by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Organics

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 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.

Apr 14 2014

Walmart’s price-cut organics: good, bad, or indifferent?

When Walmart announced last week that it would start carrying Wild Oats organic foods at prices at least 25% below those of national brand organics, I had some conflicted reactions.

Walmart’s rationale sounds terrific:

We know our customers are interested in purchasing organic products and, traditionally, those customers have had to pay more,” said Jack Sinclair, executive vice president of grocery at Walmart U.S. “We are changing that and creating a new price position for organic groceries that increases access. This is part of our ongoing effort to use our scale to deliver quality, affordable groceries to our customers.

But Reuters explains what this is really about:

Organic foods accounted for roughly 4 percent of total U.S. food sales in 2012, but growth in the category for years has outpaced the industry overall, buoyed by growing demand for simpler food made from natural ingredients.

Organic foods often cost more than their conventional rivals, and that has limited purchases by the legions of lower-income U.S. shoppers who are needed to propel a niche product into a national player.

Walmart caters to that audience…”If we can make that price premium disappear, we think it will grow much, much faster,” Jack Sinclair, executive vice president of grocery at Walmart U.S., said of the retailer’s small but faster-growing organic sales.

For Walmart watchers, the announcement raises many concerns.

Tom Philpott, writing in Mother Jones before the recent announcement did a brief investigation of Walmart’s organic and local offerings in Austin, Texas:

Of course, Walmart exists to generate profit, not social change. And that may explain the dearth of produce being trumpeted as local and organic in the Austin store I visited. The city teems with farmers markets, Whole Foods branches, and a successful food co-op. With so many options available, shoppers here are likely not heading to Walmart for their heirloom tomatoes. As Prevor [Jim Prevor, the Perishable Pundit] told me, the company tailors its offerings to each region. It will “essentially sell whatever its customers want, as long as there’s a profit to be made.” 

Forbes asks a tough question: Maybe Walmart has just killed the organic food market?

WalMart getting into organics in a big way [may not be] good news for the industry. Most especially when they say that they’re going to eliminate the price premium that organic has traditionally carried…I don’t think it’s revealing anything terribly new to state that those who preferentially buy organic are often those who would prefer not to be thought of as WalMart shoppers.

And Trillium Asset Management, a company that claims to be devoted to sustainable and responsible investing, wonders whether the Walmart plan means that organics have lost their soul:

Wal-Mart’s pledge…is making a whole lot of people very nervous. Wal-Mart’s modus operandi is to keep prices low by driving down costs in the production chain and keeping its own wages low; its competitors’ practices are variations of the same theme, if less cutthroat. Good ol’ American-style capitalism and its frequent bedfellow, inadequate regulation, now threaten to strip “organic” of everything it once stood for (and everything that has made it more expensive): small scale production, gentler treatment of animals, better treatment of farm workers, and the elimination of chemical aids to production.

My personal observations of Walmart stores also make me skeptical.  I haven’t seen some of the previous promises effectively translated into reality.

Walmart says it will roll out the lower priced organics to about half its 4000 stores by this summer.

I’m reserving judgment until I see how these particular promises are implemented in the stores.

This just in: USDA’s latest data on organic agriculture.

Apr 7 2014

USDA’s enthusiastic (?) support of organic production

The USDA, whose job is to promote industrial agriculture, is usually an  uncomfortable home for the National Organic Program, but occasionally says something nice about it.

A couple of weeks ago, the USDA announced how much the organic industry has grown and how much the agency is doing to promote it.

The organic industry, says USDA:

Comprises more than 25,000 certified organic operations in more than 120 countries.

Includes 18,513 certified organic farms and businesses in the United States alone, representing a 245 percent increase since 2002 (see list of certified USDA organic operations).

Enabled 763 producers to become certified organic in just 2013, an increase of 4.2 percent from the previous year.

Generated $35 billion in retail sales last year (this sounds like a lot but the food industry generates more than a trillion dollars in annual sales).

Here’s what the USDA says it’s doing to help organic farmers.

  • Providing access to conservation programs
  • Providing access to loans and grants
  • Funding organic research and education
  • Helping to mitigate pest emergencies.

And here’s what the farm bill is doing for organics:

  • $20 million annually for dedicated organic research, agricultural extension programs, and education.
  • $5 million to fund data collection on organic agriculture. t
  • Expanded options for organic crop insurance.
  • Expanded exemptions for organic producers who are paying into commodity “check off” programs.
  • Improved enforcement authority for the National Organic Program.
  • $5 million for a technology upgrade of the National Organic Program
  • $11.5 million annually for certification cost-share assistance to cover 75 percent of certification costs up to $750 per year.

Adds up to more than $40 million and sounds good, no?  Industrial agriculture gets $20 billion a year.

Organics are still a tiny fraction of the U.S. food supply and all too easy for USDA—and Congress—to ignore and not take seriously.

Upping sales would help.  A lot.

 

Nov 11 2013

USDA asks for public input on how to communicate “agricultural coexistence”

I am indebted to Farm Futures for the heads up about the USDA’s just-published request for public input on what it calls “enhancing agricultural coexistence.”

Agricultural coexistence, the USDA says,

refers to the concurrent cultivation of crops produced through diverse agricultural systems, including traditionally produced, organic, identity preserved (IP), and genetically engineered crops.  As the complexity and diversity of U.S. agriculture increases, so does the importance of managing issues that affect agricultural coexistence, such as seed purity, gene flow, post-harvest mixing, identity testing, and market requirements.

My translation: The USDA wants producers of traditional crops and organic foods to stop complaining that GMOs are contaminating their crops, and producers of GMO crops to stop complaining that they get prosecuted if they try to save seeds from year to year.

The USDA explains that it is doing this in response to recommendations from its Advisory Committee on Biotechnology & 21st Century Agriculture.  This committee recommended actions to promote agricultural coexistence in five areas:

  1. Potential compensation mechanisms
  2. Stewardship
  3. Education and outreach
  4. Research
  5. Seed quality

How come the USDA is collecting input on #3 rather than the far-more-likely-to-be-controversial #1 and #2?

Early in 2011, I wrote about USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s use of Cold War rhetoric to promote détente between growers of organic and GMO foods.  I pointed out that while the USDA had no intention of backing down on support of GM agriculture, it was at least recognizing the threat to organic production.

I noted that the USDA was unlikely to get very far with this initiative because so many farm groups representing industrial agriculture so strongly objected to Vilsack’s coexistence proposal.  The groups argued that coexistence could “adversely impact all producers of biotech crops, as well as the integrity of the American agriculture system.”

If you can’t do anything about underlying structural problems, try communication.

Have something to say about what it will take to support all systems of agricultural production?  Now is a good time to weigh in.

 

Aug 21 2013

More Bavarian food politics

The central farmers’ market in Munich, the Viktualienmarkt, has some organic (“bio”) producers.  This one displays a sign that it has been organic for 20 years (20 Jahre Bio).

München-20130820-00032

 

Jun 2 2013

Got marketing? Organics face quandary

My monthly, first Sunday, food matters column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Q: I read that the new farm bill is going to establish a checkoff program for organics. What’s that? Is this good for organics?

A: As with everything in food politics, the answer depends on who you are. If you are a big producer of organic foods, it’s good news. If you are small, it may cost you more than it’s worth. And if all you want is to buy organic foods at a price you can afford, it could go either way.

Let’s start with the farm bill, which still has many hurdles to jump before it gets passed. The bill ties agricultural policy to food stamps (which take up 80 percent of the budget), favors large industrial farms over small, and only occasionally tosses in a token program to promote public health or environmental protection.

One such token is the organic checkoff. Both the Senate and House have amended the farm bill to permit organic producers and handlers to form a marketing and promotion program, commonly known as a checkoff.

Fee required

The way this works is that if the amendments survive, the bill passes and organic growers agree on the program – all iffy at the moment – the Department of Agriculture will require every producer and handler of certified organic foods to pay a fee per unit sale (the checkoff). The fees go into a common fund to be used for research and marketing of organic foods in general.

The USDA currently administers 19 checkoff programs. The best known are beef (“it’s what’s for dinner”), milk (“got milk?”) and eggs (“the incredible edible”). Others cover foods such as blueberries, Hass avocados, mangos, peanuts, popcorn and watermelon.

In these cases, the industry or its representatives voted for the programs. They are administered by the USDA but the industry pays for them.

Checkoff funds are allowed to be used for advertising, consumer education, foreign market development and research. They cannot be used for lobbying, although the distinction between promoting a product to consumers and extolling its virtues to lawmakers can be subtle.

The Organic Trade Association, which represents hundreds of organic producers but is dominated by the big ones, has lobbied for this program since 2010. The association is concerned that consumers cannot currently tell the difference between “natural,” a term that is unregulated, and “certified organic,” which is highly regulated, requires inspection and is more expensive to produce.

Mostly, the association wants to increase market share. Sales of organic foods in the United States have been growing by about 10 percent annually and reached $35 billion last year, but this amount is minuscule in comparison to total food sales. The growth potential of organic foods is enormous.

The congressional go-ahead is a triumph for the association, which convinced a majority of the Senate and House that the public wants the farm bill to support organics.

Opposing viewpoint

That many producers of conventional foods and their friends in Congress do not like organics is an understatement. They resent that consumers are willing to pay premium prices for organics. They consider organics to be a slap in the face – a personal assault on conventional agricultural practices.

They cite many reasons why the organic checkoff should not be allowed. For one thing, it is distinctly different from all other commodity checkoff programs – “organic” is a production process, not a food.

Because farmers are allowed to pay fees into only one checkoff program, the growers of organic blueberries would have to choose between the one for organics and the one for blueberries.

Questioning the cost

Critics of the entire concept of checkoff programs say all they do is increase food prices by passing the costs of promotion on to consumers.

Small organic producers and handlers are also leery. They object to having to pay fees for something that is not guaranteed to do them any good. Evidence for the benefits of checkoff programs is mixed. Some farmers benefit, while others do not.

And because checkoff funds are not allowed to be used for advertising that implies disparagement of other foods or production processes, small organic producers fear that marketing will focus exclusively on whether or not a product is certified and will be used to promote any organic product, including junk food. The rules will not allow promotion to focus on the benefits of organics to health or the environment.

Checkoffs are about marketing. They are not about health, sustainability, human welfare or any other value cherished by today’s food movement. Much as I favor organic over conventional production methods, I’m hoping organic producers will think carefully before approving a checkoff.

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

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