Organic often feels synonymous with healthy. At the very least, it is tempting to believe that something grown in such a fancy way that it bears its own special sticker should be worth the extra money. Yet for all the hype around prohibiting genetic modification, reducing pesticide use, and requiring animals to be treated more humanely, what does going organic even get you? This standard may have once been a helpful way to move America’s agriculture in a better direction, but today, buying organic is probably just a waste of money.
The organic standard itself, as determined by the Department of Agriculture, is a curious set of regulations that details what practices are encouraged and what practices are prohibited in the production of food that seeks an organic certification. Certain practices, such as crop rotation, have clear benefits which positively impact the sustainability of that farm. Other rules, such as the prohibition of genetic modification, may be well-intentioned, but in practice are cumbersome, expensive and provide little benefit to either the consumer or the environment. Finally, certain synthetic pesticides or other practices that might make the average organic-lover uncomfortable are permitted under the standards.
The goal of eating organic is presumably to better the consumer, the environment, or both. One of the primary fears which organic certifications hope to abate is consumer worries over contact with pesticides. The research on those scary pesticides used to keep unwanted friends from damaging crops in regular produce is mixed. What seems clear, though, is that organic food cannot shield a produce lover from all contact with chemical pesticides, but that even regular produce does not, on the whole, carry nearly enough pesticide residue to risk a measurable impact on the consumer’s health.
Organic food is also not any better for you. A handful of studies have been able to produce results citing slightly higher concentrations of certain nutrients in organic food, likely due to differences in soil composition, the measurable impact of these differences is, again, essentially unnoticeable. You would likely do far more for you health to just eat an extra serving of nonorganic spinach.
If organic seems to offer little benefit to the consumer, then surely the price can be justified through drastically better environmental outcomes, right? Maybe not. As with consumer-side benefits, research on how organic standards affect the environment is still mixed. What is clear, though, is that there are many strategies for reducing your diet’s carbon footprint and environmental impact that are flat-out more cost effective.
Pesticide-free farming still requires farmers to employ some strategies to control visitors to the crops, and these alternatives have their tradeoffs. Far more significant than the qualms of organic versus conventional produce farming, though, is the question of organic meats. The organic standards make no strides to reduce the role of meat in our food system. Rather, it details guidelines for cruelty-free farming and insists that your organic food also eat only organic food.
Our movement to accept meat as being alright so long as the animal’s life was not terrible prior to its slaughter risks entertaining a certain type of moral hazard. Every animal that has and will be consumed needs to be fed until they day it turns into food itself. A considerable part of America’s crop output is grown with no intention of ever feeding a human directly. Given that biologists estimate that roughly 90 percent of the energy animals consume at one trophic level is passed onto the next level up on the food chain, it is irrational to believe that the marginal difference between organic and conventional meats comes close to switching that organic meat for a protein source like lentils or beans.
Our agriculture system is barreling into a future where climate change is no longer decades away. Weather patterns are already changing. More frequent temperature and moisture extremes mean innovative sustainable farming techniques are more necessary now than ever. As a society, our diets must change and our assumptions about what modern agriculture looks like must adapt. The organic farming standards, however, are leading us down the wrong path.
For our food supply to prosper in the face of fundamental environmental change, we cannot confine ourselves to holding these standards as the high water mark for agriculture. Instead, things like genetic modifications to increase crop resilience should be embraced and lower carbon footprint foods should be incorporated into our diets. Overall, consumers should take a hard look at what exactly they are getting for their money – and what they aren’t.