Produce sections in many groceries separate products labeled organic from identical items marked inorganic. Retailers charge premium prices for organic goods. What are they and are they worth the added expense?
Merriam-Webster says organic refers to “food produced with the use of feed or fertilizer of plant or animal origin without employment of chemically formulated fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics, or pesticides.”
Inorganic means something that is “composed of matter other than plant or animal” and it also means “belonging to the inanimate world.” Here’s where the chemical fertilizers and other soil and plant additives come into play.
The Green Revolution – the large increase in production of food grains such as rice and wheat after the introduction of high-yielding varieties, pesticide use, better management techniques – was spearheaded by Norman E. Borlaug, a native Norwegian who settled in Iowa. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his lifetime’s work to feed the world’s growing population, the agronomist proposed in the 1940s that laboratory pesticides, fertilizers, and crossbred crops could solve global starvation.
Ironically, the Green Revolution was winding down in the 1970s as nutritionally enlightened and environmentally aware hippies and other assorted counter-culturists embraced Rachel Carson’s warnings in Silent Spring, her 1962 book about the dire health and environmental consequences of pollution caused by the widespread use of unrestricted agricultural toxins.
Crops grown organically use natural composting, crop rotations, companion planting, and other techniques to maximize yields without introducing synthetic substances into the food chain. These include genetic modifications.
Decades later, average American Kristin DiMarco (26) answered the question: are organic products worth the higher cost than their inorganic counterparts? In 2015, while she was shopping at a Trader Joe’s in West L.A., she told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times that she refused to pay food costs that were two or three times higher than the inorganic version:
“I don’t think there’s a big-enough difference in quality to justify those prices.”
A market research study from Mintel revealed that younger consumers (Gen Xers and millennials) were openly skeptical about forking over the high prices demanded for organic products.
For one thing, only 40 percent of Gen Xers believed that organic is organic. Every other consumer (about 50 percent) thought that slapping an “organic” label justified a higher price.
Consumer Reports said that organic foods and beverages cost an average 47 percent more than conventional versions. Markups exceeded 300 percent in some cases. For this, consumers are promised food that is pesticide-free, meat from animals that were never given antibiotics, and more nutritious milk.
Associate professor of nutrition at Fresno State Lisa Herzig pointed out that all food that is sold must pass national standards and that organic production is hard to gauge:
“Buying organic does not necessarily mean there’s more health and nutrition benefits. The pesticide content will be higher with conventional produce, but it’s still at safe levels.”
Aside from virtue-signaling, Herzig answered the question, “Is it actually better for you?” in the negative:
“I’d go with no.”
American consumer cynicism is easier to understand after reading accounts of contaminated food from China sold in the U.S. with “organic” labels on them. This scandal gained international attention (and not in a good way) and reinforced in shoppers’ minds that the labels might be lying.
In 2016, John Reganold, professor of soil science and agroecology at Washington State University, co-authored a study that analyzed 40 years of data for the impact of organic farming on several types of sustainability (productivity, impact on the environment, economic viability, and societal wellbeing.) Reganold concluded:
“If I had to put it in one sentence, organic agriculture has been able to provide jobs, be profitable, benefit the soil and environment and support social interactions between farmers and consumers.”
But Nobel Laureate Borlaug defended the farming practices born of his years of experience. In 1997, he told Atlantic magazine:
“Some of the environmental lobbyists of Western nations“ have “never experienced the physical sensation of hunger…If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for 50 years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals.”
The decision about improved health benefits from consuming organic goods versus their higher cost is a personal decision that may be driven by economic necessity. There’s no point stressing about buying the most expensive foods if your family can’t afford them.
The bottom line is that everyone needs to eat fresh fruits and vegetables regularly, whether they were farmed using organic techniques or not. An apple a day, right?