Is Organic Food Healthier? Duh

In California’s Salinas Valley, I once walked out into a field where cauliflower had just been harvested. It was a moon landscape even Neil Armstrong might not have recognized. At least moonscapes have rocks and craters, but this was freakishly bare, with only the occasional withered green cauliflower leaf to remind me where I was. This is what conventional farming looks like: fields so conditioned with chemical inputs they no longer seem like patches of Earth.

I mention this because today, the American College of Physicians published an influential article, "Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?" (You can read an abstract here.) Based on 17 investigations into humans and a bunch more on food, the Stanford study finds that the health benefits of organic foods are “unclear.” In journalspeak: “The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.”

I don't hate the study—it was built to gather evidence around a small question: Does organic food offer better nutrition. It's the way the study splashed across major media outlets as a definitive investigation: Is organic worth the extra money it costs, or is it a hoax?

Really, America? Do we really want to be having this discussion now, years after this question came up the first time? Two years ago, outraged conservative John Stossel declared pesticides to be “natural” and “harmless,” the latest knife jab in an attack on organics he launched on 20/20 more than a decade ago. “It isn’t about science anymore,” Stossel railed on Fox News in 2010. “This obsession with natural foods is more like a religion.” Stossel argued that conventional farmers are the true conservationists, and organics are a sort of left-wing conspiracy to redistribute wealth—that is, redistribute that hundred bucks you drop at Whole Foods to sketchy farmers who’ve convinced the lame-stream media that organics are awesome.

“The truth is that conventional farmers are wonderful,” Stossel said. “And organic? Not so much.” Even on NPR, where you’d expect the debate to be smarter than merely one that weighs the personal health benefits of organics versus, say, the wisdom of saturating the nation’s dwindling topsoil in the Mississippi basin with enough petroleum-distilled fertilizers to turn the Gulf of Mexico into a dead zone more toxic than Lake Erie.

Just like America in the 21st century is revisiting access to birth control, and whether a woman could choose to end a pregnancy resulting from criminal sexual assault, today we’re talking about whether organic is good for us.

Meanwhile, issues like conventional agriculture’s impact on the environment, or chemical exposure to the people who work in the farm fields, or whether stepping back from input-intensive, industrial-scale farming won’t yield foods that taste better—those questions seem peripheral in the question about whether or not organics have nutritional benefits. Honestly, that blows my mind.

Look, organic is complicated. A movement that started with hippies farming off the grid has turned into a marketing niche for Big Ag, once you bike away from the farmers’ market and guide your hulking SUV into the Whole Foods parking lot. Are the megafields in China producing organics for Walmart better than that life-obliterating cauliflower field in the Salinas Valley? Maybe not, but this is an old discussion. Michael Pollan tagged the co-opting of the local food movement “Industrial Organic,” in an astonishingly nuanced essay back in 2001 (it reappeared in 2006 as a chapter in The Omnivore’s Dilemma).

Now, a decade later, the American College of Physicians is talking about organics like it’s 1995 all over again, like Pollan never existed, and John Stossel is the dominant thinker about organics. But as food writer Francis Lam pointed out on Twitter, “Saying organics aren't worth it because they don't have more vitamins is like saying lifting weights doesn't give you better skin.” Weighing organics according to their nutritive value is a dumbshit distraction, America. Move on.

Frog Hollow Farm market photo by Flickr member Greenbelt Alliance under Creative Commons

John Birdsall is senior editor at CHOW. You can follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW, too, and become a fan on Facebook.