Every time I go to the supermarket, I’m always amazed at the every-growing supply of “organic” products. In fact, not just the supermarket, but everywhere I go, one of the first things out of the mouth of the sales assistant is, “and it’s organic.”
Organic food has gone gang-busters in the last decade. It is currently worth around $200–$250 million per year domestically and a further $50–$80 million per year in exports, with an expected annual growth of up to 60 per cent. In 2010, the retail value of the organic market was estimated to be at least $1 billion.
Consumer demand for organic food is growing at a rate of 20–30 per cent per year, with retail sales increasing 670 per cent between 1990 and 2001–02. It is estimated that more than six out of every ten Australian households now buy organic foods on occasion (Better Health Channel, 2013).
It’s not cheap either. I did a single price point comparison to see what the difference was between similar organic and conventional foods. A 411g can of “Muir Glen” brand diced organic tomatoes on Organics Australia Online (http://www.organicsaustraliaonline.com.au/category173_1.htm) cost $4.28. An equivalent product, “Annalisa” brand 400g can of diced tomatoes cost $1.00 at Woolworths Online (http://www2.woolworthsonline.com.au/#url=/Shop/SearchProducts%3Fsearch%3Ddiced%2Btomato%2Bcanned).
Allowing for the slight difference in size, that’s still a 400% premium, just because something is tagged as organic.
Given the massive price premiums and it’s overwhelming popularity, you’d assume there is something miraculous about organic food. Like, it possessed some magical healing properties, or that it was the elixir of life.
Yet in the hard light of day, the aura of organic food turns out to be a shimmering mirage. When critically examined by the power of science, organic food is found to be lacking. It’s all hype, and no substance.
So why do people buy and consume organic produce? Usually because they believe that organic foods are healthier (that is, they have more nutrients) or safer (or they believe that there are less pesticides or chemicals), that organic foods taste better, and that organic farming is better for the environment (Hughner, McDonagh, Prothero, Shultz, & Stanton, 2007).
But as it turns out, organic foods have essentially the same nutritional content as their conventionally farmed equivalents (Dangour et al., 2009). There is some evidence that there may be less pesticide residue on organically grown foods, but there is no significant difference in the risk of each group exceeding the overcautious Maximum Residue Limit (Smith-Spangler et al., 2012). So organic foods can’t be claimed to be significantly safer than conventional foods either.
The other positive attribute pushed by organic proponents is that organic farming is much better for the environment than conventional farming. But far from the stereotype, organic foods aren’t saving the planet from the evil greed of the multi-national corporations and their earth-raping large scale conventional farming techniques.
Tuomisto, Hodge, Riordan, and Macdonald (2012) concluded their meta-analysis of research into European farming by saying, “This meta-analysis has showed that organic farming in Europe has generally lower environmental impacts per unit of area than conventional farming, but due to lower yields and the requirement to build the fertility of land, not always per product unit. The results also showed a wide variation between the impacts within both farming systems. There is not a single organic or conventional farming system, but a range of different systems, and thus, the level of many environmental impacts depend more on farmers’ management choices than on the general farming systems.”
In other words, the impact on the planet has nothing to do with the food that’s grown, but the farmers who grow it.
That’s three strikes for organic food. It isn’t healthier, safer, or better for the planet. There’s nothing to organic food that justifies the enormous premium that is charged for them, except the egocentric inflation that comes from believing that “being organic” is superior.
Like going to the Opera or driving a Prius, “being organic” is just another outlet for borderline narcissism.
The take home message: If you care for your health or the environment, buy conventionally farmed food. There’s no difference to organic food, except the price.
Better Health Channel. (2013, Oct 17). Organic Food. Retrieved Jan 24, 2014, from http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/organic_food
Dangour, A. D., Dodhia, S. K., Hayter, A., Allen, E., Lock, K., & Uauy, R. (2009). Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review. Am J Clin Nutr, 90(3), 680-685. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2009.28041
Hughner, R. S., McDonagh, P., Prothero, A., Shultz, C. J., & Stanton, J. (2007). Who are organic food consumers? A compilation and review of why people purchase organic food. Journal of consumer behaviour, 6(2‐3), 94-110.
Smith-Spangler, C., Brandeau, M. L., Hunter, G. E., Bavinger, J. C., Pearson, M., Eschbach, P. J., . . . Stave, C. (2012). Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives? A systematic review. Ann Intern Med, 157(5), 348-366.
Tuomisto, H. L., Hodge, I. D., Riordan, P., & Macdonald, D. W. (2012). Does organic farming reduce environmental impacts?–A meta-analysis of European research. Journal of environmental management, 112, 309-320.