If you are an organic farmer, getting up this morning was harder than usual. You’re tired and sore from fighting weeds and bugs the natural way – in 100 degree temperatures no less — and now researchers have concluded that your noble efforts have no more benefit than conventional methods.
“Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce,” read the New York Times headline. No benefit in nutrition from improved soil. No benefit in health protection from lack of poisonous chemicals. No benefit from the increased compounds like phosphorous and phenols found in organic produce.
Makes a poor organic farmer want to slit his wrists with a dull hoe.
Depressing news like this is not new. What makes this report carry more weight than others is the fact that it was a meta-analysis – a study of studies looking at all the published research on the subject. What’s more, it came from a pre-eminent institution free from financial influence.
After looking at 237 studies conducted over four decades, the researchers determined that organic vegetable and fruits were no more nutritious and had no less prevalence of e. coli contamination than conventional produce. Moreover, the analysis found that pesticide levels were higher in conventional food but the levels were almost always lower than the safety limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
As I drove my kids to school this morning, I listened to NPR interviewing food experts about the study’s implications. Parents – mothers of young children especially – have been the driving force behind the phenomenal growth of the organic industry. I wondered how many of them were feeling duped somehow, that organic practices were just another marketing scheme no different than Dean Foods labeling sugared cereals as good for your health. All that extra money spent at Whole Foods – for naught. All that backbreaking labor in the fields – for naught.
Back at the farm, I parked my van and looked out over rows of vegetables choked with amaranth and Bermuda grass. A closer look would reveal dozens of eggplants whose leaves look sooty and wilted – a tell-tale sign of aphid infestation. In a few minutes our workers would arrive and we’ll grab gloves and hoes and go to work on the weeds. One of us will strap on a backpack sprayer and apply neem or spinosid (organic approved solutions that rarely work for more than a day or two).
We’ll do this work, day after day, not for the exercise. Not for the holier-than-thou feeling. And certainly not for the money. We’ll do it because we believe on a deep, almost soulful level, that spraying our food with chemicals is at best a risky business – for consumers who eat it, for farmers who apply it, and for the earth that drinks it up.
I can live without proof that organic food is more nutritious than conventional food. I can even live with the popular argument that organic methods cannot feed the world. But the chemicals — that is the big dividing line. That is our politics and our religion. So much of the rigorousness and art of organic farming is based on its determination to keep clean. Chemical farms are like athletes on steroids – the yields from their fields look unnaturally big, their fruits and vegetables implausably perfect. Give me an ounce of Roundup and my fields would look perfect too — free from the bull nettle that stings and the nut sedge that clings.
The Stanford researchers did not address the ongoing debate over whether the safety levels for chemicals are set too high. The fact is, few researchers ever will. Human studies of pesticides are expensive to conduct, take years to perform, and are fraught with so many variables that results are easily disputed. Until those studies are done, common sense is our best guide. Like steroids, the chemicals we use to grow our food have produced amazing results, yet few of us would eat steroids for breakfast to improve our productivity at work.
The organic farmer is like the turtle racing the hare. He doesn’t cover much ground in a single day, but the ground he does cover he knows well. Because he knows it well, he understands how important it is to take care of.
And he doesn’t need science to prove it.
(To learn more about how the study was conducted, see: http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2012/09/five-ways-stanford-study-underestimates-organic-food)