A new study is tarnishing the public perception of organic food. Not so fast, says commentator Louisa Kasdon. (AP Photo)

The hot button food news this week is that organic fruits, vegetables, and meat may not be all that superior to conventionally grown and raised food. The revelation, from a new report by Stanford University’s Center for Health Policy, was based on a 40 year meta study and a review of 237 research findings

In the end, researchers concluded that organic foods are marginally lower in pesticides, equivalent nutritionally, and a lot more expensive than regular old industrial food.

Boats are being rocked, marketing campaigns are in flux and all sorts of smug Tweeters are saying snotty things about organic over-hype. I think many are missing the point. Organics matter to people because they believe that supporting organic farming is an investment in the future of our food system.

I’ve never believed that organic food was the edible equivalent of the Holy Grail. (For the record, I’m more of an Eat Local, Think Global sort.) Sure, it would be nice if an organic blueberry had more vitamin C. It would be a plus if a pork chop from a pig that had lived a happy, free-range existence had lower levels of chemical residue. But to me the news that our conventional food supply is in comparatively good shape, or at least the roughly the same shape as the organic food system, is reassuring. But nutrition is only one part of the equation.

The interest in organics is part of a larger movement away from food that comes from too far away, is harvested by underpaid workers, and is basically an industrial product rather than the unity of soil, seed, and sun. Organic food is an iconic centerpiece of a whole belief system that demands we recapture the link between food, farmers, and land.

People are passionate about food, and becoming more so every day. American consumers have demonstrated that they are willing to pay a premium for organics. (That’s why bottom-line driven companies like Wal-Mart and Heinz have energetically embraced the movement as a potent consumer driver.) Some are motivated by politics – and will trade only with those who guarantee fair working conditions for their farmers. Others are inspired by fear – having seen perhaps one too many news reports about organophosphate pesticides and the travel patterns of genetically modified seed spores from farm to farm.

Whatever their motivation, supporting organic agriculture helps people feel empowered by their food choices. That’s the real reason organic food matters. It is part of the most powerful social movement of our day: Food Consciousness. And though I have great respect for the fastidious research by the Stanford team, in no way is the new report a devastating blow to organic food.

Ultimately people don’t reach for the misshapen organic strawberry because it has more vitamin C. They do so in the hope that supporting organic agriculture will help raise the conversation and make the food system healthier for all of us in the long run.

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • Interested Party

    Good point! Although, I don’t necessarily think that buying organic=buying local. When I look at most of the organic produce available at my local grocery store, a great deal of it come from Chili and some even from New Zealand.

  • thenore

    @fac4da89552e18ad18b633b6bae70686:disqus : Buying organic doesn’t mean buying local, and the author doesn’t say that.

    There is a growing stereotype of people who buy organic products, and I think this stereotype, many times, overshadows the reasons behind buying organic products.

  • vito33

    My only produce restriction is that I won’t buy tomatoes from Florida because I’m concerned about the modern-day slavery accusations leveled at some of the growers down there.

    Living on a fixed income, I buy 99% of my produce at the Haymarket Square wholesale market, NOT at the wildly overpriced and over-hyped “organic” markets around town.

    Here’s the thing: If you decide that you’re going to farm in the Northeast, on a few acres and for a few months out of the year, and compete with farmers in other parts of the country who have hundreds of thousands of acres and a 12 month growing season… Be my guest! But don’t expect me to subsidize you.

  • Abigail

    Amen. My biggest concern is the impact that growing our global food supply has on the planet. Sustainability is the biggest reason to support organic growing, not health.

  • Go Organic

    Organic is the only way to grow. I have been growing my own produce for years and it’s convenient and just a few yards away. I avoid all the chemicals that are sprayed on food and know that my produce doesn’t come from a foreign country. Can’t beat that!
    For generations we have saved seeds, so I have heirloom seeds that are protected annually. Regardless of price, organic is the only way to go, especially if one cares about their HEALTH.

  • Carmilla5

    This is BS. Its been proved that it was a faulted study. Makes sense to spray food with chemicals b/c Dow, Monsanto, Syngenta are happy little rich campers. Naaaa its all spin, Organic Rocks!

  • mike

    finally – a rational voice in the often hysterical world of organic food – thanks so much a much-needed commentary on important study

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  • Gentlewomanfarmer

    If you’re buying organic you’re already ahead of the game; tell me about organic Hot Pockets or Pizza Rolls. There aren’t any. So the health benefits are there just because of the food choices being made in the first place.

    As for the organic = local conundrum? The answer is seasonal eating.

  • isarose

    They leave out consideration of GMO vs non-GMO foods (genetically modified). If you eat organic, you know you are not eating GMO foods what have been linked to food sensitivities and many other problems.

  • Juliet Stone

    Who thought we were as self interested as to concern ourselves solely with our own personal vitamin intake, it is indeed the food ecosystem that is a driving force in our choosing organic and to actively participate in a more sustainable future that includes the health of both the soil and the small local farmers who through their labor give us our “daily bread” and sustenance.

    thank you for broadening the conversation

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