Organic vs. non-organic foods: Why I'm still going to buy organic

Just because non-organic foods are nutritious doesn't mean they're an equally healthy choice.

John Nordell/The Christian Science Monitor
Swiss chard, carrots, kale and beets are displayed in the produce section at a Whole Foods Market in Boston. All the produce is organic.

A study just released by Stanford University scientists has found that organic foods – produce, meat and dairy – are no more nutritious than non-organic or conventional foods. The study also reports that they are no less likely to be contaminated. They’re probably right. They examined more than 40 years worth of research on the topic; the study used no outside funding to avoid any “perception of bias”; and, well, they’re scientists.

The problem with their research, as I see it, is that they asked the wrong question. No one has really seriously claimed that organic foods are more nutritious. And earlier studies on this very subject have already stated what the Stanford researchers were “surprised” to discover. To me, they missed the point. Their central question was kind of like asking if LED light bulbs are any quieter than conventional ones, or if fuel-efficient vehicles are any shinier than gas guzzlers. 

Because while organic foods may not be more nutritional than conventional foods, they are definitely healthier. First, there are the pesticides applied to conventional produce. The study recognized this, but said that pesticide levels were all within safety guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency. However, an impressive number of studies question whether the EPA’s levels are strict enough.

Organic foods are healthier for the people who grow them, too. Exposure to pesticides is a constant threat to the well-being of farm workers. Animals raised organically for food also generally lead healthier, happier lives. And finally, there’s the planet itself. Chemical run-off, waste production, and depletion of the soil from the monoculture approach of industrial farming all place a huge burden on the environment.

Here’s why this matters so much. In an age in which more and more of our information comes from sound bites, easy-to-digest nuggets like “organic foods are no more nutritious than conventional foods” have more weight than they deserve. I first saw this story in the elevator at my office this week, telling me nothing more than the above with “Stanford scientists report…” attached to it. Armed with one authoritative-sounding little slice of a bigger story, it’s easy to pass up the usually more expensive organic option at the grocery store, figuring it makes no difference. It’s also easy to skip the farmers market, to fail to support legislation aimed at helping local farmers or protecting farm workers.

Even The New York Times story on the study, a reasonably balanced piece that also quoted a senior analyst with the Environmental Working Group, did so under the overreaching headline “Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce.”

All this said, in our household we don’t buy strictly local or organic either. Our decisions are driven by convenience and cost just like everyone else’s. But we’re buying more organic these days, from local sources when possible. It all starts with asking the right questions.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.