by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Organics

May 23 2016

Food-Navigator-USA’s Special Edition on Organics

This is one of Food Navigator-USA’s special editions in which this industry-focused newsletter collects several of its posts on particular topics—in this case, organics.

But first, take a look at the USDA’s summary of trends in organic food sales:

Special Edition: Where next for organics?

According to the Organic Trade Association, organic sales increased from $3.6 billion in 1997 to over $39 billion in 2014. But can the meteoric growth continue? And will organic ultimately replace the more nebulous ‘all-natural’ as consumers increasingly look for claims that are underpinned by consistent standards?

Apr 29 2016

Organic Life: Eight books about organic food systems

I did an interview last year with Rebecca Straus of Organic Life about books of interest to the magazine’s readers.  I never heard what happened to it but learned from a recent tweet that it is now available online.  So consider this a late catch up.

Marion Nestle’s Favorite Organic Books: Eight reads to get you thinking about where your food is coming from.  Organic Life, September 11, 2015.

Food advocate Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University, has long been outspoken in her support of organic farming and opposition to GMO crops. Her books and articles on how science, marketing, and society impact food choices and obesity have influenced everyone from Michelle Obama to Michael Pollen, who named her the second most powerful foodie in America.  Her new book Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning), comes out in October. But even when she’s busy writing, Nestle takes time to review other recent titles on her popular blog, Food Politics. “I’m overwhelmed by the avalanche of outstanding books that I run across or that get sent to me,” she says. But when forced to choose, she settled on these eight as some of the best writing and original research in the bunch, adding, “They deserve much more attention than they’ve received.”

Food, Farms, and Community: Exploring Food Systems by Lisa Chase and Vern Grubinger

“Many people don’t understand what food systems  are, and it’s very hard to explain, so this book is a terrific introduction. The authors take a big-picture approach to explain how our food gets from production to consumption,.They also focus on how we can create food and farming systems that promote the health of people and planet. It’s very readable.”

The End of Plenty: The Race to Feed a Crowded World by Joel K. Bourne, Jr.

“This book takes a look at industrial farming and discusses how food production must change to meet the world’s demands. But if you think the title sounds depressing, you shouldn’t.  The food situation is so much better than it was 20 years ago. There’s so much more organic, local, and seasonal growing. Students are interested in these issues, and that’s inspiring to me. You can make progress without overturning the whole system. My personal measure is that when we started food studies at NYU in 1996, we were the only program like that in the country. Now every university offers food studies and has an organic garden.”

From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone by Paul Thompson

“Ethical dilemmas impact the way we shop for food. Should we buy orancic or local? Should we care how farm animals are raised? For people who aren’t trained in ethics, it’s sometimes hard to think about these things, and this book can help you delve into them.”

Organic Struggle: The Movement for Sustainable Agriculture in the United States by Brian K. Obach

“For me, the discussion of the development of the organic standards is the most interesting part of this book. It explains why it’s so important to maintain strict organic standards, and why there’s such intense conflict about them. In fact, the biggest issue facing the organic industry is confidence in the standards.”

Afro-Vegan: Farm-Fresh African, Caribbean & Southern Flavors Remixed by Bryant Terry

“Terry is an extraordinary cook. He’s really concerned about the health of African Americans, who tend to have much higher levels of chronic disease, so he sets out to demonstrate that it’s possible to cook a healthier, vegan diet using the ingredients of traditional African cuisine, like collards, grits, and okra. I’ve never seen a book like this before.”

Lentil Underground: Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America by Liz Carlisle

“Carlisle is an incredible author (and Michael Pollan’s protégé). To write the book, she simply went to talk to farmers in Montana to find out what they were doing. It’s very lively. I attended her book tour, and she actually brought the farmers with her – it was clear she was really passionate. Everyone is always talking about how farmers are failing, but this is a success story. It’s inspiring.”

Breadlines Knee-Deep in Wheat: Food Assistance in the Great Depression by Janet Poppendieck

“I have special interest in this one – I wrote the foreword. The author is fabulous, and this book is particularly well done. Anyone who wants to really understand the Farm Bill and the fight about food stamps needs to read this book. We’re seeing enormous congressional fighting over SNAP right now, and those same issues were there from the very beginning.”

Lethal but Legal: Corporations, Consumption, and Protecting Public Health by Nick Freudenberg

“This book is compelling because it draws out the parallels between food issues and things like cigarettes, guns, and alcohol. Food producers use the same corporate strategies as these other industries to enrich themselves at the expense of public health. I believe advocacy is the only way to beat the system, and Freudenberg writes about ways for organizing against coporate power to create a healthier environment.  organize against corporate power for a healthier, more sustainable environment.”

Mar 25 2016

Weekend reading: Concentration and Power in the Food System

Philip H. Howard. Concentration and Power in the Food System: Who Controls What We Eat?  Bloomsbury, 2016.

I don’t know Philip Howard personally but I have long appreciated his graphic visualizations of the extent of concentration—only a few companies owning fast percentages of the market—in various industries:

This brief book summarizes his work in developing these graphics and makes it clear why he thinks industrial concentration is a problem for American democracy.   Without competition, these companies get away with doing whatever they want.  He gives a few examples:

Walmart, which controls 33 percent of US grocery retailing, is challenged for exploiting its suppliers, taking advantage of taxpayer subsidies, and paying extremely low worker wages…Monsanto, which controls 26 percent of the global commercial seed market, is denounced for its influence on government polocies, spying on farmers it suspects of saving and replanting seeds, and the environmental impacts of herbicides tied to these seeds.  These impacts tend to disproportionately affect the disadvantaged—such as women, young children, recent immigrants, members of minority ethnic groups, and those of lower socioeconomic status—and as a result, reinforce existing inequalities…Like ownership relations, the full extent of these consequences may be hidden from public view.

Howard’s solution?  The food movement!

Joining these movements and supporting the alternatives created by others could therefore be essential to maintaining our ability to feed ourselves in the future.

The book is fun to read (“seed-industrial complex”) and, obviously, well illustrated.  If you want to know how current-day food markets really work, this is the place to start.

Sep 18 2015

Weekend reading: the politics of organic foods

Lisa F. Clark. The Changing Politics of Organic Food in North America. Edward Elgar Publishing, 2015.

I did a blurb for this one.  It’s right up my alley.

Lisa Clark’s scholarly account of the development of the organic movement in the United States and Canada beautifully explains the decades-long transition from understanding organic production as inextricably tied to healthy soils, communities, and social justice (“process-based”) to views of organics as meeting certain standards for marketing purposes (“product-based”). Read this book and you will care deeply about the difference in these views as well as understand current debates about the future of organics.

In case you want to know why I favor organics, I do so from a process-based perspective.  I like what organics do for soils, communities, and social justice.  This book does a great job of explaining the basis of the debates over these issues.

Sep 6 2015

Another exposé of industry-funded scientists: this time, GMOs and organics

Today’s New York Times has another front-page (and on the inside, full-page) story on the food industry’s financial relationships with academic scientists.

The article describes how Monsanto funded scientists to lobby for GMOs in Washington (I will say more about this in a subsequent post).

But, as is clear from this report, the organic industry is doing much the same.

The Times based the story on e-mails it collected through open records law requests (the equivalent of Freedom of Information Act requests for federal documents).

And surprise!  I turn up in Charles Benbrook’s.  I learned this from checking Twitter yesterday.


I’m only on the B-list for influencing public opinion?  Alas.

It seems that Charles Benbrook, a strong proponent of organics (as am I), was working with (for?) the Organic Valley Cooperative on a public relations campaign to promote his organics-funded study demonstrating that organic milk has a healthier fatty acid profile than conventional milk.

I vaguely remember him contacting me about the study, but I didn’t write anything about it.  It appeared to be an industry-funded study with results favoring the sponsor’s interests—much as, in this case, I sympathize with those interests.

A few months later, I did write write about another conflicted organic study:

The study is not independently funded….This study is another example of how the outcome of sponsored research invariably favors the sponsor’s interests.  The paper says “the  [Sheepdrove] Trust  had  no  influence  on  the  design  and management of the  research  project  and  the  preparation  of publications  from the project,” but that’s exactly what studies funded by Coca-Cola say.  It’s an amazing coincidence how the results of sponsored studies almost invariably favor the sponsor’s interests.  And that’s true of results I like just as it is of results that I don’t like.

Benbrook has been criticized recently for not fully disclosing his ties to the organic industry.  Even if he had, disclosure is not enough.

The bottom line: Conflicted studies are conflicted, no matter who pays for them.

Documents: Charles Benbrook

May 22 2015

Weekend reading: Organic Struggle

Brian K. Obach.  Organic Struggle: The Movement for Sustainable Agriculture in the United States.  MIT Press, 2015.

Here’s my blurb:

Brian Obach has written an important book for everyone who produces, buys, or considers buying organically produced foods.  This is a well-researched and utterly riveting history of the issues that unite and divide organic farmers and consumers, firmly grounded in the political context of classic social movements.   If you want to advocate for healthier and more sustainable food systems, you must read this book.

Jul 14 2014

Are organic foods more nutritious? And is this the right question?

I received a press release last week announcing the release of a new meta-analysis of more than 300 studies comparing organically produced foods to those produced conventionally.  The results show that organic foods have:

  • Less pesticides: this is to be expected as they are not used in organic production.
  • Less cadmium: this also is to be expected as sewage sludge, a probable source of cadmium, is not permitted in organic production.
  • More antioxidants: this is news because some previous studies did not find higher levels of nutrients in organic foods.

I was interviewed by the New York Times about this study:

Even with the differences and the indications that some antioxidants are beneficial, nutrition experts said the “So what?” question had yet to be answered.

“After that, everything is speculative,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “It’s a really hard question to answer.”

Dr. Nestle said she buys organic foods, because she believes they are better for the environment and wants to avoid pesticides. “If they are also more nutritious, that’s a bonus,” she said. “How significant a bonus? Hard to say.”

She continued: “There is no reason to think that organic foods would be less nutritious than conventional industrial crops. Some studies in the past have found them to have more of some nutrients. Other studies have not. This one looked at more studies and has better statistics.”

Two additional comments:

1. The study is not independently funded.   One of the funders is identified as the Sheepdrove Trust, which funds research in support of organic and sustainable farming.

This study is another example of how the outcome of sponsored research invariably favors the sponsor’s interests.  The paper says “the  Trust  had  no  influence  on  the  design  and management of the  research  project  and  the  preparation  of publications  from the project,” but that’s exactly what studies funded by Coca-Cola say.  It’s an amazing coincidence how the results of sponsored studies almost invariably favor the sponsor’s interests.  And that’s true of results I like just as it is of results that I don’t like.

2.  The purpose of the study is questionable.  The rationale for the study is “Demand for organic foods is partially driven by consumers’ perceptions that they are more nutritious.”  The implication here is that research must prove organics more nutritious in order to market them.  But most people who buy organics do so because they understand that organics are about production values.  As I said, if they are more nutritious, it’s a bonus, but there are plenty of other good reasons to prefer them.

Organic food 120714 WEB

Other resources:

May 1 2014

A Roundup (no pun intended) on organics

It’s been a busy couple of weeks on the organic front.

To put the events in context:Organics cost more.

  • Consumers spend about $30 billion on organics each year, and the numbers are rising.
  • Industrial food companies are cashing in on the market by buying up organic companies.
  • Big Organics want the rules to be as lenient as possible to all them to follow the letter of the organic standards without having to adhere to their spirit.
  • Organic production, which uses only approved pesticides and fertilizers, is an explicit critique of industrial food production methods.

The White House non-organic garden

I think this photo comes from Jerry Hagstrom who must have seen it on the day of the annual Easter egg roll.

New Picture (2)


Sam Kass denies that the White House garden is organic.  He told Hagstrom that “the sign was part of the Easter Egg Roll, not part of the kitchen garden…The planners of the Easter Egg Roll put up the sign…and he did not see it until he went down to the South Lawn during the event.”  The garden uses “organic practices.”

The “academic” attack on the integrity of organic certification

A report from something called Academic Reviews draws a conspiracy-theory picture of organic farmers:

Our review of the top 50 organic food marketers….reveals that anti-GMO and anti-pesticide advo­cacy groups promoting organic alternatives have combined annual budgets exceeding $2.5 billion annually and that organic industry funders are found among the major donors to these groups…These findings suggest a widespread organic and natural products industry pat­tern of research-informed and intentionally-deceptive marketing and advocacy related practices that have generated hundreds of billions in revenues.

Finally, the findings strongly suggest that this multi-decade public disinformation campaign has been conducted with the implied use and approval of the U.S. government endorsed USDA Organic Seal in direct contradiction to U.S. government stated policy for use of said seal….As a result, the American taxpayer funded national organic pro­gram is playing an ongoing role in misleading consumers into spending billions of dollars in organic purchasing decisions based on false and misleading health, safety and quality claims.

Michele Simon points out that the report is the work of the two founders of the publication, which is supported by an impressive list of food and biotechnology industry supporters.

The authors  make no statement about conflicts-of-interest.

What Americans really think about organics

Consumer Reports has a new survey of the attitudes toward organics of 1,016 adults.  The survey found:

  • 84% buy organic food and 45% but them at least once a month.
  • 81% think organic means no toxic pesticides (there are exemptions for some for up to five years).
  • 91% think organic produce should not use pesticides.
  • 61% think no antibiotics are used (there’s an exemption for streptomycin on apples and pears).
  • 86% think antibiotics should not be used.
  • 92% want a federal organic standard for fish.
  • 84% think the use of artificial ingredients in organic products should be discontinued, if not reviewed, after 5 years.

The fight between Big and Small Organics over the organic standards

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is meeting in San Antonio this week.  Advocates for maintaining the highest possible standards for organic production are worried about the NOSB’s notice last September to eliminate the rule that synthetic materials approved for the organic production be reviewed every five years (see Federal Register).

Advocates for Small Organics worry that the NOSB’s actions will damage the credibility of the USDA organic seal.  Some members of Congress agree.

the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) and March Against Monsanto San Antonio (MAMSA) staged protested the sunset of the 5-year rule at the meeting.

OCA says the NOSB made the change

Here’s a photo of the protest.  Things must have gotten hot and heavy.  The political director of the Organic Consumers Association was arrested.  The group issued this statement:

When the bureaucrats running the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) call in the police to remove the political director of the Organic Consumers Association for protesting an illegal policy change, and continue to ignore the expressed concerns, and block her from attending the public meeting today, it’s clear that we need a new balance of power between the organic community and the organic industry.

This is the price of success for organics.  Everyone wants to cash in.

Addition: Ellen Fried reminds me of this terrific graphic of who owns what in organics.

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