc94&rgn=div8&view=text&node=7:3.1.1.9.32.3.354.7&idno=7)

    If those methods have failed, Organic farmers might be approved to use pesticides that meet the standards of the National Organic Program. (For more on why some pesticides are approved and some are not, see http://ecfr.gpoaccess.gov/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=ecfr&sid=eb7e9bb915d04d6dbd6bd78371dfcc94&rgn=div8&view=text&node=7:3.1.1.9.32.7.354.1&idno=7).

    Pesticides that meet NOP standards can also be used by conventional farmers, too. Conventional farmers are not required to try other methods, though. The conventional farms can and do use these same pesticides, but with no regulatory framework to determine if they are absolutely necessary to save the farm.

    These precautions are why organic agricultural uses fewer pesticides (and only pesticides that pass review), and why pesticide residues are less common on organic products.

  • Michael Janavel

    Hi farmerjane. I don’t know if you will read this, but thank you for your first comment. My supplier didn’t have the organic milk I usually buy, so I instead bought a non-organic, locally produced, small-herd brand. Your comment made me feel less guilty about buying this brand.

    An organic milk sold nationally and produced in WI says their pasture-fed cows produce milk with CLA. Jane Brody had said that CLA, if not taken in mega-doses was good for the heart.

  • FarmerJane

    @MichaelJaneval Lots of herds here in NY graze all the time, its not just the organic. I say YAY! to you buying from a local small-herd brand. I know it is very difficult to be both a farmer and a bottler, so I would say to support these people all you can. Some of us regular farmers do not trust the marketing people for the big national level organic milk companies. Read the Cornucopia study on Aurora Dairy and the litgiation that ensued over that. This case was recently settled with payment of $7.5 million dollars to consuemrs because of corporate dairy misrepresentation to consumers taht milk is coming from grazing herds when in fact it was not. We are also watching the litgiation brought by Horizon against Organic Valley. The claim is that Organic valley has been soliciting 47 very large farms in Texas that are so big taht they are capable of supply 1/3 of Horizon milk nationally. None of this receives much coverage in the press, but the large organic companies are duking it out over these kinds of claims.
    The rest of us, regular farmers, who try to take good care of the cows daily, tend to the grazing lands and our wildlife, are made out to be bad.
    @GreenConsciousness I find it hard to believe you think I am “Big Ag.” Apparently, dairy farmers should stay home and work 24/7. FYI My college roomate is married to a celebrity photographer. I visit them once every few years in Los Angeles. Is that a problem for you? Quit calling me a Big Ag Troll just because I took a vacation 3 years ago (4 days). My brother has had 2 days off in the past 4 years. (A fast drive to see the ocean in Rhode Island and back within 48 hours). Is that a problem to you as well? What’s the cut off point that farmers would be allowed to have a day off without being called “Big Ag Troll”?

  • Michael Bulger

    FarmerJane,

    Cornucopia Institute is reporting that the claim is actually that he solicited 1 large dairy in Texas, not 47. The report says he sent the full 48 his new email address, and contacted only one dairy as an employee of Organic Valley. Is it solicitation to send someone your new email address? If I was a dairy farmer and the person I’d been dealing with for years decides to leave his job, I’d want to have his email in case there is any confusion about how things are arranged between my business and his old company.

  • http://putneyfarm.com Stewart Putney

    It is worth noting that the Stanford Survey did not account for flavor, and neither do many of the follow-up posts or comments.

    Often, organic, seasonal, sustainable and/or local produce simply tastes better. The best health benefit of all is a fruit or vegetable you actually eat and enjoy. I think most people would agree on this…

    Perhaps a wider view that speaks to the overall “quality” of the crop, rather than just risks/costs would be beneficial…

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