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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Is organic food an elitist scam?

Yes, dear, its a genetically modified lemon, but its organic!
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  • Yes, dear, it's a genetically modified lemon, but it's organic!
A recent column by Roger Cohen of the New York Times has upset a lot of people. Under the headline "The Organic Fable," Cohen writes about a new study critical of the organic label:

I cheered this week when Stanford University concluded, after examining four decades of research, that fruits and vegetables labeled organic are, on average, no more nutritious than their cheaper conventional counterparts. The study also found that organic meats offered no obvious health advantages. And it found that organic food was not less likely to be contaminated by dangerous bacteria like E.coli.

Cohen also calls the organic movement classist:

Organic has long since become an ideology, the romantic back-to-nature obsession of an upper middle class able to afford it and oblivious, in their affluent narcissism, to the challenge of feeding a planet whose population will surge to 9 billion before the middle of the century and whose poor will get a lot more nutrients from the two regular carrots they can buy for the price of one organic carrot.

I wouldn't go quite as far as Cohen to say that "the organic ideology is an elitist, pseudoscientific indulgence shot through with hype." But I have long maintained that "organic" is a pretty meaningless label. To earn it, a farmer has to jump through expensive hoops. Those supplying Walmart might do that easily enough, but small independents may grow organic, yet can't afford to label their food as such.

Cohen does acknowledge that the study found that pesticides, antibiotics and other unhealthy compounds are in significantly smaller portions in organic food. I tend to think he underestimates the importance of this. For a more reasoned analysis, check out Julia Shulevitz's piece in the New Republic. She switches the emphasis to more efficient farming on less land.

Taste is another issue, of course. A conventionally grown local peach is going to taste better than an organic one from China. But true believers, like Shulevitz, tend to make that of secondary concern.

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