by Marion Nestle
Feb 15 2010

Organic data: production, support programs, nutrients, safety, and corporate ownership

In light of the new USDA rules (see yesterday’s post), I’ve been collecting information about organics.

PRODUCTION: the USDA’s latest (2008) survey results come in 59 tables giving data on organic acres, productivity, and anything else you might want to know about the this piece of the agricultural sector – crops, vegetables, and animals.  Interesting facts: more than 14,500 organic farms produce food on 4.1 million acres, but all of this comprises less than 1% of farming in the U.S.

USDA ORGANIC PROGRAMS:  the USDA says the organic agricultural sector is growing because farmers view it as a “way to lower input costs, decrease reliance on nonrenewable resources, and capture high-value markets.”  The USDA summarizes data on organic production by commodity, and explains its support and research programs.

NUTRIENTS: Remember the study last summer arguing that organic foods are no more nutritious than non-organic?  Now a French study comes to the opposite conclusion.   The authors claim that organics are more nutritious than non-organics.  I see organics as more about production values than nutrition, so I expect these kinds of arguments to go on forever.

SAFETY: Are organics more likely to carry dangerous microorganisms because they are fertilized with manure?  Dutch researchers say not necessarily.  If the manure compost is turned occasionally, the bacteria will be killed.  My comment: all food should be produced safely and organic rules specify how compost is to be used.

CORPORATE OWNERSHIP: Thanks to Subvert for reminding me about Michigan State professor Phil Howard’s nifty charts of Who Owns What in the Organic Food Industry:

If you find it difficult to sort out issues of integrity and trust in the organic industry, this kind of information provides ample reason for your difficulty.  That is why the work of organic advocacy groups like the Cornucopia Institute is so important: they are trying to keep the industry honest.

  • I agree with your point about nutrients. They are really difficult to measure and the difference is hard to detect. I figure go with what is freshest, and for me that is usually the organic produce in my area. Plus organic has the added benefit of being much lower in pesticide residues. A bonus for my 2 year old and pregnant wife.

    I want to clarify the manure use rules in organic production for your readers. This is taken from an article written by a group of researchers and extension service personnel that I work for ( That article also lays out the rules for composting that organic farmers must follow and document:

    The NOP regulation (§205.203(c)(1)) specifies that “raw” fresh, aerated, anaerobic, or “sheet composted” manures may only be applied on perennials or crops not for human consumption, or such uncomposted manures must be incorporated at least four months (120 days) before harvest of a crop for human consumption, if the crop contacts the soil or soil particles (especially important for nitrate accumulators, such as spinach). If the crop for human consumption does not contact the soil or soil particles (e.g. sweet corn), raw manure can be incorporated up to 90 days prior to harvest.

  • Sheesh.

    (from the above post) “USDA…explains its support and research programs.”
    Support for whom? The lion share of support, subsidies, and research funds go to “Big Ag”.

    As for the average “ag” producer? I have paperwork requesting to participate in USDA programs that have languished for more than two years. These programs were for conservation, water resource mgmt, and forage improvement…never funded. I can name you 20 or more farmers/ranchers who are still waiting for funding for the same as well as for crop production and coop marketing programs.

    The USDA has lost it’s way over the past couple of Decades. While the ‘on the ground” people for the various departments of the USDA are outstanding in their support of small producers, the behemoth itself has all but forgotten the individual. It is a politicized, bureaucratic, and often serpentine mess that caters to the large conglomerates.

    And finally, we spend too much time and energy on whether a product is “certified” organic or not. Organic beef is still raised in a CAFO AND fed grain (organic grain) then there are the various forms of organic labels (….I guess I’m on a rant…Fine, I’m done.

  • OrganicGeorge

    If a person eats junk food and take a vitamins are they as healthy as someone who eats right and gets daily exercise?

    That is the same argument being made that conventional food is as nutritious Organic.

    When you visit a conventional farm the first thing you notice is the dead soil. The chemicals have killed all the soil bacteria, which means the plant roots do not draw nutrients from the soil, they are force fed by the farmer. Not to mention that the chemicals are not absorbed by the plants, most of it either flares into the atmosphere or falls below the roots zone and ends up polluting the water table.

    Organic soils are alive, that is the only way Organic Ag can work. The roots of Organic plants look like fibrous sponges; unlike their chemical cousins who roots look naked. These feeder roots exude eucleic acid which dissolves the nutrients and minerals in the soil need for plant growth. In Organic Ag we feed the soil not the plant.

    Logic dictates that health soils lead to healthy plants which produce healthier food.

    The UK study has long been been discredited as junk science from researchers with major ties to conventional Ag. When your income relies on grants from chemical companies your work becomes tainted.

    I once had the head of the soil science division of a major land grant college tell me; “the purpose of the soil is to prop up the plant so the farmers can add the nutrients.” I think that sums up the argument quite well.

  • “O” George

    That is an awesome and “dead-on” comment. Especially the part…”When you visit a conventional farm the first thing you notice is the dead soil.”… This is so true! When I took over our family ranch, after several decades of lessees, our soil was deficient in nearly everything. For years, all they did was apply nitrogen…the soil was horrible. After two years now of no chems, letting the weeds cycle through, and grazing…it is starting to come back. We are finding earth worms again and dung beetles, bees, lady bugs, etc, etc. None of these were present before.

    Side Note: My foreman looked at me as if I was a madman the day I came running up, all excited, holding a dung beetle 🙂

    Our livestock get so excited now to switch pastures…they literally run through the gap to get to the next forage…Really fun. They no longer look to see if we will feed them, they want the fresh stuff on the other side of the fence.

    Keep doing what you are doing! every convert to fresh, local food is one more soul saved 🙂

  • Nirvana

    I remember first hearing about Marion Nestle years ago after reading something I thought was odd at the time where she made the claim that “organic” (whatever that means) produce was more nutritious than “conventional” (whatever that means) produce.

    Maybe someone can explain to me what “conventional” means? I farm. I use some organic practices such as Integrated pest management, I use some sustainable practices such as crop rotation and special natural plantings to help with erosion, but I also use some nitrogen and Roundup- so am I a “organ-tain-nal” farmer? My point being is that so often the dialogue at least in mass public opinion forums like this one, tends to polarize and mislabel.

    This latest claim from Nestle…….. I see she is still making the same irresponsible claim, at least from a nutrition standpoint. Some organic produce may very well be more nutritious than non- organic and vice-versa. Produce is highest in nutrients and anti-oxidants from most notably: being consumed closest to origin, closest to pick date, and various other factors of which the produce was grown such as weather, soil health, water, wind, etc. Whether or not it is “organic” has nothing to do with it.

    The only possible way to conclude a “real” study would be on a case- by -case basis, year-to-year…..which obviously wouldn’t work to well for the politicized and agenda driven uses (by all sides) such a study currently serves.

    Biggest misperception some non farmers have about organics is that they are pesticide free or may have less pesticide residue- there are plenty of liberally applied pesticides sprayed on organic crops, some rather toxic…..and there are also plenty of organic foods that are pesticide free but the two do not equate. .Now if only people would replace “organic” with “pesticide- free” than the debate would be more sound.

    For the last 2 years I haven’t sprayed any of my crops with pesticides, on the acreage that isn’t organic, yet have a handful of organic friends that cant farm organically without using organic pesticides, so far anyways.

    Thankfully the current trend is moving more towards local, and more importantly, sustainability is becoming more emphasized than simply “organics” as there are various pressing enviro issues as the result of swelling demand for organics such as the fact it takes far more land and water to farm organically than not. I would not be able to farm organically on my property due to water restrictions/ lack of water and land here in California.

    That said, there is plenty of “good” organic farming offers as well, the most prominent being soil health, and the issue is not as black and white as many frame it to be.

  • I totally agree with Smokey when he said: “Keep doing what you are doing! every convert to fresh, local food is one more soul saved.”

    I think that people should try to buy local food from local farmer communities and should try to eat food that wasnt sprayed with toxins and other pesticides.

    All the best, Jane

  • I guess it’s always good to have a balanced viewpoint of any subject, but I still think that there are plenty more benefits to buying organic than the downsides. I don’t know if I agree that farmers are trying to get into organic farming to lower costs and get into a high value market. The reason it’s high value is because it costs more to produce and maintain. I’m not sure that it seems like an easy switch from non-organic to organic farming.

  • I would say that it is more expensive to have organic farming. I would rather pay the extra money and eat great food than eat food that has several chemicals in it just to make it able to eat.

  • Nice thoughts about organic farming. I really like the thoughts in “A Calendar of Wisdom” by Leo Tolstoy about organic implications.