Food and Faith is a blog of the Presbyterian Hunger Program.
When I hear the word “Organic”…
I picture myself in the grocery store. I feel frustrated at having to pick and choose which items are “worth” spending the extra money. I worry about the chemicals on my leafy greens and fruits. The sentence that runs through my head is this: “Organic food is great, but it’s too expensive.”
I think that the ‘O’ word deserves a little attention.
In a September article for The New York Times, Kenneth Chang argues that a recent Stanford University study about the benefit of organic food “will almost certainly fuel the debate over whether organic foods are a smart choice for healthier living or a marketing tool that gulls people into overpaying.” The study concluded that fruits and veggies labeled Organic were, on average, no healthier than conventional produce. Roger Cohen’s article, written in response to the study, added that organic labeling is “an effective form of premium branding rather than a science, a slogan rather than better nutrition.” Par for the course right?
Not all of us are so convinced that we should give up on Organics just yet. In January of this year, Hannah Wallace argued that pesticide, herbicide, and synthetic fertilizer-free foods are not a bourgeois or elitist endeavor. Hannah writes that there are “hundreds of nonprofits dedicated to building organic gardens in peoples’ backyards, teaching inner-city kids how to cook nutritious meals, or boosting fresh produce in corner stores... You don’t see working-class folks and struggling immigrants shopping at Whole Foods, per se. But to assume that means these people don’t want to eat healthy, local, and yes, even organic, food is misguided.” Her article goes on to cite a number of examples of these organizations who are working every day to bring healthier, safer food into neighborhoods all over the country.
But what about that study? If organic food is no better for me than conventional food, then why should I pay the premium?
What the study actually concluded was this: “Studies were heterogeneous and limited in number, and publication bias may be present…The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.” Maybe that ‘O’ word is starting to sound a little different.
This limited and possibly biased study found that there wasn’t enough evidence to say that foods labeled “Organic” are more nutritious than conventional produce. They essentially concluded that the nutritional value of the produce remained intact. Now what?
Let’s go back to when we hear the word “organic” and what it sounds like. It should sound like safety. Let’s not forget that the very same study concluded that organic foods reduce exposure to pesticide and antibiotic-resistant bacteria in ourselves and the people we help to feed. However, to me it also sounds like money. It sounds like something that is market-driven and out of reach.
In her response article, Hannah Wallace shared a number of awesome organizations who are helping us all hear that word differently. People of faith, families, and plenty of other folks from all over the country are working together to make the ‘O’ word more accessible in the areas that need it most. Food Safety shouldn’t be synonymous with disposable income. People all over the country should have to right to determine for themselves what foods are available to them. I look forward to a day when the ‘O’ word becomes associated with opportunity. I look forward to a day when organic food is the rule and not the exception.
What can I do?
You can start by asking your neighbors, friends, and others around you how they feel about healthy food access and affordability in your area. You can begin to figure out together what healthy and accessible food should look like in your community. Hannah’s article also provides many available links to resources for helping to cultivate an attitude of involvement with food issues around you. You can also check out some of the guides maintained by the Presbyterian Hunger Program from their website or here. You can help us all hear something different when someone uses the ‘O’ word.