The announcement of a new Stanford study on the health benefits of food produced according to organic standards provides little in the way of concrete direction and instead risks distracting consumers from a critical perspective: the source of your food still matters.
The study appears to be as hyped up as the term it examines. Its conclusion is simply that organic foods have not been proven to be better for human health than conventionally produced foods. It reinforces that organic certification is not the pivotal factor in determining how healthy your food is, but does not attempt to identify what is.
Almost simultaneously, the New York Times published this critique of the use of antibiotics in livestock, stating that with respect to the prevalence of an antibiotic-resistant germ, “The numbers released quietly by the federal government this year were alarming.” Alarming but inconclusive means that the onus is on you to make the best decision for you and those you feed.
A great deal more than the presence or absence of an organic label determines the nutritional and environmental value of the food you buy. Instead of studying yourself in a circle, consider asking these three questions of your food.
Was it produced on a farm that grows a diverse selection of crops? Certified organic production does not necessarily mean diversified production, and monocropping is widely viewed as a problem. One indication of the environmental value of the food you purchase is whether it comes from producers that grow more than just a few crops, a practice that suggests the farmers are managing their soil nutrients, pests, and production schedules strategically and responsibly.
Was it grown in a way that relies primarily on the farm’s own ecosystem? The best farmers are managers not just of production but also of decomposition. While certified organic production eliminates some of the worst synthetic chemicals from crop production, it still allows for and relies on chemical compounds produced off the farm. Meanwhile, many independent farmers manage their inputs (and thus their costs) by cycling energy and nutrients through the whole farm system by composting, using integrated pest and nutrient management techniques, and incorporating livestock.
Was its time to market short enough that it will taste good? An organic certification does not ensure that your food was ripe and ready when it was harvested, and there is at least some modicum of agreement that crops that are harvested when ripe have higher nutrient content than those that are harvested prematurely in order to survive the journey to you (I especially like Dan Barber’s comments at 17:25 of this podcast). An independent producer generally markets goods geographically and relationally closer than wholesale supply chains do, and his crops are usually hours from harvest, not days or weeks as store-bought produce is.
The message here: Mass production, not the presence or absence of an organic label, is the problem. From an agricultural and economic perspective, you’re better off when you purchase your food directly from the producer because it’s likely to be more freshly harvested, richer in nutrients, lower in residues, and higher in overall environmental value than what you find on store shelves.
Right now to do business with farmers you’re limited to the farmers market or a CSA. While better ways to match you with the growers and crops you value are emerging, for now keep it simple, seek outlets that get you in direct contact with producers.