by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Organics

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

Sep 5 2012

Are organics more nutritious? Again? Sigh.

The latest study arguing that organics are not more nutritious than conventionally grown crops once again makes big-time news.

The last time I wrote about a study like this, I posted the British newspaper headlines.

Never mind the media hype.  Here’s what the authors conclude:

The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Isn’t reducing exposure to pesticides and antibiotic use precisely what organic production is supposed to do?

Organics is about production methods free of certain chemical pesticides, herbicides, irradiation, GMOs, and sewage sludge in plant crops, and antibiotics and hormones in animals.

This meta-analysis confirms that organic foods have much lower levels of these things.  I’d call that doing exactly what it is supposed to.

But what about nutrients?  I can’t think of a single reason why organics should have fewer nutrients than conventional crops, and plenty of reasons why they might have a bit more if the soils are rich enough.

Plants make their own vitamins.  The vitamin levels should not be expected to differ significantly.  The mineral content might.

But even if organics do have higher levels of nutrients, so what?  Will people eating them be healthier as a result?

Just as with supplements, additional nutrients do not make healthy people healthier.

The only reason for organics to be about nutrition is marketing.  Nutrition turns out to be a better selling point than lower levels of pesticides and antibiotics.  It also makes better headlines, apparently.

But aren’t those lower levels—in production and in the body—good reasons to buy organics?

I think so.  You?

Feb 21 2012

Jim Prevor on Organics, Crop Yields and Food Politics

I don’t ordinarily reprint or comment on discussions of my work but Perishable Pundit Jim Prevor’s response to my recent post on organics is worth a read.  I reprint his piece with his permission.  Skip the flattering comments about my work and scroll right down to his discussion of the downside of the organic community’s deal with the USDA.   

Our piece, Organics, Crop Yields And Feeding The World, brought many letters and public comments, including an article from one of the most prominent food analysts writing today.

Marion Nestle, the Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University and the author of many food and food policy related books, is often perceived by many in the trade as an enemy of the food industry. We find her enormously thoughtful and willing to ask many questions that are sometimes uncomfortable for the trade to address. We don’t always come down on the same side as her, but we always find reading her to be a wise investment of our time.

She recently wrote a piece titled, The Endless Controversy Over Organics, which focused on our interview with Dr. Steve Savage. As usual, Professor Nestle was open to the evidence presented — in this case regarding the relative yield between conventional and organic production. In the end, though, she threw up her hands at the conflicting research:

What impresses me about research on organic productivity is that its interpretation can be predicted by who is doing the interpreting. I’ve seen, and review in my book,What to Eat,plenty of research demonstrating that organics are only slightly less productive than industrial agriculture and at much lower cost to soil and the environment.

We think this is where most people will end up. The problem is that it is relatively easy to do research that will show organic production to be competitive. This is because as long as organic has only a tiny share of production, producers have the option to grow organic in a location that is optimized for organic production.

The yields in these optimized locations can sometimes be competitive with those of conventional production. This has, though, almost no relationship to the question of whether if all production was converted to organic, would the yields be competitive.

Here at the Pundit, we are in touch with too many growers who have tried to grow organic to have many doubts. Most of these growers were very motivated, they tried to grow organic because they thought they could make money doing so. Yet the results are in… demand or not, East Coast organic apples will remain a rarity.

This issue is not a trivial one. Professor Nestle highlights that organic growing operates at “much lower cost to soil and the environment.” This is controversial. Organic growing utilizes all kinds of substances, and it is not easy to establish that utilizing, say, copper, is more beneficial for than environment than synthetic substances.

Even if true, however, the environmental benefit would depend crucially on the ability to use the same area of land to raise food. If we were compelled to, say, destroy the rain forest to increase acreage for food production, it would be very difficult to make the case that the net benefit of organic production was beneficial to the environment.

One area we find ourselves in sympathy with Professor Nestle is in her critique of the interactions between the organic community and the US government:

The USDA has long been an uncomfortable host forThe National Organic Program. This agency’s job is to support industrial agriculture, and organics are indeed small in comparison.

But organic production is anexplicitcritique of industrial agricultural systems. Organics get higher prices. And their sales are increasing.

No wonder USDA and representatives of industrial systems don’t like organics much and do everything they can to find fault with it.

Sure there are faults to find:

  • Weak and inadequately enforced standards
  • Endless pressure to add industrial chemicals to the approved list and further weaken the standards
  • Expenses that few small farmers can afford
  • Inadequate protection from contamination with genetically modified crops
  • Suspicions about the equivalency of standards for imported organic foods
  • Bad apples who make things difficult for farmers who are doing things right

USDA ought to be doing all it can to work with organic producers to fix these problems. To its credit, USDA recruited undersecretary Kathleen Merrigan to try.

We think most at USDA would dispute her characterization of the agency, saying instead that its responsibility is to promote US agriculture, and since 99% of that agriculture is not organic, it should mostly promote the agriculture we actually have, rather than the agriculture organic advocates might wish we had.

That doesn’t mean that USDA doesn’t want to help organic farmers. As Professor Nestle notes, there is now an “agreement between the U.S. and the E.U. to recognize each other’s organic standards, thereby opening the European market to American organics. USDA reports that the organic industry is delighted with the opportunity for new market possibilities.”

Although Professor Nestle sees a problem in USDA hosting the program, we would say the organic community made a deal they will find difficult to live with in asking the government — any agency of the government — to manage this effort.

Obviously, organic advocates could have gone out and registered a trademark and could have kept organic standards pure and enforcement rigorous.

The minute the government is involved, though, politics is involved. And in politics, the organic community faces a difficult state of affairs. As long as organic is a tiny and insignificant industry, it could probably make its own rules without much interference. After all, who would care enough to fight?

Yet as organic grows, it becomes a more significant business opportunity and then General Mills, Kraft, etc., become more interested. As they become more interested, they also will look to see that the rules established meet their needs.

Now, obviously, there is no upside for them in tarnishing the organic “brand” — after all they want to profit from the brand. Still, over time, if organic becomes a substantial part of the food business, since organic growers are not the most powerful political force in the food industry, we will see the standards and enforcement change in a way that will benefit larger, more politically powerful companies.

This is not a function of USDA misbehaving. It is a function of tying one’s hopes to political forces. Of course, we don’t have to lecture to Professor Nestle on that subject… she is the author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health.

According to the Organic Trade Association, organic sales totaled nearly $27 billion in 2010, and constituted 11% of produce sales. Is this “tiny and insignificant”? I don’t think so.

Is the National Organic Program really a pact with the devil?  Organic producers worked long and hard—fully 12 years—to get organic standards codified in 2002.  Was this a mistake?

Feb 16 2012

The endless controversy over organics

I am a big fan of the Perishable Pundit, Jim Prevor, whose opinions on the produce industry I think are always worth reading whether I agree with them or not.  I check his site regularly.

I am also a big fan of organics.  I think research shows that organic production methods are kinder to soil, climate, and animals than industrial production methods.

So I was interested to read Perishable Pundit’s interview with Dr. Steve Savage, an agricultural consultant in San Diego.

Q: Your detailed analysis of U.S. organic crops rattles the generally accepted notions about the size and potential growth of the organic market. Based on the latest USDA-NASS data, you make four key points:

  • Organic is a very small part of US agriculture.
  • Organic is significantly less productive on a per area basis.
  • Organic acreage, and to a greater extent, organic production, is skewed to the dry, Western states.
  • Farmers are paid higher prices for organic commodities, but when combined with lower productivity, gross income per acre is not always much higher and even sometimes lower.

Dr. Savage backs up these statements with additional data in a slide show from USDA.  You can look up both links and decide for yourself if you agree with his conclusions.

What impresses me about research on organic productivity is that its interpretation can be predicted by who is doing the interpreting.  I’ve seen, and review in my book What to Eat, plenty of research demonstrating that organics are only slightly less productive than industrial agriculture and at much lower cost to soil and the environment.

The USDA has long been an uncomfortable host for the National Organic Program.   This agency’s job is to support industrial agriculture and organics are indeed small in comparison.

But organic production is an explicit critique of industrial agricultural systems.  Organics get higher prices.  And their sales are increasing.

No wonder USDA and representatives of industrial systems don’t like organics much and do everything they can to find fault with it.

Sure there are faults to find:

  • Weak and inadequately enforced standards
  • Endless pressure to add industrial chemicals to the approved list and further weaken the standards
  • Expenses that few small farmers can afford
  • Inadequate protection from contamination with genetically modified crops
  • Suspicions about the equivalency of standards for imported organic foods
  • Bad apples who make things difficult for farmers who are doing things right

USDA ought to be doing all it can to work with organic producers to fix these problems.  To its credit, USDA recruited undersecretary Kathleen Merrigan to try.

She just announced an agreement between the U.S. and the E.U. to recognize each other’s organic standards, thereby opening the European market to American organics.   USDA reports that the organic industry is delighted with the opportunity for new market possibilities.

Experts can argue whether organics are slightly or substantially less productive but they are demonstrably better for soil and the environment.  I think that matters.

Comments are welcome.

Jan 3 2012

Musing about organics leads me to the Farm Bill

Sales of organic foods continue to increase at a faster pace than sales of conventional foods.  This alone makes people suspicious of the organic enterprise.

Another reason is confusion about what organic production methods are, exactly.  If you are part of the food movement, you probably want your foods to be organic, local, seasonal, and sustainable.  You might also want them produced by farm workers who have decent wages and living conditions.

Unfortunately, these things do not necessarily go together.

  • Organic means crops grown without artificial pesticides, fertilizers, GMOs, irradiation, or sewage sludge, and animals raised without hormones or antibiotics.  Certified Organic methods follow specific rules established by USDA.
  • Local means foods grown or raised within a given radius that can range from a few to hundreds of miles (you have to ask).
  • Seasonal refers to food plants eaten when they are ripe (and not preserved or transported from where they were grown).
  • Sustainable means—at least by some definitions—that the nutrients removed from the soil by growing plants are replenished without artificial inputs.

That these are different is illustrated by a recent article in the New York Times about industrial organic production in Mexico.  The story makes it clear that organics do not have to be local, seasonal, sustainable, or produced by well paid workers.

While the original organic ideal was to eat only local, seasonal produce, shoppers who buy their organics at supermarkets, from Whole Foods to Walmart, expect to find tomatoes in December and are very sensitive to price. Both factors stoke the demand for imports.

Few areas in the United States can farm organic produce in the winter without resorting to energy-guzzling hothouses. In addition, American labor costs are high. Day laborers who come to pick tomatoes in this part of Baja make about $10 a day, nearly twice the local minimum wage. Tomato pickers in Florida may earn $80 a day in high season.

The cost issues are critical.  Dairy farms in general, and organic dairy farms in particular, are entirely dependent on the cost of feed for their animals, and the cost of organic feed has become almost prohibitively expensive.  This has caused organic dairy producers to cut back on production or go out of business.  As another New York Times article explains,

The main reason for the shortage is that the cost of organic grain and hay to feed cows has gone up sharply while the price that farmers receive for their milk has not.

While the shortage may be frustrating for consumers, it reveals a bitter truth for organic dairy farmers, who say they simply need to be paid more for their milk.

Why is the price of feed rising?  Simple answer: because 40% of feed corn grown in the United States is being used to produce biofuels.

Why do farmers grow corn for biofuels?  Because the government gives them tax credits and other subsidies to do so.

But in a small step in the right direction, the ethanol tax credit program was allowed to expire last week,”ending an era in which the federal government provided more than $20 billion in subsidies for use of the product.”

One person quoted in the article connected the dots:

Production of ethanol, with its use of pesticides and fertilizer and heavy industrial machinery, causes soil erosion and air and water pollution. And it means that less land is available for growing food, so food prices go up.

Organics do not exist in isolation.  Their production is connected to every other aspect of the food system.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a food system that promoted organic, local, seasonal, sustainable agriculture and paid farm workers a living wage?

Wouldn’t it be nice if the 2012 Farm Bill supported that kind of a food system if not instead of than at least along side of the one we have now?

I will be watching to see what Congress does with the Farm Bill.  Stay tuned.

Apr 25 2011

Do farm pesticides reduce kids’ IQs?

The Environmental Working Group announces the publication of three studies finding a correlation between diminished IQ and blood levels of pesticides.

The studies were done separately by groups of researchers from the Mt Sinai School of Medicine, University of California Berkeley’s School of Public Health, and Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.  All were published in Environmental Health Perspectives and are available at that site (although sometimes with a delay and you have to look hard for the pdf of the whole article).

All three studies examined levels of organopesticides in the blood of pregnant women.  All looked at one or more measures of IQ taken when the children were 1 to 9 years old.

The Berkeley study, Prenatal Exposure to Organophosphate Pesticides and IQ in 7-Year Old Children, examined Latino farmworkers and their children.  Researchers found a difference of 7 IQ points between children with the highest and lowest levels of organopesticides.

The Mt. Sinai study, Prenatal Exposure to Organophosphates, Paraoxonase 1, and Cognitive Development in Childhood, was done with a prenatal population in New York City.

The Columbia study, 7-Year Neurodevelopmental Scores and Prenatal Exposure to Chlorpyrifos, a Common Agricultural Pesticide, also was done on an inner-city population.

It has been difficult to demonstrate demonstrable harm from agricultural pesticide use except among farmworkers exposed to very high doses.  These studies mean that lower doses experienced by people who merely eat agricultural products also can cause harm.

The study will undoubtedly be criticized for not adequately controlling for socioeconomic variables that influence IQ—they were all done with low-income populations—and, more importantly, for not explaining precisely how pesticides might influence childhood learning and achievement.  And some will surely argue that a 7-point IQ difference is well within experimental error.

But at the very least, pesticides are a marker for poorer cognitive outcome.  The fact that three independent groups of investigators arrived at similar conclusions means that the results need to be seriously considered.

Organic vegetables anyone?

And just for the record, here’s the Environmental Working Group’s list of the foods with highest and lowest levels of pesticides:

Highest Levels Lowest Levels
Celery
Peaches
Strawberries
Apples
Blueberries
Nectarines
Bell Peppers
Spinach
Cherries
Kale/Collard Greens
Potatoes
Grapes (imported)
Onions
Avocado
Sweet Corn
Pineapple
Mangos
Sweet Peas
Asparagus
Kiwi
Cabbage
Eggplant
Cantaloupe
Watermelon
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