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