Organic Intellectuals: Is “Organic-is-Better” a Branding Scam?

Last week I posted a question that I have been wondering about in my daily life as a consumer. Are organic foods really “healthier” or “better for the planet” in some ways than conventionally grown foods? Can these assertions be reasonably supported? What about veggie and fruit washes? Are food washed with them actually freer of pesticides as compared to organic foods, or not?The topic also cuts to the heart of some of my recent postings. First, because it involves an important consumer choice that more and more people are making. In particular, if I don’t really want to “choose” to eat a range of invisible dangerous chemical pesticides and to release them into the environment, and I don’t want to “choose” to eat and support genetically modified foods, then I need to choose to buy and eat organic food. Secondly, thinking and writing about organic foods seems to me to be a good practical way to demonstrate what Gramsci called the “organic intellectual” engagement with real issues in the real world, treated in a serious and thorough way and shared openly through public forums, of which the Internet is the participative public forum par excellence.

There were two very interesting comments that were posted, one by Greg Dunlop and the other by “L Scoop.” I’d like to share them with you, and expand the topic a little bit, based particularly on Greg’s comments to me in a recent email (which he agreed to let me share).

First, let me share with you a little of Greg’s background. He has “both an Environmental Biology background and a Marketing background” and is very interested in “the whole area of environmentalism, green marketing and consumers.” He says that I “struck a nerve” with him when I used the word “organic” in my blog and posed those questions.

On my blog, Greg’s comments about organic foods were pretty skeptical. “When it comes to organic food, science goes out the window and hype and marketing take over,” he said, stating that he doesn’t “buy the basic premise that organic food is healthier washed or unwashed!”

“In fact I can argue you should wash the organic produce more as organic production relies on organic fertilizer (aka cow dung) whereas conventional can use either synthetic (man-made)or the natural (cow-made)fertilizer. You don’t need a microbiology degree to know that manure is laced with E-coli and other harmful bacteria. I digress though… what I really wanted to do was to bring this into a marketing context. “Organic” has become a brand … what do you think about when you hear the word organic. Healthy, safe, pesticide free, small family farms, better for the environment. The organic industry, and yes it is an industry, has done a good job at branding. But these are all myths (and mostly urban ones at that!)

  • Myth 1 – Organic food are healthier – Study after study has confirmed that their is no difference in the nutrional value whether or safety of organic food. I can supply the references on request.
  • Myth 2 – Organic farmer don’t use pesticides – Wrong! – they use so-called organic pesticides. They are approved for organic production because they are not synthetic or man-made. The list of approved organic pesticides includes nicotine, tin and copper based compounds, sulfur etc.- some of these are being pulled from the market because of heavy metal buildup in the soil. An organic grape grower in CA has to apply 10 – 20 applications of sulfur at 20 pounds per acre in each spray to control fungal diseases. A conventional grower uses maybe 5 sprays of a modern highly effective and highly tested synthetic fungicide at ounces per acre. I know which one I would prefer to get my wine from.
  • Myth 3 – Organic production methods are better for the environment – There is so many ways that this is wrong! First – there are no organic herbicides used in food production – they simply do not exist. Organic growers must rely on mechanical cultivation that burns fuel and can lead to greater soil erosion or the use of fallow and/or cover crops thereby taking land out of production and reducing yields. Organic production has lower yields. All the land that can or should grow crops in the world is being used to produce food. If low yield organic farming techniques were to be used throughout the world we would need to drain the swamps and cut down the forests to make way for more land. High yield farming prevents environmental degradation by producing more on an acre of land. There are other myths relating to organic production that I won’t get into here but the basic premise behind the organic craze is this the biggest myth of all … natural good, synthetic bad! This argument has nothing to do about science … it is about philosophy! If it make you feel better to eat an organic apple … washed or unwashed then go ahead. But don’t tell me that an organic apple is healthier. Both are healthy and that is the point. Eating apples or other fruits and vegetables is the best thing we can do to fight cancer. The process behind getting it to you is unimportant. We are lucky to live in an affluent society (made this way ironically because of modern agriculture) and debate the nuances about the food we eat and not have to worry about our basic sustenance.

Greg gives a reference article here on the topic of Marketing & The Organic Food Industry http://www.cgfi.org/publications/Marketing_The_Organic_Food_Industry and suggests that interested thinkers might consider picking up a copy of the book “The Truth about Organic Foods” by Alex Avery.

Keeping an open mind is a good thing, and difficult when we really have no at-hand and reliable sources of information about the pros and cons of one particular food choice (or other kind of choice) over another. Potter and Heath, in their excellent book “Rebel Sell,” assume a similarly skeptical posture towards organic, calling the organic certification process, in effect, a legitimation scheme that was controlled and railroaded by a bunch of radical hippie extremists.

In his email to me, Greg expands on his ideas and links them to branding and marketing. He then advocates a more moderate position, where extremism is not seen as a sensible path. It strikes me as pretty sensible, in fact.

“In a generic sense, people use labels as a short cut to understanding the complexity of the world around us. They come to believe certain “truths” based on their values, experiences, emotions and of course the influences of government, NGO’s, companies, media, authority figures, peers, neighbors, family and friends. Ideas or issues become like brands. Organic is a brand. Ethanol is a brand. Fair trade coffee is a brand. These are just as much brands in today’s world as a Big Mac, and in many ways shape consumer choices both directly and indirectly much more so then what McDonald’s could ever dream about. But I like to dig deeper into some of brands, like peeling back the layers of an onion, and with my science background to understand the scientific “truths”. Just as we know the truths about the fat content of a Big Mac and that a steady diets of Big Macs is not too healthy, we also recognize that a Big Mac once in a while is not unhealthy either. With fat, sodium, sugar or whatever people are concerned about in their diet are people starting to recognize the idiom “the dose determines the poison” and therefore “everything in moderation please”?

So, that’s Greg’s perspective. L. Scoop actually had a very different perspective which was much more favorable to organic foods and the organic brand as a signal of real food quality and nutritional difference.

I’m no expert on this but I think there are two different things going on here. One, the thing that you’re talking about, is the safety of the food that you are eating….in that vein, you need to consider the type of fruit or vegetable that you are eating. In some of them, where the skin is very thin or you are likely to eat the entire fruit (including skin), you are more likely to have a situation where the fruit might not be that safe with or without a wash…for instance, if I were to buy something non-organic, it would be something like an avocado or a melon (where I discard the thick skin) rather than any type of berry or green bean where I would eat the entire thing. But, let’s say you’re careful and maybe with non-organic pesticide free produce or produce that is specially washed, you can get rid of all or most of the chemical concerns. Next, and more important in the long term, is the NUTRIENT VALUE of the fruits and vegetables that you are eating. And that’s where Organic produce has incomparable value compared to other types of produce. Do some research and that’s where the real value of organic produce lies. Victoria Boutenko has some of this information in your books, and I’m sure you can also find it elsewhere.

Now, I did look up the Boutenko site and apparently this is a family that has some serious health issues a while back and decided to switch to a diet of raw organic food. Apparently, this made major differences to their health. The site and associated books seem to me to be an advocacy site for an eating style that involves raw, rather than cooked, food, and there is no doubt that raw food has a superior nutrition profile when compared to cooked food. But does organic food really have a superior nutrient profile? That claim seemed suspect to me so I investigated it further.

I recently bought a book called “What To Eat” by Marion Nestle. Nestle, who doesn’t seem to be connected to the Swiss food company, is a nutrition professor and she has offered in this book a very thorough, well-documented, scientific but also eminently readable guide to what foods to ear for what reasons. The recommendation by Michael Pollan (and author whose work I like very much) on the cover certainly helped to sell me on the book.

Dr. Nestle says in her book that testing such assertions proves extremely difficult, but that it is likely that organic produce, grown in better and richer soil, may be slightly higher in nutritional value than matched produce grown in poorer soil conventionally. That’s isn’t really a very strong assertion. According to her fruits and vegetables are “better” because they are organic, “but not necessarily for nutritional reasons.” She cites a former head of the nutrition department at Columbia University who says that people should probably choose organic for reasons other than that they might contain “a little more carotene or zinc” (which, considered in the long run and in the entire nutritional picture, amounts to something fairly insignificant). Instead, it is the preservation of natrual resources, the reduction in water, air, and soil pollution, and the solution of environmental problems that are the bigger attractors. So, actually,nutritional benefit is apparently *not* where the real benefit of organic lie.
We’re getting two very different pictures here. The skeptics, who are informed. And the advocates, who are informed. I’m certainly not insisting that all of my food be organic, but I know several people who are. I have been shifting more of my food consumption to organic, but it’s really still just a small fraction of what I eat. But I’m wondering, each time I grocery shopping in fact, what I should do. And those decision, multiplied over hundreds of millions of people, are having major impacts on the food industry. Do they make sense? What is the opportunity cost of the money we collectively spend supporting organic agriculture?

What do you think? Who should we believe? How should we be making these important choices?

One Response

  1. rpwagner November 3, 2007

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