Eating organic: should we pay more?

PerfectlyRandom thinks so:

It’s pretty easy to do the math on this one – organic means no chemicals are used in the growing or rearing of the ingredients used, and that means lower yields for the farmers. If they produce less, they have less to sell, so what they do have costs more on the market. It’s a simple equation of demand and supply.

But if what you’re really asking me is whether paying more for organic produce is justified for any reason other than compensating farmers and breeders for their lower production volumes, then this is more a debate about the benefits you receive from consuming organic.

And apparently there are benefits:

How much more of these minerals you may need, I’m not qualified to say. Is it adequate to consume conventional spinach and get your 47.5mg of calcium? Would the additional 48.5mg go to waste, flushed straight out of your system? I don’t know, because everyone has different needs.

But what I do know is this: if I had a kid who dropped a piece of apple in the dirt, picked it up and shoved it in their little mouth, I probably would grimace, shrug, and think “well, a bit of dirt will probably toughen up their immune system”. If, however, said kid dropped a piece of apple into a bowl of mosquito repellent (as you do), I’d be up quicker than a flash and have that piece of apple out of their hand and their hands into the sink all soaped up before you could say “well slap me happy and rub my belly”.

Do I think it is worth it to pay a premium for produce that I am confident will be free of chemical additions? Absolutely. So do I? Well, that’s another story.

TheRationalOptimist thinks not:

Organic food can probably be safely categorised as a complete con.  It has become a way for First World People to feel better about the impact they have on our planet, and we are being taken for a ride by clever marketing and emotional blackmail.

We in the developed world seem to feel a bit guilty about how our lives impact on our the scarce resources on Earth.  Recycling, renewable energies, free range eggs – we all want to do our bit for the planet.  We also want to feel like we’re looking after our bodies and the health of our families, allowing our supermarket shelves to be packed with products that are low fat, low sugar, high fibre, fortified with vitamins and low GI.  Those cunning people in marketing know what we want, and these are the things that they bank on when it comes to marketing organic products to us.

PerfectlyRandom is correct that organic food costs more due to lower crop yields, but what do you get for shelling out more of your hard earned dollars for food that is certified as “organic”?

One thing that you can be sure that you’re not getting is more nutritious food.  There are no reliable scientific studies that verify the organic food industry’s claims that it is more nutritious*.

Nor are organic foods necessarily better for the environment.  Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are engineered to be effective so that only small amounts are needed.  In comparison, a larger volume of organic fertilizers and pesticides may be needed to do the same job as chemical ones.  In another blow to the environmental argument, the lower crop yields in organic production also mean that a larger land mass is needed to produce profitable volumes of crops, causing more land clearing (forests that are home to animals and plants!).

Finally, the world has a food shortage.  Should we really be encouraging the lower crop yields in organic production when we should be maximising yields around the world, optimising the land that we have already cleared and ensuring that there is enough food to go around?

It would seem that the only real benefit of organic food is the hippy, feel-good factor that those marketers want us to feel when they sell us the idea of environmentally-friendly, nutritious food when we know that it’s just a con.

Organic food: nutritious food or food for thought? F Magkos, International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition; Nutritional quality of organic food: shades of grey or shades of green? CM Williams, Proceedings of the Nutrition Society

Woman shopping for organic food

* Image courtesy of sheknows

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